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Art Karatas Holds the Bags--and the Secrets--in His Newport Shop

May 22, 1997|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Art Karatas sits at his workbench stitching swatches of soft leather into handbags, just as he has done since he was a boy in Italy, just as his father did before him.

In his Newport Beach workshop, Karatas, 57, makes every bag this way, slowly, one at a time. It's a skill his father started teaching him when he was 9, that he hopes to pass on to his 30-year-old son, Nick. Yet Karatas fears that his craft will die with him.

"The trade takes a long time to learn. He thinks it won't last beyond his generation," Nick Karatas says.

Art Karatas came to the United States from Italy a decade ago but speaks mostly Italian, so his son translates for him:

"He says nowadays everybody is into money. They mass-produce everything. They all want to go nationwide, worldwide. He doesn't think like that. He can't settle for second best."

Outside of Italy, few people know how to make a handbag using their hands, a sewing machine and a few tools. Karatas' talents are so rare that Chanel, Versace and Fendi boutiques in Orange County and throughout California turn to him when their customers bring in handbags for repairs.

The workroom shelves at Art's Leather Design are filled with designer bags awaiting his attention.

Karatas returns the handbags to their former glory. He'll take them apart and replace the worn piping, then piece them back together so they look new. He'll dye and polish the leather so it's supple. He'll restitch seams, even sewing a new quilted panel to replace one that's been ripped.

He can dye too. One customer had Karatas change her tired-looking Chanel from beige to pristine white. He also replates the metal so that the grommets, chains and buckles shine. He can make Chanel's trademark CC logos look new again.

"Nobody can do what we do," Nick says. "The reason is we make our own purses. My dad is not a repairman."

While repairs are a significant part of his business, Karatas' craftsmanship reaches its full expression in his custom handbags and belts. He makes each by hand, a process that can take two or more days.

"There are so many things that go into making a purse," Nick says.

Often Karatas won't start a custom bag for a couple of weeks--until he's worked out the idea for the design completely in his head.

"I do it while I'm sleeping," Karatas says.

He'll wake up with an idea for a design, then make a sketch and create a pattern. Sometimes he'll make a prototype out of sheepskin before making the bag using an expensive exotic skin such as lizard, alligator or ostrich.

"If he makes a mistake, that can be $2,500 down the drain," Nick says.

Karatas stitches the pieces of skin together on a heavy-duty sewing machine. The rest of the bag is assembled by hand. An artisan from the old school, he refuses to cut corners by using less expensive leathers or scrimping on the skins.

"I don't think about those things. I think how it will look," Karatas says.

Adds Nick: "He doesn't think about numbers at all."

It takes a connoisseur to appreciate his craftsmanship: the way the embossed alligator of the calfskin lines up perfectly on the purse's flap and front panel; the bags' sharp corners; the sturdy straps; the even stitches; and the gleaming, 24-karat gold-plated fixtures.

"Some people just think the handbags look nice, but they don't know why," Nick says.

His best works are displayed behind glass, such as the brown leather shoulder tote with crocodile trim and contrasting white stitching, and the sleek asymmetrical purse made of black crocodile-embossed calfskin.

The bags sell for about $350--expensive compared with bags that sell in department stores, inexpensive if you know handbags. He has customers from as far as Japan.

One customer brought in a tattered crocodile handbag and asked Karatas to make a duplicate. Inside the purse lining Karatas found a layer of Italian newspaper dated 1929.

The methods Karatas will use to make a copy have changed little since then.

"We'll make her a new one for $4,000," Nick says. "He'll put 10 days of work into it, and the material alone will cost us $2,500."

Father and son take pains to educate customers about recognizing quality leather, showing them how one skin feels like cardboard and another feels pliable and soft.

"I've learned to really look at leathers and stitching," says Darlene Rasori, a Montecito resident who goes to Art's to buy handbags or refurbish a designer bag from her collection.

"They redo all of my crocodiles," she says. "There isn't anything in my closet they haven't repaired or made new."

Rasori brought in a Judith Leiber belt that needed a new strap. Karatas made her one out of lizard skin that she says looks better than the original. He's made her custom crocodile bags and belts in unusual colors such as chocolate, midnight blue and burgundy.

"Someone tried to buy the burgundy one off of me at Neiman Marcus," she says. "Everywhere I go, people ask me where I got my bag."

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