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Handbag Heartbreak

January 24, 1999|Debra J. Hotaling

Sarah Shaw falls in love too easily. She did with a 1940s bedspread. Then there was the heirloom sari, the flea market bell bottoms and those fetching bits of 300-year-old tapestry. And sometimes, she's realized, love can be hell. She's tossed and turned at night, worrying if that flirty little fabric swatch would truly be available by the bolt. "My heart was breaking," the 34-year-old handbag designer recalls.

Shaw transforms silks, cottons, leathers and everything in between into elegant evening bags, high-contrast totes and slim zippered cases just big enough for a platinum card and a lipstick. Her bags step out with, among others, Neve Campbell, Liv Tyler and Kirsten Dunst.

A graduate of Bennington College who studied at Paris' Sorbonne, Shaw came to Los Angeles in 1987 as a costumer, eventually working on high-volume projects such as making 250 camp uniforms for "The Parent Trap" remake and 400 prison jumpsuits in "Out of Sight." But in a town--and a business--where cool is everything, Shaw has busted beyond ironic archness to a place called normal. Proof: She owns a glue gun, and and she isn't afraid to use it.

On weekends, she'd get together with some entertainment biz friends to make "craftsy things." "I pinked some bags in felt and silk," says Shaw, referring to what has become her signature zigzag cut along the purse's edge. "But I did it in secret because I didn't know whether my craft club friends would like them." They did, and soon Shaw hawked her wares to pals. Think Tupperware party, only with purses.

"I come into the room carrying bundles of bags like balloons," she says, swooping up two armfuls of totes and walking them around her downtown garment district office. "And they'd just fly out the door." Today, Shaw lets others peddle her bags--they run from $63 to $183--at Barneys, Jennifer Kaufman, Bleu, Nordstrom and Anthropologie.

Material love is a funny thing--there's always the antique lace that got away--and well-meaning friends always try to fix her up with certain fabrics. "It's hard," she says, "because if I don't get that gut reaction, I have to say to them, 'I'm sure this is a very nice fabric, but we won't be getting married.' "

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