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Whimsy, Direct From the Heartland

Couple behind wooden purses try to expand borders of fashion by setting up shop in Illinois

July 04, 2002|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SPRINGFIELD, ILL. — Here in the Land of Lincoln, where corn rows are actually plants, not a hairstyle, Sheila Holley is living proof that a handbag can change your life.

The proper bag, every smart dresser knows, has the power to complete an outfit, add confidence or lend personality. But Holley's lunch box-size vintage bag inspired her to trade a hectic dot-com life in Seattle for a new career as a wooden handbag designer, here in the Illinois state capital, far from the style capitals of the world.

Working out of a sprawling, three-story, turn-of-the-century house with her husband and mother, Holley and the Once in a Blue Moon bags are trying to do the improbable: Give the birthplace of the Cozy Dog corn dog and the cheese-smoothed horseshoe sandwich its first fashion connection since Abe Lincoln made top hats cool. Holley's whimsical little purses are popping up in trendy stores, from Fred Segal in Santa Monica to Henri Bendel in Manhattan, at a moment when fashion has reembraced the whimsical handbag and items with folk-art flair.

Unexpectedly lightweight, the Once in a Blue Moon bags are inspired by the work of Texas bag designer Enid Collins, whose gem-encrusted wooden boxes became 1960s classics. For most of that decade, Collins, who died in 1990, also worked her magic outside of fashion circles. Her son, jewelry designer Jeep Collins, recalled how neighbors helped make the purses and drove the 13-mile dirt road to the family ranch and workshop in remote Medina, a village of 400 in the Texas hill country. Holley and her husband, William Vablais, had no idea how eerily well they picked their new location: Springfield happens to be where Enid Collins was born Sept. 1, 1918.

The signed Collins originals are experiencing a comeback and often command hundreds of dollars on vintage clothing auction Internet sites. Holley's $120 to $225 alder or basswood bags have similar floral and nature themes crafted from candy-colored gems and silk-screened patterns. With a satin-smooth finish, a beveled-lid mirror and an interior scented with essential oils, the Once in a Blue Moon purses can be mistaken for some sort of New Age train case.

"As I walk through stores carrying the one that I have, people stop me," said Tatiana Tomacelli, who has sold several at Tatiana, her Del Mar boutique.

Holley, a petite 39-year-old former oboist who speaks often of spirituality, found her life-changing bag four years ago as she scoured vintage shops here, a few miles from her Shelbyville, Ill., hometown. One day in Seattle, where Holley worked as an executive assistant at Home Grocer.com, she dumped her big leather tote and tucked a few necessities into the compact Collins purse.

"I noticed people were smiling at me, and I felt happy," recalled Holley. "I carried it from that point onward," she said, convinced that there was something special about an object that could inspire joy in others.

When bag designs invaded her dreams and Holley lost her job at HomeGrocer, suddenly she was free to pursue purses. Though she and Vablais had always relied on the Internet for nearly everything they needed, they couldn't find the kind of personalized, handmade materials that they wanted for their prototypes.

"In Seattle, we were ordering everything off of the Web and driving hours to find some arty place or another," said Holley. Seattle's congestion, expense and tech-centric attitudes were choking their fashion venture. It was time to move. "We could have started a business anywhere in the country," Vablais said. "It made sense to look around."

The deciding factor became the proximity to family and friends, not the factories and fashion showrooms that are a hundred miles south in St. Louis or farther north in Chicago. Almost on impulse, they quickly bought the house that is their headquarters as well as a nearby home. As they spent nearly a year setting up shop, they found that many of the supplies that seemed so elusive in Seattle were easily available in this pioneer-spirit town.

"This is craft-store alley," said Holley. What they couldn't buy, they had made for less money from suppliers who were just minutes away. They found a silk-screen printer in the Yellow Pages who led them to a plastic-injection mold company, another printer and even the home-based expert who cuts the box lids. They convinced a custom woodworking company, MGM Antonacci, which specialized in gliders and porch swings, to add hand-finished wooden boxes to their repertoire. Now three woodworkers handle the nearly 30 steps of box production, which has taken over a portion of the large workshop.

Vablais created their Web site, a database and came up with paintings that became bag designs. Holley's mother, Karen, came aboard as a manager, co-creator and gem gluer. Only the two-tone leather handles are made out of town--by a New York manufacturer of deluxe dog collars. "Every piece on the bag has an amazing story," said Vablais. "Now the bags are going to amazing places."

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