89-Year-Old Iconic, family-run handbag restorer is counting on new revenue and old friends. Clients have included Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, Fashionistas and Red-Carpet Icons
When Donald Moore became the sole owner of Artbag in 1993, the handbag restoration boutique was the only Black-owned business on the upscale retail stretch of Madison Avenue that runs between 57th and 86th street. It still is.
For close to 90 years, Artbag has served as the go-to place for handbags, purses and luggage in dire need of TLC from the skilled hands of experts in the art of repair and restoration. Multi-generations of women have entrusted their holy trinity of investment-worthy bags—Hermès, Chanel and Louis Vuitton—to the shop’s artisans. Fashion world and celebrity clients trust the store to not only restore their bags but to protect their privacy. Local customers drop in to replace a shredded silk lining, restitch the leather of a well-worn favorite, or like one loyal client, annually rehab a briefcase passed down from father to son.
Regardless of whether it’s a Birkin bag that can fetch over $200,000 in resale or a $50 pocketbook whose value is sentimental, proprietors Donald Moore and his son Chris treat each item with equal care and customers with equal respect.
The elder Moore began working as a porter at Artbag in 1959, a 17-year-old with a pregnant wife to support. Learning the trade from the ground up at the side of original owner Hillel Tenenbaum, Moore was able to purchase a share of the business and eventually buy out his other partners. As he was taking over, Chris was graduating from Pace University with ideas of getting into a franchise business, but with the recession of the early ‘90s severely depressing the job market, joining his father seemed a more pragmatic option. The younger Moore quickly set to bring Artbag into the 20th century, setting up a website and extending its online reach.
Today, like many small businesses, Artbag is trying to navigate through the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. Chris recalls the ominous signs of numerous moving vans lining Madison Avenue in March of 2020, adding to an ongoing retail apocalypse for the area’s brick and mortar stores. With foot-traffic at a trickle, the shop closed for several months and reopened in the late spring with more restricted hours and days.
The store’s online presence is proving critical to keeping the business financially afloat. “We have more mail-ins than we’ve ever had,” Chris says. “It would be extremely difficult to remain in business without it. I believe some of the items that we are getting from our longtime customers, they’re just doing it to keep us around. That’s definitely a tribute.”
In another show of support, after events surrounding the killing of George Floyd, classmates from his predominantly white college, several of whom he hadn’t heard from in years, reached out to Chris. “They asked how they could help the situation and what kind of assistance I might need,” he says. (According to the New York City Mayor’s office, while African Americans make up 22% of NYC’s population, they only own 2% of the city’s businesses.)
“We’re also trying to develop a new revenue stream by expanding into shoe repair,” Chris notes. “There are a lot of neighborhood shoe repair stores that have gone out of business, locally, in the tri-state area and throughout the country because of the pandemic and we can fill that void.” Chris hopes that as more people take up the cause of sustainability, they will consider shopping in their own closets and restoring and reconditioning still usable items.
To accommodate the new repair service, Artbag is discontinuing its own line of luxury Italian crafted handbags. Savvy shoppers take note: The boutique’s entire inventory of designer and house brand bags are currently on sale at deeply discounted prices.
Bringing in new customers is an uphill battle but the Moores are accustomed to overcoming with equanimity the challenges they’ve encountered, from the petty to those that cut deeper. Dealing with a woman incensed when she’s told that the designer bag bought by her husband is a fake or the online surfer armed with the latest DIY internet info who believes he or she has superior expertise, these simply come with the territory.
Other situations are more disquieting. “With every bit of my 50 years, I still encounter times when a customer who is not entirely happy with a repair will say to l me I need to speak to your boss,” Chris explains. “If I were a white gentleman of the same age, one of my peers, they wouldn’t make the assumption that I’m not the boss.”
But for the overwhelming number of clients, Artbag is an institution, both an essential part of the fabric of New York City life and an invaluable online resource. It has provided services for First Ladies, including Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, had its handiwork displayed on red carpets and created an elaborate brocade exterior for a jewel encrusted Cartier handbag line.
Artbag artisans have come to the rescue of a woman who borrowed–and destroyed–a friend’s beloved handbag, producing an exact duplicate. The friend was none the wiser. Its extensive refinishing of a Hermès Birkin defaced with a magic marker by an ex-boyfriend brought the bag and its owner a new lease on life. And, for a woman who came in with a purse for sprucing up, the same one her grandmother had brought in decades earlier, Artbag is where memories are preserved.
Photo’s by Eric Vital