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California Companies Turn Carpetbags Into Chic Totes

The term "carpetbagger" carries negative historical connotations, but Southern California accessories retailers and designers channeling the Civil War and Old West want to make carpetbags chic.

LOS ANGELES — The term “carpetbagger” carries negative historical connotations, but Southern California accessories retailers and designers channeling the Civil War and Old West want to make carpetbags chic.

Michael Paradise, who is obsessed with virtually all fashions from the late 1800s, when Stronghold, the denim brand he coowns, was founded, went on a yearlong hunt to unearth facts about carpetbags. Eventually, he spotted a credible reproduction at a Wild West show where the guns have to be made before 1900 or be near-perfect copies.

“I wanted something authentic,” Paradise said, gesturing toward the two styles of carpetbags he recently began selling for $295 and $235 at Stronghold’s store in Venice, Calif. “Used carpets and tapestries were really sturdy. They would make these bags, and that is what people would travel around with. People had become mobile really for the first time with the railroads and stage coaches.”

Today, most people’s images of carpetbags come from movies set in England, where the Victorians popularized the inexpensive accessories, or the Old West. Even Jerry Tarantino, co-owner of the Victorian Traveler, based in Chino Valley, Ariz., which crafts the carpetbags — each one takes two hours — available at Stronghold, became interested in historic luggage when he and his wife, Kathy, were in the 1993 movie “Tombstone.” Tarantino was a red-sashed buckaroo, and his wife was an extra.

Disappointed by the inexact look of the bags in the film, the Tarantinos set out to re-create the wide-mouthed bags that were worn by men and women and made at home or by local cobblers during the Civil War and succeeding decades.

“Our idea was a pudgy, little doctor’s bag made out of soft fabric, nice handles and straps that would last a long time with nice brass buckles that would catch your eye,” Tarantino said.

The Tarantinos source upholstery fabric from different mills across the country. It is typically chenille with detailed embroidery, usually in floral or shield patterns in the Victorian manner. The bags’ short straps are leather, the interiors are lined with canvas to protect from wear and a wooden and metal frame is the support system.

Starting up a carpetbag business isn’t easy. Elaine Thomas knew how to sew, but she had never seen a real carpetbag before establishing Carpetbag Replicas in Charlotte, N.C., in 1999.

This story first appeared in the January 29, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I studied the [online] pictures, and you can pretty much know how it is supposed to look — you just don’t know how the cutting pattern is,” she said. “It was very laborious.”

Part of the difficulty is that few carpetbags from the Civil War and Old West periods remain. Paradise, who has seen them at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, said they simply weren’t valued as much as jewelry. Lewis Baer, managing principal of New York antiques supplier Newel, which lists a 19th-century carpetbag for $750, added that the bags did not survive because they were handled extensively and preservation was not a priority.

As a result of the Civil War bag’s rarity, Doris Raymond has been unable to obtain one for her Los Angeles vintage shop, The Way We Wore, for more than a year. However, she is convinced the large scale of the bags has modern appeal.

“For the last few years, it’s been amorphous, soft, kind of 1980s messenger [bags.] Now, we’re getting into a little bit more structure,” Raymond said. “The carpetbag has a very simple frame. It’s structure without being too stiff.”

Perusing current handbag collections, it is possible to trace some of their roots to carpetbags of yesteryear. The Kelsey and Celine styles in the fall 2007 lineup from Isabella Fiore, Los Angeles, have body shapes and appliqués in contrasting leather and brocade fabric that recall Old West tapestry bags.

Jerome Chouinard-Rousseau, a design director at Isabella Fiore, said the company has amassed on eBay and at fairs about 500 vintage items spanning much of the 1800s and 1900s that designers can search through for inspiration. Although most of Isabella Fiore’s handbags are not designed with one particular era in mind, he continued, aspects of the past do creep into certain styles.

“The Kelsey is a travel piece, [and] I can really see why people would see the resemblance between that bag and some of the 19th-century bags,” Chouinard-Rousseau said. “It is a bit Mary Poppins.”

For those who still find carpetbagging taboo, Old West motifs are winding up in Los Angeles retailers in other handbag constructions, as well. The derogatory term “carpetbagger” originated after the Civil War when many northerners headed south — carpetbags in tow — to make their fortunes under the Reconstruction government.

At the upscale boutique Filly, one of the bestsellers is $42 medium-size totes by the El Paso Saddleblanket Co., which also is a resource for cowhide and bull whips. Horses, cowboys and cattle are stenciled on cotton. Co-owner J’Nai Cameron, who carries the bag herself, discovered the brand at a gift shop in Colorado, where she was visiting her brother.

“This is not a designer bag. They are real country,” she said, emphasizing the word “country.” “That is what makes them unique to our store.”