Archive for Sunday, December 1, 2002

Cigar boxes ignite new handbag fad

December 1, 2002


This is not your grandpaâÂÂs cigar box.

Sure, stogies have a nostalgic, old-man mystique. But the wooden boxes they come in are fast becoming fashion statements for the fairer sex.

Screw on a handle, attach a few hinges, line the inside with faux fur and youâÂÂve got one smokinâ handbag.

Cigar box purses sell for as much as $300 at high-end boutiques in major cities. The stylish actresses on HBOâÂÂs âÂÂSex in the Cityâ have toted them on the show.

Now, a downtown Lawrence store has put its own twist on the trend, and a few crafty women regularly scour smoke shops in Lawrence and Kansas City, looking for their own imported boxes to convert into purses.

âÂÂThey are so much fun to carry,â said Maribeth Burns, a Leawood woman who makes cigar box purses and sells them in the Kansas City area. âÂÂEvery cigar box is unique and interesting. I think people like things that have a history or a past or a story. The cigar boxes have that. Plus, for women, each one is different, so you end up with a one-of-a-kind, which women like.âÂÂ

Another bonus: the pick-up factor.

âÂÂA lot of our customers who are single come back and say these are great conversation starters with guys,â said Jerry Bottenfield, who recently began selling cigar box purses at his store, Soap Momma, 735 Mass. âÂÂMy two daughters tell me they get lots of comments.âÂÂ

Riding a retro wave

BottenfieldâÂÂs daughters got their purses last year as gifts from an aunt who discovered them at a fancy boutique in Scottsdale, Ariz.

âÂÂIâÂÂm looking at it âÂÂ:quot; and she spent $130 a piece on them âÂÂ:quot; and IâÂÂm thinking these are cute but No. 1, I think I could do a better job on them, and No. 2, the price was outrageous,â Bottenfield said.

At the time, Soap Momma was located on Ninth Street near the Smoke Shop, 17 W. Ninth St. Bottenfield started getting cigar boxes from the neighboring store. It didnâÂÂt take him long to realize the boxes were sturdy enough to ship cigars but wouldnâÂÂt hold up long under the torture tests purses often endure.

So he spends a lot of time searching for the most suitable hardware for each box and affixes purse handles he orders from a supplier. His wife lines the boxes with coordinating fabric and often glues a small mirror inside.

Then comes BottenfieldâÂÂs personal touch. When âÂÂthe original cover of the box doesnâÂÂt bring much to the party,â he adorns them with the covers of pulp fiction magazines from the 1920s, âÂÂ30s and âÂÂ40s. A saucy woman in a scant yellow gown gazes longingly from one purse front. Other covers hearken back to classic detective stories.

âÂÂIâÂÂm sort of trying to ride a little retro wave,â Bottenfield said. âÂÂItâÂÂs nostalgia; itâÂÂs retro; and itâÂÂs cute.âÂÂ

He slaps on about three layers of lacquer for shine and durability, calls them Saucy Sigar Box Purses and markets them to âÂÂladies who ... know how to have fun without taking themselves too seriously.â They run from $50 to $75.

âÂÂ'Enough to get byâÂÂ

ThatâÂÂs about the asking price down the road in Kansas City, where Maribeth Burns and her friend Kim Wisdom sell their handmade cigar box purses for $65 to $80.

The pair scavenge at estate sales and in their own jewelry boxes for interesting beads with which to make handles. They line the purses and remove the âÂÂSurgeon GeneralâÂÂs Warningâ stickers but donâÂÂt alter the outside of the boxes.

They like the nontraditional handbags because theyâÂÂre unique and versatile.

âÂÂSo many of them can be dressy, but they also look good with jeans and just your casual clothing,â said Burns, a school counselor in the Blue Valley school district. âÂÂMy husband laughs about that, the idea that women say you can dress it up, dress it down.âÂÂ

The purses are just big enough for the essentials.

âÂÂTheyâÂÂre not real practical as far as you canâÂÂt hold a lot in one,â she said. âÂÂBut you can hold enough to get by for an evening or for a little bit of shopping. You can get your money, credit card and wallet in it. Also lipstick and a cell phone.âÂÂ

A birthday trip to Chicago ignited their interest in cigar box purses. Burnsâ girlfriends took her to the Windy City, where they saw the purses for sale. On a lark, Burns and Wisdom decided to try to make the purses for the friends who took them on the trip.

âÂÂThen we made one for ourselves,â Burns said. âÂÂAs we carried them, people started asking us where we go them, and they started wanting them.âÂÂ

A fad

Smoke Shop owner Jonathan Levine is a little less excited about the trend. Though Burns and Wisdom havenâÂÂt been to Lawrence to hunt down cigar boxes, other purse makers from the Kansas City area have, and Levine said the visits arenâÂÂt always pleasant.

Though he gives away cigar boxes to regular customers, school children and others working on projects, he charges about $5 a piece for people who donâÂÂt fit into those categories, most of whom plan to profit by turning the boxes into purses.

âÂÂGiven the price that these things sell for, IâÂÂm shocked and amazed that almost every person I sell to whines about the price,â Levine said.

Nearly half a dozen women from out of town regularly hit his store for the coveted cigar boxes, which are getting harder and harder to find as the trend flames up.

Levine hardly blames people for finding the boxes attractive âÂÂ:quot; he doesnâÂÂt hesitate to acknowledge their artistic value âÂÂ:quot; but he doesnâÂÂt understand the allure of making them into purses.

âÂÂI think itâÂÂs a rather stupid novelty myself,â he said. âÂÂTheyâÂÂre heavy. TheyâÂÂre clunky. They have hard edges and very little storage space.

âÂÂThis is a fad, and to me itâÂÂs not a particularly interesting one.âÂÂ

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