4 New York City-Based Experts on How to Make Your Clothes Last Much, Much Longer

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I started working on this story a few weeks ago, when the stakes of the world felt quite different, and the hours I spent interviewing these experts constituted the bright part of my day. Listening to their stories, I learned about pockets of New York where Chris, Vincent, Miriam and Wayne focus on maintenance, repair and problem-solving on a daily basis, serving as local heroes on a small physical scale and a vast emotional scale. During our conversations, I mentally sifted through my closet—a catalogue of imperfections—and thought about new ways to approach untreated problems, like the blotch of red gouache I got on a white dress while painting a few summers ago, or my favorite Trademark dress which, it turns out, is in need of an at-home hand-wash. Read on to learn about their solutions-oriented wizardry.

Chris Moore of Artbag

Artbag is a handbag repair and cleaning facility on New York’s Upper East Side. They also repair shoes.

On working with his father in the family business

I was trained by my father. I started learning about handbags at an early age, and I started professionally in 1993. We’re on Madison Avenue and 84th Street. The store’s been in this location since 2001, but it’s been on Madison since 1960.

My father and I came to a conclusion when I first started that everything we do at Artbag, stays at Artbag. Once you leave the store, there are no more conversations about Artbag. Whether you need to come in early and have a discussion, or stay late and have a discussion about the business itself, we don’t discuss business outside the door. Compartmentalizing has been wonderful.

Protecting suede

Issues with suede arise because customers don’t protect the bags before they wear them. When you do that, you’re asking for trouble. Anytime a suede bag is purchased, it should be sprayed with a protectant before it’s actually used. That helps prevent any issues that can’t be rectified in the future. We like Fiebing’s protectant product best—it’s a water and stain protectant.

When it comes to suede bags, customers should also take into consideration that they shouldn’t wear light-color suede bags with denim, because a denim transfer can occur. Once the denim transfer occurs, even if it’s sprayed, it’s fairly difficult to remove. That also holds true for linen and canvas bags.

Tips for making your bags last a long while

The first thing when it comes to zippers is to not overstuff your bag. Once you overstuff the bag, you are causing the zipper to do things it’s not supposed to do. Quite often if you’re overstuffing your bag, you’ll actually zip something into the zipper itself. The teeth won’t match up any longer, and that’s when the zipper will start to separate.

One other thing customers should be cognizant of—and I always tell them this—is to keep your bags on rotation. Don’t continuously wear one bag every day.

When it comes to leather bags, we use a neutral, colorless shoe polish. You always try a polish on the bottom of the bag first, to make sure you get the desired effect. Then you can continue with the rest of the bag. And if you follow the directions on the jar, you shouldn’t have any problems.

On saving the day for Russell Brand

Russell Brand was hosting the MTV awards quite a few moons ago, and he had a belt that he had custom-made in England. The snap actually broke on the day that he was supposed to film the awards (which were in New York that year). He needed to have the snap replaced in a short period of time, and we were able to do it for him.

Jackie O. was a client here when she was around. I don’t care to give out the client’s name, but one of the most interesting requests we’ve had was a steamer trunk that we totally refurbished. There were maybe 2,000 nails that had to be removed. So we went through and completed the job, which took about three weeks. The steamer trunk ended up in a museum!

New York foot traffic

The number of vacancies on Madison Avenue is actually scary. And I’m not even talking in respect to the buyers that come into my store—the foot traffic is absolutely abysmal. There was a time when you couldn’t get a parking spot. I’m looking outside as we’re talking, and you could get something out on either side of the street.

We’re increasingly getting sales from our online presence, where we have customers who send things in from around the world. This helps out tremendously.

Vincent Rao Jr. of Vince’s Village Cobbler

Vince’s Village Cobbler is a shoe, handbag and accessory maintenance provider in SoHo.

On finding his own place in the family business

About 10 years ago, my father decided to incorporate a shoe repair shop next to his already existing tailoring shop, Village Tailor, which has been there for 45 years. I was growing up, starting to get an interest in things, and he introduced me to this store. I started managing it when I was about 15 years old. We’ve always been on Sullivan Street in SoHo.

By the time I graduated from college, I was ready to make the business mine. I introduced my girlfriend to the business, and now we both manage it. We’re college-educated individuals managing a shoe repair shop, and we’re using our skills and ability to bring it to the next level.

There’s definitely demand for this industry. We recently started a mail order system. It’s fairly new, so by comparison there’s definitely a lot more foot traffic. But that’s just now, you know? I think eventually this industry will be online, with the modern shipping features we have.

We work with almost every material. We work with leather, we work with fabric, we work with suede, nubucks—anything really. Anything that a shoe or a bag or any accessory, like a belt, is made out of—we work with that. We even have hardware replacements, for little rivets, snaps and so on. There are so many little, tiny things that we have to carry in order to accommodate every single luxurious, expensive accessory that exists.

Taking care of suedes and fabrics, like satin

We work with satin up to a certain extent. Satin is more of a fabric: I would definitely consider satin as one of the more delicate materials, in the same category as suede or nubuck. Satin is very hard to clean and maintain. As soon as you put a brush or chemical to it, you risk damaging it.

My customers ask me, “How can I maintain a light pair of sneakers or a light suede bag?” In reality, if you don’t want to damage it, you’ve got to keep it in your closet and you can’t use it. People don’t like to hear that. If you want to use something that’s delicate and light-colored, no matter what you do, no matter what you spray on it, it’s always going to get dirty. That’s just the nature of the material.

For suede and fabrics, you can’t apply any cream or moisturizers or anything. You can only apply a cream or moisturizer to a skin, like a leather. A lot of these products contain waterproofing agents. They also contain moisturizing agents to keep the leather soft and supple, so it’ll prevent it from getting dry, cracking, and aging quickly. You could also use a wax or a shoe polish for any leather.

When caring for suedes, nubucks, and satins, we have waterproofing sprays, which are these chemicals that you’d spray on the accessory, the shoe, the bag, whatever it is, and it’s completely clear. It leaves no marks. It’ll leave a smell for a little bit, but that smell goes away. That’s really the only thing you could apply to material like a suede or a fabric.

The most common issues that we’re solving? We do a lot of sole protection. A lot of high-end manufacturers sell very expensive shoes with leather soles, and those leather soles are very susceptible to getting damaged. The soles absorb water like a sponge, and the water can spread and damage the upside of the shoe if the soles aren’t protected. I would always advise adding some sort of rubber grip protection at the bottom of any high-end shoe.

We do a lot of painting and a lot of restoration here. People buy $1,000 Chanel shoes and wear them out in the rain or the snow, and salt ends up destroying them. Then we have to resole them. We use a special de-salting chemical, and then we reapply a polish and repaint the sole. We do a lot of heel work, too: People break down the heels on their shoes and don’t even realize it.

Working miracles

We don’t know what the facts are, but we had one customer—we assume she might’ve cheated on somebody, because she brought us a couple of high-end bags that were all slashed up. We’re talking about $1,000-2,000 Louis Vuitton bags. Someone took a knife to them and just sliced them in half. We actually restored them.

They were completely destroyed, and I didn’t know how we were going to recover them. But our guys went to work and were able to bring them back to life.

When Halloween comes, a lot of interesting things come into the shop. Look at this hat a girl brought in. She needed to glue a couple of these little gems on a hat for her Halloween costume:

We work with a lot of hotels, where a lot of these very famous, well-known people stay. Every once in a while, the hotels will bring us their valued, sentimental items. In one instance, a famous musician’s bag had broken. The hotel guy came by and said, “Hey, this is a special case—can you fix it for us?” Apparently it belonged to somebody really famous. He wouldn’t tell me who it was, but we worked on a famous musician’s bag. You get things like that every once in a while. It’s pretty cool.

Craziest thing in the storefront

I held a $42,000 pair of sneakers. They’re the Nike Air Mags, Back to the Future. Have you heard of those?

Someone’s assistant came in. I didn’t know what they were worth when he first brought them in. He goes, “These shoes are really, really expensive. You’ve got to be really careful. But can you fix this for me?” I think it was a marker stain he needed me to get out. I was like, “Yeah, it’s no problem.” He was in an expensive car, and he was dropping it off for someone. I took a picture of them. I looked them up and it turned out they were $40,000. I was like, “Wow. It’s pretty cool.”

Miriam Mades of Alterknit New York

Alterknit New York is a custom repair studio for knits and wovens, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

On starting her invisible mending and reknitting business

I used to own a knitting store and café in Manhattan. I decided to close—I was tired of retail. I put up a website offering knit repair, and I wasn’t really thinking about it as a second career, but it just turned into one. Oddly enough, I was going to start selling yarn online, but then I saw that people really had a need for this. I just thought, “Oh, this is something I could do. There’s a need for it, and I enjoy doing it.” And then I got excited about growing the business, starting in 2010. I’m in my 40s, and I was taught by a retired tailor and seamstress who started at Barney’s in the ’70s and worked there for her entire career.

We work on knits and wovens. I don’t like the word “mending” because we don’t really mend—we redo what’s already there. We’re either reweaving on wovens or reknitting on knits. The technique we use is called an invisible repair, all done by hand.

We work on any fibers where we’re able to do the technique. So if it’s knitted, we don’t care if it’s viscose or if it’s wool or cashmere—everybody gets the same top-shelf treatment. It doesn’t matter what brand you bring to us or what you paid for it. We fix everything from H&M’s capsule with Margiela to Brunello Cucinelli. Our goal is to make you happy and look as if nothing ever happened.

We’re receiving a lot of clothes that customers buy from The RealReal: They buy damaged pieces with holes in them and then send them to us to fix because they’re really beautiful. We’ve absolutely seen that market grow, with people thrifting and happening upon pieces they won’t find at Everlane or Uniqlo. We also fix a lot of suede coats that have knitted bands—baseball varsity jackets, those types of things.

Sometimes, if we can’t fix something using the invisible techniques, we can do a savvy alteration. Our whole goal is to make it look as if nothing happened.

Our studio is in Greenpoint. It’s not open to the public because we would never be able to get any work done. We need to stay put, quietly working away in the workshop.

I had a textile teacher reach out to me via Instagram. She told me that she shows our work in her classes, but when the students see the before and after, they can’t even see what happened: “It’s almost like a letdown, because the after photo looks as if you were never there.”

We are not on screens, but in a weird way we are, because we are under a magnifying glass pretty much all day, staring at these garments. We could spend hours with just your particular garment. We’re not on a computer, but it’s physically demanding work. It might seem like it’s not because it’s sedentary in a sense, but your body takes a lot of the stress. We laugh that we’re like sweater doctors.

Prevention is the best medicine

Top two reasons clothes get damaged? The first stems from not cleaning clothes properly.

Cleaning is like brushing your teeth: It’s the number one thing you can do. Especially outerwear. We tend to think of outerwear like coats or scarfs or heavy sweaters differently, because we only wear them when we’re outside. When we go back inside, we take them off and they sit in the closet or on a hook on your door.

It’s human nature to think that we don’t have to clean outerwear as often, but the clothes are getting a lot of traffic. Especially now with people eating on-the-go and picking up Starbucks. You might spill a little bit of latte foam and just flick it off or brush it off with a napkin, but those proteins stay behind. Bugs go after protein from food—they like human sweat, perspiration, dirt, all that stuff.

The second reason clothes get damaged: the wear and tear of life. Just like we wear out as human beings, your clothes are going to wear out, too. If you start seeing a tiny little hole or something going on, you need to bring it to us, or fix it, before it gets bigger. We’ll ask you, “Do you want us to take little fuzzies off?” Those can turn into holes if they start pulling from getting caught on your other clothing or when you’re just running around.

We work on a lot of Missoni, because those snag a lot. A big part of our business is repairing those: They’re one-of-a-kinders. You have to be extra careful with any accessories. That’s really what snags on those types of materials. Your rings, your bags, belts, anything—you need to be super careful. It’s a pain in the neck, but with those types of fabrics, that’s going to be the only prevention.

Spring cleaning

It’s less busy during the summer because nobody wants to touch their knits. That’s when you should send your stuff to us for repair. When spring comes, you need to be checking all your clothes. If you have holes in them, send them to us because you’re going to wait a little bit in our queue as we work our way through the inventory. The most important tip: Clean your winter clothes when you put them away for the season. Especially for city dwellers. You want to make sure everything is clean before you pack it away in storage.

On saying goodbye

We don’t like to turn any business away, but we do have a duty to tell you, “Hey, this item can’t be saved. Let’s not throw good money after bad.” People don’t always want to hear that, but we have an obligation to tell you. We’re pretty straight up with you if we think you’re a good candidate. We want the garment to last many more years after you’ve made an additional investment in it.

We have a little black card that we’ll give someone when it’s time to let go: It says, “Our condolences, R.I.P.” I’m the same way with my favorite stuff: I don’t want it to die, you know?

On sustainability

We do need to make an effort to think about what we’re consuming. It’s a fine line: We need people consuming and purchasing items. But we need to think about what we’re purchasing. People come to me all the time and say, “Well, I could just go buy a new one.” I’m like, “Yeah, but I also could make it for you like it’s new.” It’s always interesting when customers tell me that, because I’m like, “Well, you could also be supporting my staff and me.” You’d be supporting this business and saving items from the landfill.

The volume on sustainability has really turned up. We’ve been growing every year. People are becoming more conscious, wondering, “Well, what’s the difference if I put money back in this item that I love that I can’t get again, rather than going out to shop and buying something else?” Now the thought process is: “I love this. I want to curate my wardrobe. I want to have pieces I like that are not disposable, but rather unique. I’m willing to make that investment.”

Wayne Edelman of Meurice Garment Care

Meurice Garment Care is a high-end dry cleaner located in Greenwich Village.

The family business

I was a commercial real estate broker, so I worked on my father’s lease renewals for his garment care business and I had experience working with contractors to put in new equipment for my father, too. I said to him, “If there comes a time when you don’t want this business, I’ll take it.” Here I am, 35 years later.

I’ve cleaned everything from Gap chino pants to Princess Diana’s gowns to gowns that stars wore to the Oscars to a room full of taxidermy. Not everything that comes in this door is a specialty item, but it’s special to the individual who owns it. We see the trends in fashion: Women who used to only wear designer clothes are now mixing designer in with fast fashion.

Stains with Wayne

I should probably do a column one of these days: Stains with Wayne. First off, it’s not a great idea to take cashmere sweaters and put them away soiled. Even if you don’t see anything on it, moths are alive and well, and moths tend to eat at the soiled areas.

We’re faced with challenges from time to time, like a lot of red wine on clothes. Stains come out of textiles and garments the same way they go in. We’ll look at stains and we’ll classify them as either wet side—meaning it can be removed with water or moisture—or dry side, meaning that it requires some type of solvent to remove the stain.

Wine comes from the grapes, which comes from the earth, so it’s what we call a tannin stain. We break down the sugars and the dyes to their simplest forms and flush them out of the garment. If it’s a very fine silk chiffon, we’re much more limited with what we can do to prevent shifting yarns. If it’s a knit, or just a regular wool blend or a cashmere fabric, we can be a little bit more aggressive.

We do see white or lighter garments where people say, “Oh, I put it away in the closet. I only wore it once and it looked fine.” Then they take it out and it has a yellow stain on it. That happens because there’s some type of sugary substance on it, like white wine or Champagne splashed on the garment and it was invisible at the time. Over a period of time, the sugars in the stain start to caramelize and turn yellow. So yeah, put clothes away clean.

A lot of satins are tough. People’s first inclination is to just go at something with club soda or soda water. Someone drops a piece of salad on a blouse and right away they go for the club soda. Well, the club soda doesn’t do anything unless it was an oil-free dressing. So club soda and water have the propensity to set a stain like that, rather than help taking it out.

The biggest issue that we see: people that really go at the stain, rubbing it. If you can’t resist trying to take something out, blot it gently. Don’t rub it. Especially on a satin fabric.

Do it yourself

Even a cashmere sweater can be hand-washed at home. We have a video on our YouTube channel where I show people how to hand-wash a cashmere sweater. There’s nothing better than a cashmere sweater that’s hand-washed. People send them to us all the time because they don’t want them dry-cleaned. They want us to hand-wash them or wet-clean them, and we do. A cashmere sweater that is hand-washed smells delicious. Nothing beats it. If you have the time, you can do a lot of these “dry clean only” items at home.

And the hand-wash setting on a nice washing machine—fabulous. Used with the right temperature and the right detergents, they’re amazing.

If you’re wearing a nice leather jacket and you get caught in the rain, don’t dry it on top of a heater. Put it on a nice, stable, wide hanger and let it dry naturally, away from any source of heat.

Look, I’ve fielded calls from individuals on private planes who say, “I just spilled something on my Birkin bag. What should I do? You told me once before I could use baby wipes but this is bad.” I’m the clothes doctor. I have more dirt on my celebrity clientele than The National Enquirer, but we don’t kiss and tell. I could probably write a book.

Photos by Beth Sacca.

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