Worcester – forefront of fashion


SUNDAY TELEGRAM
2008

At first, Robyn L. Christensen couldn’t imagine that Davey’s handbags would make much of an exhibition.

“What are you going to do? Hang a handbag on a wall?” Ms. Christensen remembered asking her colleagues at the Worcester Historical Museum, Curator Holly V. Izard and Exhibit Coordinator Vanessa J. Bumpus.

Ms. Christensen quickly changed her mind as she conducted oral history interviews with six former Davey’s employees. In its heyday, Davey’s produced “must-have” bags for young women across the country at its factory on Grafton Street in Worcester.

“The fascinating part of the story is the people behind the company,” Ms. Christensen remarked.

What Ms. Christensen learned became an integral part of the museum’s latest display, “Going Out in Style.” The exhibition features handbags in the wide range of styles and fabrics that Davey’s popularized. Many of the models were selected from the 290 sample bags that were donated to the museum when the company closed.

The rise and fall of Davey’s mirrors the history of much of 20th-century American manufacturing; the company faced changing tastes and economic forces that made competing with goods produced outside of the United States nearly impossible.

But Davey’s also had its own special quirks, among them “mother’s hours,” and “Davey’s time.”

One recent afternoon, three former Davey’s employees – Terry Renaud, Mary Toney and Helen Koslawska – gathered at the museum’s gallery. Surrounded by handbags of seemingly every shape, style and material, the women reminisced about their years at the company.

Ms. Renaud pointed out that Davey’s introduced handbags made of madras, the Indian cotton that returns as a fashion statement every decade or so. She went on to say that the company stood firmly behind its products, repairing handbags free of charge. Ms. Christensen added that Davey’s would turn down only the most outrageous requests. She recalled a letter from a young woman who asked for a free repair after she got bubblegum stuck in her bag.

“There was integrity about making something right,” Ms. Renaud said. “It was a happy place to be.”

The company was founded by Chester Herwitz in 1954. He named his business after his wife, Davida, and started out making belts on Pleasant Street. Things took off after Carmella “Connie” Constanzo came to Davey’s for a summer job in 1958 while she was still in high school. Ms. Constanzo joined Davey’s full time after she got her diploma, and she and Mr. Herwitz were a team for 35 years, collaborating on designs and presentation.

“Whenever there was an idea of how to do something, Connie always knew what was needed to make it work,” said Ms. Renaud, who is Ms. Constanzo’s sister.

Around the time Ms. Constanzo came on board, the belt business was in decline, a victim of a dress style called the “shift.” Davey’s turned to handbags and quickly succeeded with two styles that Ms. Constanzo took to a trade show in Boston. She returned with a stack of orders.

The company grew rapidly, moving to larger quarters twice between 1960 and 1962. Once Davey’s arrived at its final location on Grafton Street, it opened a factory store. When bags went on sale, young women lined up down the street to get a chance to add to their collections.

In 1962, Davey’s advertised a line of “52 totally different styles of bags in 70 colors or combinations of colors.” Mr. Herwitz and his wife often traveled to Europe to check out styles and trends. Eventually, Davey’s employed 450 people and had showrooms in New York City and Los Angeles.

Business boomed throughout the 1970s. The company produced as many as 15,000 bags a week. They were nothing if not innovative. Davey’s popularized patchwork bags that used every scrap of material. One of Ms. Constanzo’s sisters used a strip of leather to pull her hair back. Others started doing the same, and a fad was born. Davey’s started selling packs of 25 hair ties. Ms. Toney recalled that they couldn’t cut the strips of leather fast enough.

With all of his success, Mr. Herwitz had another side that his former employees say they will never forget. Many of his workers were women with children, and he allowed them to devise a schedule that would accommodate their home lives. He called it “mother’s hours.”

“My boys took the bus to school, and I took the bus to work,” said Ms. Koslawska, who joined Davey’s as a stitcher in 1961. “You’d never get that anywhere else. He was very aware of the women’s movement.”

Mr. Herwitz also set the clocks at the workplace five minutes fast – on Davey’s time – so that his employees could punch out at 4:30 p.m. and still catch the 4:30 p.m. bus home.

By the late 1980s, Mr. Herwitz was cutting back on production; he told Ms. Constanzo he wouldn’t be in business in another 10 years. He began to rely on classic designs. A salesman who resigned in 1992 is quoted in the exhibition as saying that his clients “rejected Davey’s bags time and time again due to the lack of styles and lack of imagination in design.”

By 1992, Mr. Herwitz had stopped buying supplies. He would fill orders for L.L. Bean and Orvis as long as he had the materials on hand, but that was as far as it went. The work force declined to eight – where it had been shortly after the company opened. Ms. Constanzo took another job in 1993.

In 1999, Mr. Herwitz was killed in a car accident and Davey’s shut down, bringing to an end a remarkable story of success in the tough and competitive apparel and accessories business. The exhibition underscores, however, how the handbag styles that Davey’s brought to a large customer base never really lost their appeal.

Ms. Christensen made the point as she eyed a clutch made of patchwork leather in muted colors.

“I like that purse,” she said with a touch of longing in her voice.

Fashion then and now

The Worcester Historical Museum’s latest exhibition, “Going Out in Style,” is both nostalgic and hip.

Along with a look at the Davey’s handbag phenomenon, which was at its height in the 1970s, the display features the current creations of the successful fashion designer Jessie Randall, who grew up in Worcester.

Whereas Davey’s produced popular middlebrow merchandise, Ms. Randall, under her label Loeffler Randall, designs upscale shoes, handbags and clothing. Her designs are often seen on Cameron Diaz, Katherine Heigl and other celebrities, but she recently produced a line of moderately priced handbags and flats for Target.

Ms. Randall, who attended Doherty Memorial High School, studied fashion design in New York City after graduating in 1998 from the University of Virginia. She worked in the studio of Katayone Adeli, whose sleek, modern designs she admired.

Ms. Randall began to focus on accessories while working as a designer for Banana Republic. She launched her shoe line in 2005, and it was an instant success. She moved on to handbags, then introduced ready-to-wear clothing. Last year, she won the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Swarovski Perry Ellis award for accessory design.

Ms. Randall has more than 200 accounts around the world; her fashions are carried in luxury department stores such as Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman.

Brian Murphy, Ms. Randall’s husband, is Loeffler Randall’s marketing manager, but he isn’t the only family member who plays a key role in the company’s success. Romeo Indiana Ortiz Murphy, a 4-year-old Chihuahua, is often seen in Loeffler Randall marketing materials. Romeo sat on Ms. Randall’s lap while she designed her first line at her home in Brooklyn. Now the perky pup goes to the Loeffler Randall offices in Manhattan every day.