Whether stained lining, scuffed handles or scratched hardware is the ailment, there comes a time in your favourite handbag’s life where it needs a little TLC. Queue Gerry Gallagher founding father of Leather Surgeons the Chanel bag repair guru. Gerry is one of the last remaining people who can turn an alligator skin into a $30,000 accessory.
Operating as Chanel’s exclusive restoration company in the US for the last fifteen years Gerry is a master of his trade. He restores and remakes over 200 luxury handbags in his workshop each week, all of which pass through his highly skilled hands. To celebrate the launch of our collector’s issue Vintage Heirloom caught up with Gerry to discover what it takes to breath life back into our most loved and loyal possessions.
VH: HI GERRY, TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND?
I grew up in New York City and was always interested in art. I got a job delivering luggage for a repair shop when I was 17, and it all fell into place for me. I became interested in the actual craft of making the handbags more than the repairing, and I thought restorations should be approached from a different angle. It seemed that most of these repair shops didn’t have the skills to even begin to make a handbag. It seemed to just be a pure business where the skill was only as high as who came to work that day.
VH: WHERE DID YOU ACQUIRE YOUR KNOWLEDGE?
I was lucky enough to meet a master Italian artisan named Domenic Rivierlo. Not even kidding, the guy was making boots for Mussolini before coming to America. He took a liking to me and had me act as an assistant as he worked. His bench skills were amazing and it slowly evolved into me apprenticing under him. It wasn’t long before I was making handbags fulltime.
VH: WHAT’S THE LONGEST AMOUNT OF TIME YOU’VE SPENT WORKING ON A BAG?
We have done some total restorations on Hermes Kelly and Birkins that had to have major sections totally remade. Sometimes a handbag restoration needs so much work that you’re getting closer to making a new bag and actually winds up taking even longer.
VH: WHICH BRANDS TAKE THE LONGEST TO RESTORE?
It’s the finishes that make restoration more difficult. Refinishing and matching some of the crazy multi-tone, multi-texture, metallic finishes can be very difficult once the bag has been manufactured. The skins of these bags are tanned in a tanning facility and is a chemical process, so to replicate it after is much more artistic than chemical.
VH: DO YOU HAVE ANY ANECDOTES OR INTERESTING CUSTOMER EXPERIENCES THAT YOU ARE ABLE TO SHARE?
I received a call from Lana Marks asking for a bag to be restored right away after being totally ruined by a repair shop. The bag was for the Princess of Thailand and they were pulling their hair out about what to do and how to get the bag back to her in the promised time frame. The bag had been totally spray painted, not even in the matching color (which is done way more often than you would think). It took an entire day and a gallon of solvent to strip off the sticky and peeling spraypaint before we could even get started on repairing the splits in the skin and doing a real refinishing. Luckily we were able to get it back late on the second day.
Once we turned a Chanel tote into a dog carrying case for Mariah Carey which was a rare request and last year we created an exotic skin bag for Donald Trump’s leukaemia charity auction that sold for $16,000.
VH: VH: WHAT ARE THE MAIN DIFFERENCES BETWEEN YOU AND OTHER SHOPS?
We only works on luxury brands, so there will never be a $5000 handbag on the table with dirty shoes or an old piece of luggage. Also we do not use any spray cans or paint brushes like a local repair shop, we’ve spent a lot of time on a proprietary refinishing system that we lightly apply with makeup style airbrushes, applying as little as necessary to keep the original feel of the handbag. All colors are matched individually to make sure the bag remains its original color.
VH: WHAT ARE THE TELL-TALE SIGNS OF A FAKE BAG?
Most of them we can tell just from a quick visual and touching the bag as we do over 12,000 handbags a year. For specifics the easiest signs are obviously if the authenticity number doesn’t look correct, if the font on the logos are off, if the weight of the hardware is off and if the edges have ridges like they weren’t pressed to as high a standard. Also if they use the wrong screws (phillips instead of flathead or star-screws), or if the leather is not finished the correct way. For the better fakes we check the weight of the thread and the interior stays that provide the body of the bag. Once we are inside the bag itself there’s no faking it anymore!
VH: FAVOURITE VINTAGE BAG YOU’VE COME ACROSS?
My favourite bags are Natori from around 2002, and of course Chanel classics in alligator are beautiful. For a real vintage bag the original Hermes Bolide in 1923 (not the current one called “Bolide 1923”) is very interesting and the first bag to use a zipper!
VH: WHAT’S THE MOST EXPENSIVE BAG YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
Some of the most expensive handbags in the world, the Chanel Diamonds are Forever line, valued at over $250,000 – $260,000 each. They have to be transported via armed courier! We also restored a Cleopatra clutch for Lana Marks that can vary from $100,000 to $250,000.
VH: LATELY A NUMBER OF BLOG POSTS AND CUSTOMERS HAVE MENTIONED QUALITY ISSUES WITH MORE RECENT CHANEL BAGS, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THIS?
I think that Chanel’s base of handbags are as high quality as ever, and that most of the issues that people take are with Chanel branching out stylistically into trying new things. Designers are approaching the new lines from an angle of aesthetics, so they may create something beautiful that happens to be more delicate. I do know from our side that compared to other companies Chanel takes their customer complaints very seriously. Honestly they sometimes bend over backwards for clients to keep them happy even when we can’t find an issue with their bag at all and have determined that it is not a defect!
VH: IF YOU WEREN’T DOING LEATHER SURGEONS YOU’D BE …
For a long time when I kid I hoped to be a musician! I had been in a band and played guitar, which I still pick up from time to time!