Entering the Pacific Beach Salvation Army, Margaret Prodanov cruises past the skirts, blouses and dresses and goes straight to the back of the store for the racks of sheets, curtains and blankets. Wearing a floral skirt and flip-flops with her wavy brown hair loosely pulled back, she runs her hand over the bed linens with the care of a couture designer browsing luxurious textiles for her latest collection.
Unimpressed, Prodanov moves on to the men's ties, where she finds a light brown tie with white and orange diagonal stripes.
'This is so grandpa,' she says with more excitement than one should generally feel when finding such a tie. 'The more grandpa, the better. To me, they're beautiful.'
Counter to today's disposable consumer culture, Prodanov rescues second-hand fabrics and accessories from their eventual end in landfills, giving them a second life as a one-of-a-kind handbag for SalvationSacks, her self-run business (www.salvationsacks.com). Belts are used as straps. Terribly tacky, brightly colored leather mini skirts are reincarnated into fashion-forward and environmentally friendly slouchy purses for her MiniXL line.
Stiff curtains and upholstery fabric are ideal for her more structured bags, such as the simple messenger or rectangular pint and gallon bags. Her round bowler bags, constructed with soft shoe leather and various fabrics, have a mod look and take their inspiration from vintage hatboxes. Ties add color and texture to the exterior, sheets provide lining, and vintage pins or broaches become purse clasps with extra sparkle.
To find materials, Prodanov does a circuit of about a dozen Salvation Army and Goodwill stores and other top-secret locations. She knows all the managers, so when she needs 50 leather mini skirts they'll put them aside for her. Other times she rummages at garage and estate sales--although some of her best finds, she says, come from her trips to see family in places like North Dakota and Tennessee, where fewer thrift-store-savvy hipsters roam.
Prodanov's studio is a two-car garage that houses all her materials, including every post-manufacture fabric scrap. The scraps are later used for makeup bags and decoration on larger bags. The process of patterning, cutting and sewing each bag takes a couple of months, during which she assembles between 100 and 150 bags. Although she says she tries to sew when she can, Prodanov uses a manufacturer in El Cajon for most of the heavy sewing, especially for bags with thicker fabrics like leather. She says she feels good about supporting local business and views the process as a creative collaboration.
Prodanov says she's always been an artist with a knack for putting things together, but she'd never made a handbag before attempting her first SalvationSack. That first bag took about three months to perfect. Now she can design one in just a few weeks, and every bag she makes has a different look.
'I hate making the same bag,' she said. 'Even if I had [multiples] of the same materials, I would never put them together again because I like the uniqueness.'
An avid thrift-store shopper since her teens, Prodanov had amassed a substantial vintage clothing collection over the years. She dragged it all over the country--from her childhood home in New Jersey to college in Colorado and finally to San Diego, where she came to study law at the University of San Diego in 1990.
Prodanov practiced corporate law in San Diego for nearly a decade before realizing she wanted a career that indulged her creative side. She combined her artistic desires with her growing need to purge her vintage collection and started SalvationSacks in 2000.
'It felt good to use fabrics I had for so long,' Prodanov says. 'Some of them were from my mom.'
In the future, Prodanov wants to re-work clothing out of vintage materials but, for now, she she's sticking with the bags--they're just easier to make.
Prodanov feels good about reusing discarded materials, but it isn't just about recycling. The young fashionista says her bags are also about knowing and appreciating fashion history. Many of her bags come with cards explaining the materials used and in which era they were made.
While her collection is always growing, Prodanov says she's building her business at her own pace and not concerned about growing too big, too fast.
She digs working for herself and her customers and, at this point, she wouldn't have it any other way.
'If Urban Outfitters offered me $100,000 to design bags for them,' she says, 'I wouldn't take it.'