Arts Bag ladies

Texas designer Enid Collins created wooden purses that still contain joy

I should have bought the "Owl and Pussycat" bag. But I was a novice. It was my first encounter with Collins of Texas handbags - in a crowded corner of the Austin mid-century vintage shop Room Service, redolent of spice, faded perfume, and dust mites - and, a child of the '70s, I went for the Spirit of '76 design, featuring crystals sparkling atop silk-screened fireworks. Speaking by phone later with collector and author Susan Young, I learned that Collins sold her Medina, Texas-based shop to the Tandy Corp. in 1972, and avid Collins' collectors know to look for her initials ("She signed them like you would a painting."). Bags produced after 1972 are not considered originals.

"I love bold color and whimsical themes - that's what first struck me. But when you actually hold one in your hand, 20 to 30 years later, the craftsmanship is so apparent," says Young, who has been collecting Collins for almost a decade.

"Owl and Pussycat," above, is an original, handpainted Enid Collins bag from the '60s. The Spirit of '76 bag at right was probably produced by the company after it was sold to the Tandy Corp. in 1972. Both bags were at Austin's Room Service vintage store.

Collins began producing handcrafted bags at her ranch outside Medina in the '50s. "You couldn't tell business from family," recalls her son, Fredericksburg jewelry designer Jeep Collins. The demand for the canvas and leather bags, augmented with crystals and hand-tooled brass details made by Collins' husband, grew so great that the Collinses moved the business into town and began to manufacture the box bags, which could be produced more quickly. "When they first started making the box purses, the stock number `began with` HH," says Jeep. "That stood for 'high hopes.'" High hopes that were realized: The cabinet-maker who fashioned the boxes for Enid eventually gave up furniture because Collins of Texas kept him so busy.

At the height of their popularity, Collins' box bags could be found at department stores and boutiques and on the arms of Texas' most stylish matrons. Young says that Collins commissioned original designs by such Texas artists as Bob Dale and Bill Bristow and created themed purses for San Antonio's Fiesta Flambeau parade and the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign. The latter sported "the word 'Gold' and then 'H20,' so it was like a code sort of thing," says Young.

Young was inspired to produce the CD book, Enid Collins Handbag Gallery (available for $20 via e-mail at [email protected]) because she couldn't find detailed information about the designer or her products. Collins' family and former contributing artisans consulted on the CD, and Young also extensively documented the hundreds of styles Collins produced. Jeep says he thinks his mother used mahogany in her earlier purses, but the later styles are in lighter woods. The joints of each box are carefully joined in dovetails, and Collins' copyright and signature appear inside next to an oval or round mirror, beneath the words "hand-decorated for You!"

Today, original Collins of Texas bags can sell for hundreds of dollars in venues such as eBay, although vintage sleuths can unearth them for as little as $15. Young says the most collectible styles include papier-mache fruit and flower boxes and any of the pavan (peacock) or cat series. Austin-based collector Andee Knutson laments a "Copy Cats" picnic-style box, from Collins' popular cats series, that she says recently went for almost $400 on eBay. Knutson says the most she has plunked down is $90, but her favorite bag is still her first find. Titled "Two Scents," it features a pair of sweet skunks. "`Collins' bags` are just so girly and cutesy and over the top," says Knutsen. "They're not subtle at all."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, two of the biggest Collins' collectors are Texas women, but the bags' sparkle-enhanced appeal knows no bounds. "Actually, one of my collectors is a man and he's married and he has one or two daughters and at last count he has over 500," says Young. "And his wife and daughters don't even like them!"

By Elaine Wolff

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