Experts in emotional rescues
Saviour ... bag and leather repairer Elie Shehadie in his shop in the Strand Arcade, where he has worked his magic for more than 35 years. Photo: Sahlan Hayes
Just before this year's Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, I embarked on a search for a new bag to house my personal effects and my laptop.
I decided on Phillip Lim's new 31 Hour Bag, a reversible tote that was roomy and sturdy enough to negate schlepping around Circular Quay with an extra carry case for my computer.
We are known for the difficult stuff.
Black on one side, tan on the other side: surely that also counted as two bags in one?
The fixer ... Mitzi Skyring, owner of The Emergency Button. Photo: Tamara Dean
I tracked down what appeared to be the last of its kind in Sydney and grabbed a takeaway coffee before heading to The Corner Shop in the Strand Arcade to finalise my purchase.
Then, while inspecting the bag on the counter, I knocked the lid off my coffee and watched in disbelief as the black liquid spilt across the tan side of the bag.
As the stain bloomed like a Rorschach inkblot, you could have heard a whisper-soft Isabel Marant sweater drop from its hanger in the store as staff members became literally speechless with horror.
Good as new ... Georgina Safe's Phillip Lim 31 Hour Bag after a visit to Elie Shehadie. Photo: Steve Christo
''Don't worry, it's my fault, I'm still buying the bag,'' I assured, inwardly groaning at an expensive purchase ruined before it even left the store.
''You could try Elie upstairs,'' volunteered a store assistant. ''He's very good with handbags.''
So up I trudged to Elie Bags and Leather Repair, a tiny hole-in-the-wall on the top floor of the Strand Arcade, holding out little hope of a handbag miracle.
I was wrong. When I went to pick up the bag a couple of days later, it was literally as good as new.
Not a single trace of the splashy stain remained and the affected area had been entirely restored to its soft caramel glory.
I was buying a new item when the calamity occurred, but in this era of cut-price clothing and accessories that increasingly end up as landfill, my experience made me think there is a lot to be said for our ancestors' philosophy of make do and mend.
On Sunday, the Sun-Herald reported charities such as St Vincent de Paul Society and Lifeline refusing donated goods on the grounds they were cut-price junk that consumers had acquired cheaply and that no longer had life or value in them.
The story followed the publication of Lucy Siegle's book about fast fashion, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? She found British consumers now demand roughly four times the number of clothes they would have in 1980.
''But the really arresting thing is that almost the same quantity of fashion that you buy will end up being dumped prematurely in the rubbish bin,'' Siegle wrote.
While her book is about high street fashion, actor and former model Lily Cole told this month's British Vogue that recycling designer fashion should also be ''more the norm''.
The actor has joined Colin Firth's wife Livia's Green Carpet Challenge, which encourages stars to wear outfits they have previously worn again and again.
''I think you can get locked into a situation where you'll only ever wear new things, and you're locked in this highly commerce-oriented structure where you have to keep on buying and selling new things, and it doesn't do anyone any favours,'' Cole told Vogue.
While the rest us may not have Cole's access to couture and designer brands, wouldn't it be better to buy one thing you love and look after it over the years, rather than 10 cheap Saturday night dresses that last little longer than the party?
This is where Sydney's unsung army of alterations specialists come in.
Whether you have a bag that needs some love (that would be me), shoes that require a new pair of heels or a dye job, or a jacket or dress up for a complete remodelling, there is an alterations expert up to the task.
''The sky is kind of the limit,'' says Mitzi Skyring, owner of The Emergency Button in Double Bay.
''If the garment is good enough and we have the idea then we can go for it. We do things as simple as taking up a hem on a pair of jeans, but we are known for the difficult stuff.''
Skyring's team of expert seamstresses can do everything from remodel a vintage garment - the sizes tend to be smaller and of a different proportion to clothing today - to resizing a wedding dress for a daughter who wants to wear her mother's original. ''One of our clients lost her dad and had all his old coats, so we cut them down and remade them for her because she wanted his coats around her,'' Skyring says.
''It can be quite emotional because you are working very closely with people, but it's also about turning what is just dead money sitting in your wardrobe into something that you love again.''
The sentiment rings true with retailer Belinda Seper, who owns The Corner Shop and Belinda chain of boutiques across Sydney.
''There are certain pieces I'm absolutely wedded to and I couldn't bear not to have them in my life,'' Seper says.
''I'll do whatever it takes to preserve their longevity, whether that means having them repaired, altered or protected.''
While The Emergency Button, Jack's Alterations in Paddington and Jasmin Tailoring in Surry Hills are among the go-to's for clothing repairs, Coombs Shoe Services in the Strand Arcade, Brice's in the Imperial Arcade and Shoe Worx at Chifley Plaza are some of the best cobblers with which to entrust your tired heels.
''We will do jobs that many other people don't do, like complete new heels for shoes if people want them to be more modern, or maybe a little quieter,'' Coombs manager Paul Atallah says.
''Sometimes people may think it's not worthwhile to get [a shoe] repaired, but they should come in and ask because because nine out of 10 times we can do something.''
Elie Shehadie began working for Coombs after arriving in Australia from Lebanon, then opened his own shop in the Strand Arcade, where he has been repairing handbags for more than 35 years.
Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Longchamp and Hunt Leather are among the handbags that regularly pass through his hands for everything from patching holes and fixing handles to removing stains or new dye jobs. ''I do a lot of work with all the good quality bags, but if I can't do a 100 per cent job I won't touch it,'' Shehadie says.
In this respect, there does come a time when even the best repairs are best forgotten.
''There are some miracle workers out there and I've seen people do some extraordinary things - but there is only so far miracles can go,'' Seper says.
''By definition fashion is all about change, so if you want to have new things in your life, you do have to clear some emotional space.
''There does come a point when you have to say goodbye.''