High fashion by Northeast Philly grannies? Believe it

The lessons of the fashion industry are coming slowly to Barbara Shotz, who spends her time thinking less about runways than walkers as vice president of KleinLife, a nonprofit that runs three senior centers in Philadelphia.

So, she corrected herself: “I’m not allowed to say pocketbooks. It’s handbags.”

It’s understandable. It’s a pocketbook crowd at the Northeast Philadelphia community center, with a hot lunch in the cafeteria, a Judaica gift shop, medical offices, and, downstairs in a fluorescent-lit basement room, a klatch of snowy-haired bubbes knitting around a table. But, unlikely as it is, this is the headquarters of a burgeoning high-fashion handbag empire.

The KleinLife room is an ad hoc workshop for Mim & Ray, a new line of stylish — and pricey — totes and clutches that marry Italian leather produced by a family of artisans in Naples with felted panels knit by seniors who are, most of them for the first time in their lives, getting paid for their craft.

“We want to build people’s self-esteem, because there is a lot of loss,” Shotz said. “They have lost spouses, sometimes children. It gives them a reason to get up in the morning and put their lipstick on.”

Mim & Ray is meant to serve another purpose, too. The boutique-worthy recasting of Miriam and Raymond Klein, the late benefactors of KleinLife, is also a fund-raiser for the nonprofit in the form of a designer label with distribution at a showroom in Los Angeles, online at Mimandray.com, and at the well-known Philadelphia boutique Joan Shepp starting in September. (The bags range from about $300 for a clutch to $3,650 for an alligator tote made in the United States that comes with a knit pouch.)

When the first samples came in, some of the women were shocked.

“I never would have thought these things would be so beautiful,” said Katie Willner, 83, of Northeast Philadelphia, examining one of the finished totes. “Would you imagine? I went to visit my son in Albuquerque, and he looked at the website and he would not believe! He said, ‘You’re making these?’ ”

A finished Mim & Ray bag.

The luxury bags came out of pragmatic conversations between Shotz and KleinLife chief executive Andre Krug about how to generate income for the community center, which offers social, educational, and cultural programs to children and seniors in three locations.

They thought the key might be the flawless knitting already being produced by the center’s army of industrious grandmothers.

They called Toby Strogatz, a board member whose partner is KleinLife chairman Stephen Klein; She strategically took the concept to him while he was in the shower.

“I said, ‘Stephen, were going into the handbag business,’ ” she said. “All he wants me to do is close the shower door, so he yesses me to death.”

Strogatz, with a fashion-industry consultant and KleinLife staffer Sharon Kaplan, who knits samples for the line, figured out how to felt the knitted wool by washing it in hot water, then stretching and pressing it, and how to incorporate it into bags. Then they visited KleinLife’s knitting circles to recruit knitters — make that artisans. They now have 35 of them collaborating on the project.

Toby Strogatz with a finished Mim & Ray bag.

Some, like Willner, were skeptical.

She had learned to knit as a child, then revisited the hobby 11 years ago after her husband died. She started going to the senior center. She purled her way through her grief.

But knitting professionally? No way. “I’m a very slow knitter,” said Willner, who has a walker and a cumulus-like helmet of white hair.

When she heard it was for charity, she decided to join.

“Then I found out we were getting paid, too, so I thought, ‘Even better,’ ” she said. “I’m on Social Security, and everyone knows that’s not much money.”

She joined women like Mickie Levin, 85, of Northeast Philadelphia, who knits most hours of her waking life: blankets for her grandchildren, sweaters for her kids, argyle socks. The handbags were a new one for her. So was the income.

“I haven’t had a paycheck for 30 years!” she said.

A Mim & Ray bag

For Joyce Adelman, 77, of Huntingdon Valley, it’s given her a renewed sense of purpose.

“I worked in a high-end jewelry store for 14 years, and when it was over, I was lost. It takes effort to get involved.”

She still knits for other charities — hats for Ronald McDonald House, blankets for Fox Chase Cancer Center — but Mim & Ray is her only paying gig.

The women get weekly assignments, ranging from six to 20 panels per week, along with instructions on the design and colorways. They get paid per square inch of knitting produced, though the company declined to disclose the rate. In the basement of KleinLife, volunteers were packing up about 900 completed panels to ship off to Italy for the fall and winter.

But Ella Kruglikov,  70, of Northeast Philadelphia, can knit as many as 50 panels a week. Even Kruglikov can’t explain why she is able to knit so fast. Maybe because she holds the needles wrong? But it works.

Kruglikov said after she retired two years ago, she grew bored and depressed; she’d get into arguments at home just for something to do.

Now, she comes to KleinLife daily. Her Mim & Ray colleagues are — there’s no other way to say it — a close-knit community.

“We have to continue this,” she said of the project. “We love it, and all of us are like a family now.”