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High-Fasten Concept : Button Covers, a Must-Have Accessory, Transform a Shirt in a Snap

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like most people, Donna and Dave Newman never gave much thought to buttons--unless one popped off their clothing.

Then the pair discovered button covers, and life hasn’t been the same since.

Button covers are like jewelry for clothes. They’re fancy buttons--often adorned with rhinestones or pearls--that fit over standard shirt buttons, transforming even a plain white blouse into high fashion.

The Newmans are helping to make button covers one of the hottest must-have accessories of the season. As owners of Killer Buttonz, a growing button cover and accessory manufacturer in Rancho Santa Margarita, they turn out button covers that sell in 250 boutiques and gift shops nationwide.

“We hit on something that took off,” says Dave, who gave up a 12-year-old silk-screen business to devote all his energy to Killer Buttonz.

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Buttons have taken over their factory. They’re stuffed into plastic bags and boxes, and piled up on shelves. Workers sit at tables with hot glue guns, fitting the buttons to casings that slip over a shirt button and snap in place.

This fall Killer Buttonz has produced some beauties. There are elegant button covers with colorful faux gems, pearls, Victorian hearts and engraved medallions. Some designs are playful, such as the brightly colored tropical fish, slices of pink watermelon and Southwestern-style cacti. One set has a miniature portrait of the Mona Lisa.

“The hard part is trying to keep things different, to have a different look,” Donna says.

The Newmans create unusual mixed sets using five different button covers. They combine rhinestones of different colors or settings, or mix antique gold buttons in a variety of vintage styles and shapes.

Often the button covers will have a theme. A set for teachers or students has a globe, crayons, a blackboard and other school supplies.

Like most people, they had never seen button covers until a couple of years ago when Donna spotted a set made by an artist for sale in an art gallery.

“I thought they were so interesting that we should make some ourselves,” she says.

Instead of making the button covers entirely by hand, however, she decided she could mass-produce them using already existing buttons and attaching the covers. She began the business in April, 1990, by assembling button covers in a corner of the factory where the Newmans already produced silk-screened shirts.

They decided to call their button covers Killer Buttonz because, “We didn’t want a cutesy name,” Dave says.

Killer Buttonz proved so popular that the Newmans began working on button covers full time and enlisted family members and friends to help.

“It’s just gotten crazy,” Dave says. “We’ve gone from Donna doing everything to employing nine people.”

They’ve expanded their line to include earrings, shoe clips, single “topper” pins that are worn at the neck and pins that come in sets of three. One deco-style set of pins has a train, plane and ocean liner made of brushed nickel.

Their success is especially surprising considering the Newmans are new to the fashion industry. When Donna began peddling her button covers to shop owners, one asked if she had a rep.

“I had to say, “What’s a rep?”

They now have representatives who wholesale their button covers to retailers at the California Mart in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, Dallas, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Arizona and Seattle. Their buttons sell in stores around the world, including Japan, Canada, Argentina and Peru.

In Orange County, Killer Buttonz can be found at Sloan & Katcef in San Juan Capistrano, Opus III in Costa Mesa, Bidwell’s in Newport Beach and at kiosks in Brea Mall and Fashion Island in Newport Beach.

“They’re selling like mad,” says Trudie Sloan, co-owner of Sloan & Katcef. “People find they make the perfect gift.”

The holiday gift season promises to be a winner for Killer Buttonz. Button covers are so new, people figure those on their shopping list don’t have them yet, Donna says.

In a time of recession, button covers are an easy way to update an outfit without spending a lot of money, she says (they sell for about $10 to $35 a set).

With the rapid success of this new accessory, the Newmans are feeling increased competition from other button cover makers. Some competitors shop at the same button houses they do, so they have to work harder to hunt down unusual decorative pieces.

“We try to find suppliers who are not necessarily in the button business,” Donna says. Some covers are craft items found at trade shows that would otherwise be used for magnets or other decoration. They won’t say where they found the decorations for one of their more popular sets--a Santa, Christmas tree and other holiday ornaments.

“We have to protect our unique pieces,” Donna says.

The Newmans say they have become better at choosing button covers their customers will like.

With a look of distaste, Donna pulls out an early set of plastic pastel buttons that was quickly discontinued. Now they favor buttons with a richer look. One set features buttons made of polished wood and leather with antique gold trim. Another has gold knots with lush textured look of gold braid.

“Our taste has definitely matured,” Donna says.


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