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Designer Elisabeth Weinstock has a talent for finding talent

Elisabeth Weinstock's Los Angeles boutique says plenty about her devotion to helping others pull themselves up off the canvas, as she once did.

Most telling are the multiple pairs of boxing gloves, ranging from regulation to keychain size, that dot the walls and cash register area — a symbol of toughness and grit masked in a lavish and colorful veneer.

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Amid handbags and backgammon sets, the gloves represent Weinstock, 49, a former interior designer and avid boxer, who launched her eponymous snakeskin accessories and home wares label in 2011.

Born and raised in Beverly Hills, Weinstock struggled with drug addiction for 3 ½ years during her late teens and, though sober for the last three decades, has maintained the stance of an enduring survivor and mentor helping others to get and stay clean, including some of her employees.

Her resort 2017 collection of bags is representative of a life come full circle. Weinstock has spent more than 20 years sponsoring and mentoring people trying to turn their lives around. She has created the resort line in collaboration with several of them, who inspired motifs from black-and-red graffiti to a light and whimsical birds-and-flowers pattern that they hand-painted onto Weinstock's snakeskin bags.

A look at the graffiti-inspired handbag from the resort 2017 collection available at Elisabeth Weinstock's L.A. boutique and on her website.
A look at the graffiti-inspired handbag from the resort 2017 collection available at Elisabeth Weinstock's L.A. boutique and on her website. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

The collaboration is more than a one-off capsule collection; each artist and various members of Weinstock's operations and creative teams are people she met while they were undergoing recovery for drugs or seeking her help to reform their association with a gang or simply trying to rebuild their lives after a rough patch.

"Some of the artists I have are in recovery, and they're incredible artists," says Weinstock, perched on a chair covered in snakeskin in her 3rd Street boutique. "I work with gang members that are totally reformed and doing incredible things. ... I just believe that everyone deserves a chance. I don't think that enough people get the help that they need in this lifetime, the kind of help that I needed and was dying for."

Weinstock began mentoring teens and young adults as a then-29-year-old volunteer at A Place Called Home, a support and resource center for youth in South L.A., where she taught a class simply called Life. She used it to impart basic but crucial skills, including how to properly shake hands, the importance of looking someone in the eye, how to open a bank account and the benefits of direct deposit.

Graphic designer Josh Grunfeld holds two hand-painted clutches that he designed.
Graphic designer Josh Grunfeld holds two hand-painted clutches that he designed. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

"I didn't really trust her and I thought she was an undercover cop," says Alex Izquierdo, who met Weinstock at age 16 while taking her Life class. Now 36, he works with the accessories designer as one of her closest confidants, conceptualizing ideas and creative projects such as the hand-painted resort collection. He also trusts her — a lot.

"The difference with her is that she didn't try and change me overnight," he says. "She just stuck around with us and opened our eyes, little by little. Before that, nobody took the time to teach me those things."

Weinstock recalls meeting Izquierdo and the set of challenges mentoring him brought. "When I met Alex he hated me. He was the hardest one to get through to," she says. "When he was a kid there were drive-bys, like, four times a day. ... He would line his sneakers up around his head. He thought they would stop the bullets. I would say he's one of my best friends and I'm one of his, but he's still a bit guarded."

In addition to Izquierdo, the team includes David Guizar, 43, Josh Grunfeld, 23, and Ryan Edge, 28. The three work with Weinstock on everything, including photo shoot production, social media and creating and painting each bag.

“The difference with her is that she didn’t try and change me overnight. She just stuck around with us and opened our eyes, little by little.


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Grunfeld says he met Weinstock after trying several times to get sober from a long heroin addiction. Introduced by Edge, Weinstock took her typical no-nonsense approach to supporting Grunfeld.

"He said, 'Will you help me?'" Weinstock says. "I said, 'If you call me tonight at 10 o'clock sharp, I'll help you.' And I thought, 'There's no way this child is going to call me. I've been doing this for too long.' And at 10 o'clock sharp, my phone rang, and he has not left my side since."

Grunfeld says he has now been sober for more than six months as Weinstock has harnessed his artistic talent to create the graffiti group of bags.

"Josh came up with a lot of the graphics and words for this collection," says Weinstock of phrases such as "What a time to be alive," "Till the end" and "Love is infinite." The bags are made from elaphe skin, which is painted with acrylic and then treated.

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"He's been a huge asset. ... He's doing so well," Weinstock says of Grunfeld. "He gets paid hourly, and his work gets to be exposed and photographed. And this is a kid who spent a year-and-a-half at a time locked up for tagging. Can you imagine? He gets out, gets sober and now is getting paid to do what he loves to do."

Grunfeld also brought in his cousin, 22-year-old Eri Robinson, an artist who was unemployed. His work is featured on several custom leather bags being carried at high-end retailers, as well as Weinstock's boutique.

Weinstock says the response to the hand-painted bags has been positive from retailers such as the Webster, which recently opened a Costa Mesa store, and Browns in London, which will carry her resort pieces, which range from $830 to $2,472. (The collection is now available at Weinstock's boutique and online store, and will roll into other stores during the next month.)

Accessories designer Elisabeth Weinstock sells hand-painted bags including the Harbor Island, $830; the Malibu, $1,831; and the Belgravia (shown in large), $2,472.
Accessories designer Elisabeth Weinstock sells hand-painted bags including the Harbor Island, $830; the Malibu, $1,831; and the Belgravia (shown in large), $2,472. (Elisabeth Weinstock)

L.A.-area retailer Maxfield has been selling Weinstock's pieces before she officially had a collection, says Maxfield's buying director Sarah Stewart, and she will stock the resort pieces as well.

"I love the story of recovery behind the collection and that it is being done by a group of young, emerging artists," Stewart says. "Clients will appreciate that the graffiti is hand-painted individually and each piece is unique."

The fact that the provenance of each piece is unconventional is not lost on Weinstock or others in her office.

"We have nothing in common. I come from a completely different background," says Belén Hormaeche, Weinstock's creative director and a former senior buyer of ready-to-wear at Net-a-Porter, of working with the team. "But this has brought us together. They're so interesting, bright, talented, really sweet and not what you'd expect, you know? The craziest, most fascinating people walk through these doors. You never know what you're gonna get."

This swirl of energy and activity is evident inside Weinstock's store on a regular basis, but it was particularly evident on an autumn day when portraits were being taken for this story.

Izquierdo, Guizar and Edge were awkwardly trying to assemble into the perfect formation behind Weinstock, looking a bit uneasy at having their pictures taken. Suddenly, Edge broke the silence with a chuckle, saying, "We look like a family."

No one seemed to disagree.

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