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Leftover seat belts create a new career in handbags

Dana Harvey, owner of Harveys, founded the Orange County-based company, which produces the original seat belt handbags, in 1997 after using leftover seat belts from a car project to make a purse for his wife.
(Brittany Woolsey / Brittany Woolsey)

As Dana Harvey wove red seat belts left over from a car project — crossing the belts over each other akin to the way his Polynesian grandma taught him to weave wooden baskets — he thought he was just making a nice handbag for his wife.

He was actually, and somewhat unknowingly, launching what would become a boutique fashion line.

After working his day job filing legal documents for attorneys, he would use his evenings to make the bags in his Santa Ana garage.

“It just kind of snowballed from there,” Harvey said of that first medium-sized bag, which he crafted in 1997. “I didn’t realize how many people would want it. My wife took it to work, and all her friends were asking for one. Before I knew it, I just kept making them.”

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A major Los Angeles-based manufacturer expressed interest.

“It got to the point where one of our friends, who worked at American Rag, said her buyer wanted to carry the bags,” Harvey said. “That was our first entry into actual retail.”

Santa Ana-based Harvey’s now sells thousands of limited-edition seat belt bags annually at two retail stores, online and at fashion boutiques in the United States and Canada. Prices for purses and matching accessories, such as wallets and makeup bags, range from $25 to $300.

Each product can take half an hour to two hours to make by hand. Since seat belt fabric is thick, items are sewn with shoe-making machinery, making them durable and helping them keep their shape over time.

“We offer a lifetime warranty and what we call a bag service, where we allow people to bring in their bags and we’ll refurbish it for them,” Harvey said. “The bags live on. It’s what we call slow fashion. Why design something that’s just going to be disposable? These days, you see trends revolving so quickly, but we have a real loyal following that we want to please.”

That following includes clients like the Saguaro Hotel in Palm Springs, for which Harvey’s built a custom beach chair, and Disney, which commissions limited-edition bags and accessories.

On a recent Wednesday, Miguel Sifuentes, a Harvey’s employee, pushed seat belts with a design from Disney’s Haunted Mansion through a sewing machine in a factory located in the back of the Santa Ana store. (The second branded store is in Chino Hills.)

The bag, on sale at Disneyland to celebrate the park’s 60th anniversary, is one of a few hundred being made.

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A popular Disney line was the Princess Collection, which featured printed versions of Ariel, Cinderella and others on one side and their corresponding villains on the other. He contracts with artists to create the designs.

“We did the Princess Collection and are always challenging to do something a little bit different,” Harvey said of plans to make future incarnations with less cartoon imagery to appeal more to adults. “With Disney, they have so many people that are using the same properties that we want to make it a little more unique.”

The limited-edition bags foster resale interest. A medium-sized tote with an image from “Steamboat Willie,” one of Mickey Mouse’s earliest appearances, recently sold for $700 on eBay — more than triple the original retail price.

That doesn’t mean Harvey will mark up his products.

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“That just wouldn’t be right,” he said.

The company only uses products made in the United States — the seat belt suppliers also sell to GM, Ford and Chrysler — and is committed to domestic manufacturing.

“We don’t do mass production,” Harvey said. “Some of our production runs are really limited because we can only make them so fast. But we want to ensure the quality. We’re not just cranking these out. We do have a lot of customers who look for bags that were made in the past and ask if we can make them again. We have to say no because we don’t have that material anymore.”

Not using outsourced materials, however, can mean faster production times.

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When Disneyland sold out of some 60th anniversary bags, Harvey’s was able to quickly produce more because its factory is local.

Harvey’s aims to be eco-friendly and uses synthetic, or vegan, “leather.”

“A lot of the material we use is reclaimed,” Harvey said. “Our lining is made of recycled plastic bottles. We’d rather not do things on trend and find things that are fun and different. We want to discover more materials and find out how we can take those to be more eco-conscious and responsible to the environment. We’re always trying to do something that’s a little more unexpected and discovering value in the unexpected.”


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