RALEIGH — The chic carrying bags seen in fashion magazines are stitched together from swatches of snake skin or alligator hides.
Bending the rules for the eco-conscious era, a Raleigh entrepreneur is assembling reptilian-looking bags from sources with greater mobility: used bicycle inner tubes and airplane seat covers.
Matthew Mahler, who lives in Raleigh, got the idea for making recycled bags a few years ago while browsing through a technology magazine. The possibility of turning flaccid rubber innards into eco-fashion statements tapped into a deep urge.
He signed up for sewing lessons and collected used inner tubes. He experimented during nights until he ruined his wife's sewing machine by stitching through elastic membrane designed to withstand potholes and gravel.
Today, the former mural painter and air-quality engineer for the state government sells his handmade wares at Flythe Cyclery in Raleigh and stores in Southern Pines and Charlotte. Mahler has expanded his sources of worn-out inner tubes to 10 Triangle bike stores.
His recycling efforts recently merited his business, Tierra Ideas, a grant from Wake County.
"As a kid, I loved to collect junk," said Mahler, 40. "Bottle caps, stamps, magazines, memorabilia from pop culture, Mardi Gras doubloons. My room at home was a mess usually."
A bright future
But a bigger payoff could be on the way: Mahler is in talks with a major airline to supply him with potentially thousands of used seat covers that could be recycled into computer bags, messenger bags and other trendy satchels.
Mahler made a presentation to the airline Friday in hopes of securing a long-term contract for seat covers. Mahler said the airline doesn't want to go public until close to Earth Day (in April), when it plans to announce a comprehensive recycling program.
The 20-hour-a-week side business has consumed Mahler's nights and weekends. He has been making do with a $475 sewing machine he found online, but he wants to buy an industrial model with his $1,391 county grant. That money and the airline connection came just in time. His wife was becoming alarmed at the rising cost of Mahler's business.
"I hit $4,500, and my wife said, 'No more. We're not going into more debt for this,'" Mahler said.
Everything depends on customers being committed to paying for the green products. The Tierra Ideas bags currently retail at $40 per bike seat bag, $80 per drawstring bag and $140 per messenger bag. The bags have been homemade by Mahler and a seamstress in Raleigh.
But the price tags are expected to rise significantly. The cost of manufacturing the bags at a plant in Forsythe County, and other expenses, will raise the retail value of the messenger bags to about $379 each, Mahler said.
Getting the edge
Then there's the issue of competition. At least 30 companies in this country make recycled bags, he estimates.
One in Wrightsville Beach refashions bags from sailcloth. A Detroit business makes bags from recycled orange construction barriers. Others make bags from truck and tractor tire inner tubes. They have clever Web sites. They have lyrical mission statements. They have high-end sewing machines.
So far, Tierra Ideas has sold only 16 of his bags. Mahler considers these to be prototypes and has sold some to friends at half price to get customer feedback.
"You cannot compare this bag to the other ones I have," said Adriana Murray of Raleigh, who has been using a Tierra Ideas bag to carry her laptop for two months. "When you buy a bag like this, you're making a statement ... that you want to live a green life."
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