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We have a friend who happens into the most INCREDIBLE deals. All the time. I mean, seriously – let’s not even go down the Kendra Scott gold mine she has and just talk about these wonderful bags she recently acquired! It usually starts with an email from her that starts with “So have you ever heard of…” because usually I haven’t – and I wish I had, and it almost always leads to an awesome discovery. Our friend’s aunt recently bequeathed these surprisingly still-modern bags, and I look forward to her integrating them into her wardrobe.

red bag 2

white bagThe information included in this blog is from an eBay collector’s page (pacruss) – I searched everywhere else and they had the most collected and concise history on this man. pacruss– we thank you!)

“Martin Van Schaak, the most elusive American handbag master, has been designing his novelty purses for over half a century starting in the early 1950s. His customers represented creme de la creme of New York, Los Angeles, Texas and Washington DC society, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Marlene Deitrich. His wonderful creations have never been available for sale in retail stores, made exclusively per order with the personality of a client in mind. A slender, brown-haired man, Martin Van Schaak — who described himself as “half-French, half-Dutch” — arrived in America from France in the mid-1940s. In 2001, he celebrated his 80th birthday . He once reminisced that he sold his first purse in 1943 to the wife of the Dutch ambassador and from then on he has been designing bags for the most fashionable women in America.

He hardly ever advertised and did not sell his designs in stores. In the 1960s, his important customers — ladies of means and fame — used to discover him by seeing his fabulous creations carried by others. Happy to get his name and telephone number, they would make an appointment to visit him at his Upper East Side apartment in New York, an elegant enclave tastefully decorated with picturesque oriental rugs, French furniture and original oils on the walls painted in raspberry-red. After discussing a client’s preferences, Mr. Van Schaak would set up an appointment to visit her at home. He used to show up with four commodious suitcases stuffed with 120 sample bags: “That’s because when most ladies say they want a black bag they end up buying a red or a green one.” In the 1960s, his made-per-order bags cost upward of $125. A man of sophisticated taste, he believed that black, beige, navy and brown — especially the chocolate brown, with no red dues — were best for daytime wear. For cocktails, ruby-red and emerald-green were his preference, to be matched with a black dress, “… much younger than black from head to toe. And you can match your jewelry, rubies or emeralds, to your bag.”

He usually called on his California and Illinois customers in summer and fall, and his customers from Texas — in winter and early spring. “During those months, there isn’t a soul in New York who can afford my pocketbooks. Besides, America has a lot of chic women outside of New York, and they deserve to have beautiful things,” he mentioned once. One of his most important customers was Jacqueline Kennedy, who once invited him to the White House and ordered a collection of 8 handbags. Despite his very busy schedule, which included numerous sales trips across the country, Mr. Van Schaak was actively involved in charitable activities conducted by prominent members of New York society, such as contributions to the Cancer Care of the National Cancer Foundation.

Classic and traditional, they are not without occasional little “fantasies”, as Van Schaak used to say himself. Crafted by skilled European artisans working on Long Island, New York, they are usually made in several basic styles from luxurious materials and decorated with glistening jewelry enhancers. The styles include: a double-handled Pullman, a top-handled satchel, a classic clutch, a messenger shoulder bag, a bracelet bag, and a petite evening bag. Crisp lines and sleek profiles define the quintessence of the brand’s image.
Superlative leathers, cut velvet, brocade, satin and beaded silk were the main materials used by Martin Van Schaak in the 1950s-1960s. The frames for his handbags were crafted per order in Paris. The roomy interiors were lined with practical calfskin or satin, in jewel tones, and signed in gold ‘Martin Van Schaak New York’.
The cornerstone of his fabulous designs is a sizable, 24K gold-plated ornament encrusted with sparkling crystal rhinestones, glass gems or colorful enamel. Whimsical and artful, they usually depict animals, birds, fish, or flowers. The uniqueness of such ornaments lies in their oversized proportions and highly artistic design. They are never static, but rather fluid and expressive, conveying motion in progress. Bold and modern in spirit, his handbag jewelry doesn’t just blend or compliment, but stands out and works in contrast with his traditionally quiet styling. Used purely as decoration on some pieces, the jeweled ornaments play a functional role on others, especially when incorporated into a handle’s design. Each ornament is attached to the body of the bag by means of special “holders” before sewing its sides together. So distinct and glamorous, the Van Schaak handbags are truly the greatest addition to your important collection of period fashion.”

And, if all that style wasn’t drool-worthy enough, Mr. Van Schaak is apparently still alive! He resides in the Houston, TX, area, and for $1,000+, you can still own one of his custom works. (One is available in pacruss’ eBay store!)

~Lainey