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Mass. business crafts handbags out of newspapers

By Amber Parcher
The Daily Item / June 30, 2012
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LYNN, Mass.—Five years ago, Swampscott resident Connie Carman was disconcerted seeing so many guests at the Boston hotel she worked at throw out their newspapers. Now, she has made a business out of collecting those discarded papers and transforming them into handbags that thousands of women across the East Coast wear on their arms.

"Newspaper, primarily the fashion section, it lends itself very nicely to a women's handbag," Carman said. " ... It kind of just was a natural evolution."

She founded Couture Planet four years ago. The Lynn-based business is also run by fellow Swampscott resident Kathy Cormier and Marblehead resident Michelle Kane, primarily out of a back-room warehouse in the Lydia Pinkham Building.

Plastic bins filled with regional papers are stacked to eye level in the warehouse, creating makeshift walls between their office and other local artists who rents space there.

Cormier and Kane sort through papers looking for ads and articles that fit a theme, while Carman works during the day as a retail buyer at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel.

"We try to have the bags tell the story," Cormier said.

Kane explained that they create "newspaper fabric" by layering eight pages on top of each other and treating each side with a cool-press laminate.

A contractor in Worcester sews the bags together, and the owner of Lynn's F&J Leather applies the straps, resulting in an entirely made-in-Massachusetts product.

"We're very proud of that, and we're going to stay made in America," Cormier said.

The company has reason to dream big.

They have doubled sales every year -- their bags are sold in 25 retailers in Massachusetts and New York -- without spending a penny on marketing.

They recently received a $50,000 loan from Lynn's Economic Development and Industrial Corp. to help Couture Planet launch a full-fledged company with investors, the women said.

"We're ready. We're really kind of standing at the threshold," Kane said.

But no matter how much Couture Planet grows, its owners say two of its most important pillars won't change: staying environmentally sustainable and having a connection to Lynn.

On the former, the ladies look for a green aspect to everything they do.

The Lydia Pinkham building doesn't have recycling, so they haul theirs to a recycling center, where they're in talks to turn their waste into packaging materials.

They're considering an idea to direct customers online for care instructions instead of slipping a paper card in each inside pocket. And they're also interested in creating a biodegradable laminate for the bags, the women said.

"It's part of our mission to keep a small footprint," Cormier said. "It's part of our green mission to use all natural resources."

That includes human resources.

Couture Planet partners with several job programs in Lynn and the North Shore to hire summer interns, and one of their goals is to bring some of the company's manufacturing back to Lynn.

Cormier said it feels like Couture Planet has hit on several trends at once: sustainable businesses, unique fashion and finding a community that's changing for the better.

"I think there's a lot of growing in Lynn, so it feels like, let's grow with them," she said.

Carman, the company's founder, said Couture Planet orbits around a different idea of success.

"The definition of a successful company is something that affects change for the good in the world," she said.

Her colleagues agreed.

"Five years from now, we would like to still be in Lynn, but would love to be an international company and just keep spreading the message," Kane said.

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