KleinLife Bubbe Knitters Clutch to Newfound Purpose in High Fashion Handbag World

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Toby Strogatz | Photo by Debra Somerville

Like most expensive fashion products, if you peek inside a designer bag, you’ll usually find a number dictating the person who stitched it.

But it may come as a surprise to see that each luxury Mim & Ray handbag — varying in colors, sizes and Italian leathers — was knitted by a KleinLife senior.

Toby Strogatz started the program at KleinLife to give meaning to their lives — and a paycheck.

The bags begin in KleinLife knitting circles, with panels shipped off to Italy for the finished product.

Strogatz’s first taste of KleinLife was teaching yoga therapy to seniors, but she noticed another program in which women knit together every day.

“How lovely it was that they would sit and knit and talk,” she thought.

Strogatz later became a positive psychology practitioner — the science of happiness — and used the tools she learned on the KleinLife community.

“I learned a lot about seniors — how important it is for them not to isolate, to be able to have camaraderie, and be in a community where they can all talk and have conversation and just be connected,” she said. “It makes them feel like they have value again.”

The group began with only four women, who made patterned wool panels. Now, the group is up to 37, covering KleinLife locations in the Northeast, Elkins Park and Center City.

Panels go through a process of felting, which is washed and stretched to bond them, and then shipped to Italy — 900 were sent in the first shipment, resulting in 600 bags, which are stocked in its Miami warehouse.

Seniors knit together once a week, but many take extra panels home for their “assignments,” if they like, for which they receive 26 cents per inch.

“It changed their lives,” Strogatz said, “because a lot of them have outlived their money, lost families and don’t have a lot of people in their life.”

Inside each bag is a card detailing the “young-at-heart senior” who knitted it.

“Each handbag brings a sense of purpose, friendship, a financial reward to the artisans,” said Strogatz, who is on the KleinLife board. “They feel like people again.” A lot of the women have knitted before for charities, but the little bit of income has given them purpose again.

The brand is licensed by TobyStephen Designs — the company she created with her partner Stephen Klein — and the profits go directly back to KleinLife programming.

The Mim & Ray brand is a tribute to KleinLife’s philanthropic founders Miriam and Raymond Klein — Stephen Klein’s parents — who built the center in 1975.

Although handbags occupy the forefront of the nonprofit, its purpose is to enhance the quality of life for seniors.

“When people are happy, little things like smiling, laughing, really can bring longevity to your life,” she said.

It warms her heart to see these women connecting, especially after her mother passed 18 months ago from dementia.

“She was sort of isolated. She couldn’t drive anymore, she couldn’t go out,” she recalled, wishing there was a KleinLife for her in Florida, which is why the senior knitters pulled at her heartstrings so strongly.

Mim & Ray launched in May, and down the road Strogatz hopes to have the entire bag made in the U.S.

The collection has been displayed at trunk shows across the U.S., including Nicole Miller, and is sold in some stores like Joan Shepp. Bags are mainly purchased online.

It’s too soon to tell how much has been raised thus far, she noted, as the company is still new.

By 2050, the number of Americans 65 and older is projected to be 88.5 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, who Strogatz said often have no families or jobs as they get older, so she hopes to eventually spread this KleinLife model to the rest of the country.

Each bag — ranging from $125 to $785 — is named after a family member close to Strogatz and Stephen Klein, like the Lilly Bag to honor her mother, or the Mim Tote made of alligator, Miriam Klein’s go-to style.

Strogatz’s daughter, Jennifer, is her co-designer, creating varied and colored pieces in hipster, crossbody and tote styles.

Strogatz even designed a “yes” bag — the SK Yes Wristlet — in honor of her partner Stephen Klein because “whenever I come up with something, he says yes,” she laughed.

Now, Strogatz and the knitters have the system down pat to a fine-oiled machine, eager to contribute to more trends.

“The items are beautifully handcrafted, great prices and the fact that they’re knitted with love by these wonderful seniors, people love the story,” she said.

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