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For Chicago artist Helena Kim, restoring vintage leather is a lesson in self-care — and in going viral

Ilana Arougheti, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Fashion Daily News

CHICAGO -- Most weekends at Chicago's Randolph Street Market, Helena Kim can be found with her head inside the lining of a vintage Coach purse. After finding and restoring more than 30, she knows a good piece of leather by touch.

Kim, 31, has built a following on TikTok for her step-by-step videos restoring vintage leather pieces from Coach. Bringing old, worn bags back to life takes a careful hand. For West Loop resident Kim, who goes by her nickname Yoonie online, caring for vintage leather has helped her feel in touch with herself and her family.

“I started to personify these bags, and kind of like take care of them,” Kim said. “I keep getting very emotionally attached to these bags as I’m working on them.”

Kim went viral on TikTok in June 2023 with a video restoring a Coach Bleecker bag from the 1990s. Now, she has over 188,000 followers and 6 million likes on the app. Her most popular video, featuring a Coach coin purse found at Goodwill in December, has 1.6 million likes and 12.6 million views.

Kim learned how to take care of leather by watching her parents, Korean immigrants who bought a shoe repair and tailor shop after arriving in Chicago in 1998.

Money was tight at first, Kim said, and her family life revolved around the shop. As her parents mended clothes and shoes, she made tiny purses or glued buttons onto leather panels. Whenever Kim forgot her house key, she would return to the store and help her dad clean and condition leather shoes.

 

Decades later, the sights, sounds and smells of the family store rush back to Kim when she sits down with a new vintage purse.

“That just really stayed with me,” Kim said. “Stacks of leather shoes behind me that needed repairing, and leather glue stuck onto the table. My mom’s in the corner hemming pants, and I’m just tinkering with little things around the shop. … I think it’s become like a comfort place for me.”

Still, Kim didn’t rediscover leather until her late 20s. An avid fabric artist, she expected to take more after her mother, who attended fashion school and was a seamstress in Korea.

Then in 2020, Kim fell in love with a bag for the first time — a mahogany Coach Bleecker bag in sorry shape.

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