Martin Van Schaak hardly ever advertised, and did not sell his designs in stores. His important customers—ladies of means and fame—usually discovered 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 raspberry walls. After discussing a client’s preferences, Mr. Van Schaak would set up a date 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 handbags cost upward of $125. You could also buy his stock handbags produced in limited editions. A man of sophisticated taste, he believed that black, beige, navy and brown—especially the chocolate brown, with no red hues—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 Texas clientèle—in winter and early spring. “During those months, there isn’t a soul in New York who can afford my pocketbooks,” noted Mr. Van Schaak. “Besides, America has a lot of chic women outside of New York, and they deserve to have beautiful things.” Among his most prominent clients of the 1960s were actresses Dina Merrill and Marie Oberon, as well as Mrs. John F. Kennedy. To his delight, shortly before her trip to India in the 1960s, Jacqueline Kennedy invited Mr. Van Schaak to visit her at the White House, and purchased eight handbags from him at that time.
Early in his career, he had shops at various addresses on Madison Avenue in New York City, but eventually gave them up because of the “lack of the temperament to be a shopkeeper,” as he admitted himself. He was also offered an opportunity to sell at Neiman Marcus and considered it briefly, but then told Stanley Marcus that he would rather know personally the women he created for.
I also learned that despite his very busy schedule, which included numerous sales trips across the country to visit with his high clientèle, Mr. Van Schaak was actively involved in charitable activities, conducted by prominent members of the New York society.
In the early 1960s, among collections of other contributors— important designers from New York, Florida, Chicago, and California—he provided his precious handbags for the Christmas shopping center, 'Les Boutiques de Noel'. It was arranged at the New York townhouse of the Baron and Baroness Philippe de Rothschild, located at 161 East 70th Street. The proceeds from the sale were donated to the Cancer Care of the National Cancer Foundation.
As we learned from the Martin's dear friend of many years, author Carla Kerr, he was very private in his personal life, and loyal to his friends, with whom he stayed in touch for years. He spoke five languages, and liked to chat with ladies to learn more about their lives, and what they liked about his purses. He was very active long into his late eighties, after moving from New York to Texas, where he passed away in 2010. Carla has many wonderful stories to tell about her long friendship with Martin, and hopefully her memories will be published soon to be shared with us, his fans and admirers.
Today, Martin Van Schaak’s vintage handbags are the most exclusive collectibles rarely available in the secondary market. Each represents a keen understanding of the materials and the virtuoso use of various textures and colors—to communicate the utmost harmony! Every Van Schaak handbag is a smart investment worth from hundreds to thousands of dollars, when in pristine condition—an important slice of international period fashion to add to your expert collection with pride!