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Published: Sunday, 7/13/2014 - Updated: 1 year ago

Light and water-resistant, cork being used in handbags, jewelry, shoes

Gold Fleck Cork and Tortoise Continental Wallet. Gold Fleck Cork and Tortoise Continental Wallet.

NEW YORK — Cork. It’s not just for wine stoppers and bulletin boards anymore.

Embraced by some progressive furniture makers decades ago and a staple in housewares, cork has found a larger place among shoes, handbags, jewelry, and other fashion accessories.

Designer Elaine Turner is a proponent of cork, which is renewable, feather light, and water-resistant. So is Ingrid Heinkel, who imports cork accessories ranging from men’s wallets to a woman’s backpack in a tiger stripe design.

Cork is popping up in umbrellas, simple apparel items like shawls, watchbands, bracelets, necklaces, hats, belts, golf bags, and shoes, shoes, shoes — moccasins, flip-flops, and Superga sneakers with neon flecks to Jimmy Choo wedges and Badgley Mischka stilettos.

And we’re not just talking soles and shock-absorbent footbeds. We’re talking uppers in double straps and gold tips from Turner and vibrant color combinations in slides, though cork is often left in its raw, recognizable state.

“I think we’re in a very natural vibe right now, and a very green vibe. Cork works with that. It’s just something unique. This season it has really hit its high point,” said Alison Minton, who blogs about accessories at Accessorygeneration.

While Ms. Minton sees cork as a seasonal item for spring and summer, Ms. Heinkel went so far as to declare: “Cork is the new leather.” Farfetched? In a recent interview, she called cork in accessories an emerging market.

Pandora-style beaded cork necklace. Pandora-style beaded cork necklace.

“I think that it’s on its way to becoming something permanent in the marketplace,” Ms. Heinkel said. Her most popular item online at Shopcorkdesign is a hobo handbag in a natural blond grain.

Renata Cork Stacked Heel. Renata Cork Stacked Heel.

Ms. Turner, fond of natural materials that also include raffia, started using cork about seven years ago to further her tropical vacation aesthetic.

“We started making bags and shoes out of it and it instantly was popular. It’s probably our No. 1 material for spring every year,” she said. “It’s a neutral and very versatile.”

Ms. Turner uses a manufacturer in Spain, a part of the Mediterranean where most of the cork supply comes from.

“It’s very malleable so it translates easily on handbags and shoes. And it’s highly durable. There are no issues with fraying or pulling apart like the raffia. People love it for travel,” Ms. Turner said. “It’s also cost-effective.”

Daniella Ohad, a home design historian, estimated that 60 percent of all cork production is for the wine industry, though the World Wildlife Fund has warned that plastic alternatives to cork wine stoppers may threaten cork oak forests of Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia, and France.

Cork is the thick outer bark of mature trees and fully regenerates over cycles of about 10 years, until quality falls off after seven cycles or so. Cork extraction is one of the most environmentally friendly harvesting methods, and cork production provides a sustainable livelihood for people in many parts of the world, according to the WWF. Portugal is the biggest producer and the primary source of diversification of cork into accessories.

Some have likened the feel of cork to suede in fashion accessories. Patterns can be built using dark and light shades. In shoes, Ms. Minton said, the cork moment began in the wedge part of wedges, but now designers “have decided to go full-on cork.”

“It’s not heavy on the foot. It’s great for the beach. It looks good if you’re walking in the city,” she said. And it transitions well, when dolled up with metal fittings and other touches, from day to evening.

The Houston-based Ms. Turner, who just opened her seventh store and the first in New York about six months ago, is considering expanding her cork offerings into jewelry. “Cork is really cross-generational,” she said. “It’s all about how you interpret it.”

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