by Whitley Adkins
photographs by Amy Kolo
Wedding cake designer Kathy Allen loves purses — so much so, she has dedicated an entire room in her south Charlotte home to her beloved pocketbooks, as Allen refers to them. Born in Michigan, Allen lived in California and Oklahoma before her father’s work in the hotel business brought the family to Charlotte when she was 18. Before long, Kathy met her husband, Randy, a land developer. The couple have three adult children, Kendrick, Lawson and Graham.
NO STRANGER TO FASHION
Allen was a model for many years with the Mannequins of Charlotte, an exclusive local modeling club in the ’70s and ’80s. “We did runway shows and TV work. … Liz Hilliard, Maria Plumides, all those gals, all those years. Belk brought Oscar de la Renta and all the famous designers here for ‘Serenade to Autumn,’ [an annual fashion event] at Ovens Auditorium. It was really, really big in our city.”
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
Professionally, most Charlotteans know Allen through her namesake business, Kathy Allen Fine Cakes. Allen’s entrepreneurial career started when she opened Plants Alive, a florist and plant shop on Park Road, when she was 21. After the landlord sold the building, she closed the business and opened a Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop on Selwyn Avenue in the same shopping center where her daughter Kendrick now owns KK Bloom boutique. “I iced all of my ice cream cakes and thought, ‘Oh gosh, I want to learn the art of making these flowers I saw in the magazines.’” Eventually, she studied with several well-known cake designers, including Nicholas Lodge, the pastry chef who worked for the Royal family and created one of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s official wedding cakes. Twenty-seven years later, Allen is one of the most respected cake designers in Charlotte.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Allen’s grandmother was her earliest fashion influence. “My grandmother was from Czechoslovakia and moved to the South when she was young. She was the prissiest little thing you’ve ever seen, and she told me from the time I was young, ‘Kathy, you always have a pretty pocketbook and pearls around your neck. That’s Southern charm.’”
Fast forward to about 1980, when Allen was vacationing in Hawaii with her husband, “I went into a store, and a lady said, ‘You’re dressed so pretty, you need a nice bag for that outfit.’ I thought my bag was pretty — it was everything I needed at the time. She took me two doors down to the Chanel store. I didn’t buy [anything] — I was looking and admiring and wanting to learn. … I got my first Chanel purse when I was 40.”
Allen’s collection grew after she discovered there were auctions for purses. For every holiday, including birthdays, “I wanted a pocketbook. It was easy to shop for me,” she says.
Allen realizes that some might view her purse collection as extravagant, but she emphasizes the importance of helping others who are less fortunate. When her late son, the only survivor of quadruplets born to the couple in 1985, lost his vision at 6 months old, the school he attended couldn’t afford braille paper. The Allens began making monthly donations to the Metrolina Association for the Blind. “And we still do,” Allen says. “Giving is very important to us.”
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me how this room came to be. At what point did you say, “My bags need a room?”
These two rooms were add-ons — the master bedroom and this room — about 20 years ago, and that’s when I said this was the perfect size for my pocketbooks. I got this vintage brass piece that holds my bags from Slate.
Is there a process for selecting a bag?
A lot of times I will get an idea from a picture I see in a magazine, and I will search for it. … I try to look for things that are different but useful for my needs. … I don’t mind carrying something flashy during the daytime. I’ll take Judith Leiber to lunch. I like them, and they make me feel good, and people like to look at them.
Have you purchased many vintage bags?
Yes, many. I buy them not because they’re vintage but because they’re different, and the quality is there. With Judith Leiber, especially, the originals are made so much better. Everything was hand set, every little stone. … If you lost one single stone, they would replace it. … Every one of her originals had a little comb, mirror and coin purse inside of them.
Are there any other brands you like?
Dior. Also, I love Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada and Jimmy Choo. I love my Valentinos with the bows.
What about the luggage?
It’s Mark Cross. I bought this at auction about 15 years ago. I paid about $30,000 for the set. It’s crocodile — I think it was probably used for a private jet. The quality is amazing.
Okay, I have to know — do you have an exit strategy for all these bags?
Now, you have to remember I have two daughters who LOVE this pocketbook room, and I do not loan them to anyone.
But one day, will they have access to this collection?
Yes, yes. In December, Randy and I both had Covid. My girls came to our rescue. Every day, there was something on our front porch — flowers, food, every day. I was so overwhelmed with their kindness. For Christmas, I gave them each a Chanel bag, their favorites from my collection — like new, the box and all. SP