Ara Melkonian has a very special responsibility, making bags using treasured material. And if you’ve served in the military, or know someone who has, you’ll recognize it.

The material comes from U.S. Navy uniforms that were retired in 2019. They are given new life at Las Alba, a new store in downtown Middletown.

“I feel very special, especially (because) this is coming from the Navy," Melkonian said. "That’s what makes me feel proud making this. Sometimes I do bags just to do it to make money, but this one, I do it with love.”

Quimairy Puello is a petty officer first class in the Navy, and co-owner of Las Alba.

“This is special for me being that I am in the Navy, and I’ve seen the results of war, and how it affects families,” she said. Part of all proceeds from the business go to organizations that care for veterans.

What You Need To Know

  • Las Alba was named in honor of the owners' mother, Milagros Alba

  • The store provides a consistent source of funding toward research into PTSD and veterans suicide

  • If you would like to donate old military uniforms to the store, visit them at 19 North Street, or at their website

“As you know, the family unit — if something goes wrong — it’s destroyed," Puello said. "So we thought, why not use something that a lot of times is thrown away, shredded, and do something to give back to those people that served and sweat in this uniform.”

The family unit means a lot to Puello, and her family is very involved in the operation of Las Alba. Her sister, Johanny, lives in the Bronx, but travels to Middletown whenever she’s needed. She’s the glue that keeps everything running seamlessly.

“I’m like the middleman," Johanny Puello said. "So I come here, I go to Ara, and I bring everyone together as a unit,” she said.

They’re passionate about helping veterans that suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and raising money to combat veteran suicide.

“The suicide rate is out of control,” Johanny Puello said.

Each purchase from the store provides money to local and regional organizations that support veterans. Public support, they say, is crucial. The donation of old military uniforms will go a far way to aid in their mission.

Their bags come in many shapes and sizes.

“This handbag is named "Humble," in honor of my friend who gave us the bigger donation of uniforms. He was in the Marines,” Johanny Puello said.

In just under an hour, Melkonian is almost complete with his handmade creation, one that, when purchased, will make someone’s life better. From an old Navy uniform comes a useful, long-lasting creation.

“Ninety percent of Las Albas products are made by hand. And with love. Don’t forget that,” Melkonian said.