by Amy Schmidt
In 2016, we have become accustomed to fast-fashion and mass-production of goods. We expect everything to be at the lowest price, and the quickest delivery. Chelli Look, the founder and sole seamstress of CHC, a collection of handcrafted leather goods, sees things differently. She designs and crafts each piece of her collection with a thoughtfulness that is rare in today’s market. Her attention to detail and focus on functionality result in high-quality leather goods that are as stylish as they are useful. However, Chelli’s thoughtfulness extends far beyond the quality of her bags. She not only sources all the materials she uses in her bags from the United States but she also donates ten percent of CHC profits to WINGS, an organization providing services to end domestic violence and homelessness. We spoke with the very eloquent and talented owner of CHC, Chelli Look, to get more insight into what makes her mission so special.
Off Kilter: How did you get into making leather goods?
Chelli Look: I actually started making bags in high school, my sophomore year. Those were like canvas, denim fabrics. That’s where the seamstress thing came in. That was completely self-taught as well. That’s really where I got the bread and butter of learning all the basics of how to actually engineer a bag. It was truly by trial and error and practice. I was selling handbags to teachers, friends, and family, so it was kind of like my own little high school hustle. Those really helped develop that portion of the craft, and then when I stepped into college, I had taken a couple intro to sewing classes that were quite honestly pretty easy but still you always take away something from it. My sophomore year of college I found some leather at this fabric warehouse on the south side that I had gone to. I was like this could be kind of fun to play with and I made a little pouch out of it. The way that the leather draped, how I was able to sew it, the way the edges were finished, etc had a much more refined look to me. That was really more the aesthetic that I felt that it was evolving into. I’ve been working with leather for about 10 years and its still a learning craft, it’s still something I’m constantly looking to improve, I remain a student of the craft and I think that’s the only way to ever continue to grow and improve. Watching how my designs have been over the last few years there has been exponential growth in the craftsmanship, this is the most prideful I’ve ever been with a collection of just where my craft is at at this point.
OK: What inspires the aesthetics of CHC?
CL: I’m a thoughtful person; recently, someone pegged me as a “meaning maker”. I question things that don’t have purpose. And I don’t make just for the sake of making. I think especially with the minimal movement, there’s a misunderstanding of what that is. People think it’s simplified just to be simplified, but real minimalism has function and thoughtfulness to it which is what makes it so purposeful and appealing. To be able to strip away all the extra, but have something be functional and thoughtful – that’s what I love about my current collection. I really put a lot of thought into how to strip away all the added/unnecessary details and fuss but make it able to transform and be thoughtful in how somebody’s going to use it within their day. I really put thought into each and every angle of the bag, so that it’s something so that when you pick it up, seems like a simple tote bag but when you start playing with it, opening it, maneuvering it, you’re like, “Oh this works THIS way- I never would have noticed that” until you touch it and feel it and open it. My own personal style is minimal but with thoughtfulness but I also try and go off the premise of less but better. So fewer things of higher quality and that most definitely translates into my designs.
OK: For your current collection, why did you choose black leather?
CL: My whole premise was to step away from being a seasonal fashion designer. When I made this collection, I wanted it to be a semi-permanent collection; to be basics that you use everyday but with a CHC spin on them….something that’s timeless. It’s not an accessory that you’re going to transition out of every single season, but instead, you feel like you can use it each season of the year. It’s a product that’s high quality, you have a relationship with it. As consumers, we’ve lost touch (in the fashion industry) with having relationships with the things that we consume. We’re now just consuming, consuming, consuming causing so much waste. I am looking to take it back to actually having a relationship with the products you have because you treat them differently and you show them off differently and care for them differently. With it being a semi-permanent collection, I thought “what’s the most basic color people use?” So I decided to do the full introduction to the collection with that black. I’m thinking Fall/Winter, I’m going to introduce two colors, that are still neutral, in the same designs.
OK: What do you think would be the core value of someone who would purchase a CHC bag?
CL: Less but better. Intentional purchasing. There’s a lot of power in what we purchase. The fashion industry right now isn’t the poster child for being conscious about their actions behind the scenes. That is really what I’m working to bring it back to.
OK: You source materials from the United States, can you talk a little bit about how and why you decided to focus on materials produced in the U.S.?
CL: We’ve really lost touch with any type of relationship [with what we consume]. We drop our expectations for what we expect to know from a company and how they’re running their business. Not having higher expectations of businesses practices means they’re just feeding us the cheapest product the fastest way they can and we consume it because we want to be with the latest at the cheapest cost possible. It’s to the sacrifice of what’s happening on the back end. We’re in the information age; it’s not like we don’t know these things. We choose, myself included, to close ourselves off because of what we want in the immediate moment and it’s costing somebody on the back end.
I am always working on staying in the know and trying to make the best decisions I can and doing that research for my customers as a business owner so that I become a trusted source. My customers have to think less when they buy because they know I’m already doing that work for them.
OK: How difficult is it to sustain a business with your mission and your values that basically challenges what we know in the fashion/retail industry right now?
CL: It’s super tough. It’s costly to purchase U.S. materials. My major leather provider is Horween Leather Co, which is a tannery in the city, so the cool thing is that I have quick access to them. They’re a phenomenal company and they respond to anything and everything I ask. I have an immediate place of communication, whereas if I’m buying overseas there are a lot more channels to go through. It’s costly, which is why the price point goes up. Knowing this, was all the more inspiration for me to make something that’s timeless, something that’s high quality so that you’re really investing in a piece that you know you’re going to have for years to come.
OK: Another unique part of your business and mission is that you donate 10% of all profits to WINGS, how did you get involved with that?
CL: My sister was killed in 2007, and we found out after her trial in 2010, that it was, in fact, by her husband. This was an absolute shock that rocked my whole family (and his) and took a while to mourn that because the nature of it all was really tragic and painful. My sister was really influential, not only obviously in my life, but in regards to the handbags specifically. Even thinking I could make a bag when I was 12 or 13 came from her because she was four years ahead of me and I saw her in her home economics classes. She had made this messenger bag and I asked her ‘Will you show me how to make a bag?’ and as an older sister would, she said ‘No figure it out yourself’. So from that, I figured out how to make my first bag. She was always really encouraging of what I was doing, so she had a major influence in spurring me on.
When I decided to look into WINGS, I didn’t want to just throw money at an organization. For me personally, I wanted to have some other type of investment in it. I also didn’t want to get involved with an organization that I didn’t know very much about. I volunteer every Tuesday morning at one of their emergency shelters. It’s the immediate place of confidential residence that the women, men and children can come to for a set amount of time while they’re figuring out what to do next. While it can be tough at times to be so directly present in an area of brokenness in the city, I also really appreciate it because it gets me out of my immediate bubble, exposes me to the strength and resilience of courageous people and allows me to be invested in Chicago in a way I probably wouldn’t be otherwise.
Being able to donate 10% to WINGS is a total privilege. I’m so happy to do it. It’s a way of investing back into the city and it’s opened interesting doors. It’s also opened several conversations with customers that maybe have a connection with [domestic violence] or have been affected by it or are in an abusive relationship and don’t have anyone to talk to or don’t know what resources are there. Beyond the product interaction with customers, it’s opened up conversations that I never thought I’d even have.
OK: You’re originally from St. Louis, but having lived in Chicago for 10+ years, what kind of connection do you feel to the city and the fashion industry here?
CL: Chicago isn’t exactly known as a fashion city…yet… which is a tough spot to be in. I have a heart for this city. I really love this city. I love the hard work of this city. What we stand for. Chicago has this certain energy to it, that I want to fully embrace and I don’t want to be a brand that leaves. I truly believe that where the fashion industry is, in general, but especially in this city — it’s kind of like a level playing field right now. How can we, as designers, build that community, how can we look at this level ground of nothing really happening here and be the bright light of what’s going on with Chicago fashion?
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Credits: Photography by Felton Kizer