Nancy Gonzalez’s colorful exotic skin bags, crafted in varying shapes and styles and priced in the thousands of dollars, today adorn the arms of well-heeled women worldwide.
Yet Gonzalez never set out to be a luxury handbag designer, nor to have her trademark crocodile skin bags sold at high-end stores around the globe.
Starting out by making belts in 1989 in her native Colombia, she has let customers and vendors guide her to each new level, elevating her to the stage of top international accessories designers.
“I started because I was looking for something that I really love — it was not a business orientation or the idea of having my own company. It was more for me, inside,” said Gonzalez, seated in the lobby bar of the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort recently. “I was feeling the need to do something that I would really feel passionate about, that comes from my soul.”
Married at 17, Gonzalez had studied economics at the Universidad del Valle in Cali, while raising her two small children. She spent years being active in her children’s school.
Then, in the late 1980s, she chose what she believed to be the most beautiful material available, crocodile skin, to make belts. She traveled to Europe to find manufacturing machinery. And she chose a shop in downtown Cali for her store and second floor atelier, because she wanted to be in the heart of the city.
Within one year, she had two stores, and as the 1990s progressed, nine stores in Colombia.
“Nothing was planned,” said the petite Gonzalez, 56, who is divorced. “I started with belts, and I started with my own stores in Colombia, and then the customers said ‘We want to have bags.’”
So she shifted course, with a goal to create beautiful handbags that would be different and evoke emotion. “Something that makes you smile — a color, a touch, a detail,” she said.
Her business evolved as customers who bought her bags in Colombia traveled, and others admired them. She got calls from people wanting to know where they could buy her bags outside of Colombia.
One day, a customer from New York who ordered bags for Christmas gifts, suggested Gonzalez sell them in New York.
Gonzalez had always loved shopping for china and home goods at Bergdorf Goodman. So her customer gave her a contact there, and in 1998, Gonzalez brought in her collection: eight styles in five colors.
Bergdorf’s bought them, schooled her in the practice and timing of seasonal collections — and ignited the spark that has since driven Gonzalez’s business.
Having begun with one employee in 1989, Gonzalez’s operation has grown today to nearly 400 workers, including the artisans who manufacture 30,000 to 40,000 exotic skin bags each year in Cali.
“I don’t have fear,” Gonzalez said. “I like risks, and I make decisions very fast.”
Presented in three collections a year, with a total of 450 styles, Gonzalez’s handbags are sold at more than 400 luxury retailers across the world, including Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue in the United States, and on their websites, as well as at department stores and boutiques from London, Paris and Milan to Moscow, Beijing, Dubai and Seoul.
Locally, the bags are sold at Ida and Harry at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, as well as at Neiman’s and Saks.