By Ann Marie Scheidler
photography by Monica Kass Rogers
By Ann Marie Scheidler
photography by Monica Kass Rogers
Lake Forest’s Angela Alvarez knows beauty when she sees it.
A native of Nicaragua, Alvarez moved to the United States with her family when she was a teenager because of the war taking place in her home country. Nearly two decades went by before she had the chance to return.
“10 years passed, then 12, and I honestly thought I would never go back to Nicaragua,” Alvarez says. “On my first visit, the experience was surreal—to return and see places I had worked hard to preserve in my mind. Some places were as I remembered and others were completely different.”
It was on this trip that Alvarez had a serendipitous encounter with an artisan making handbags.
“I met this man who was making highly ornate handbags from exquisite materials with impeccable craftsmanship,” she explains. “I knew that if he was willing to simplify his designs, his product would appeal to a clientele that would appreciate his work, as well as the materials he was using. I hoped this would command a higher price and a volume that would create a consistent income he could count on. We celebrated 15 years of working together during Covid. It’s been nothing short of great.”
While Alvarez never studied fashion formally, there has always been an element of design and a true passion for color and texture in her life.
“When I was in college in Miami, I worked for a luxury shoe manufacturing firm,” Alvarez says. “We were the makers for private labels, big names of the day—Florsheim, Nunn Bush, Castañer, and others. My job was to work with Spain to source raw material. I had a good eye and spoke Spanish, English, and French. I got to experience the production process in its entirety. I translated and worked closely with the tanneries, which allowed me to become well-versed in skin and hide color, texture, and caliber. I loved every minute of the work then and I cannot believe my good fortune that I’ve been able to circle back to this industry after so many years. I know this is a God-wink and I am so grateful.”
In Alvarez’s first years working with the Nicaraguan artisan, she developed a prototype for whom she thought she could collaborate with on design and how this relationship would work. Today, in addition to producing bags in Nicaragua, she also has workrooms in Columbia and has recently started working with an artisan in the United States.
“It’s important to me that my business means something to the person who is doing the work,” she says. “If I can contribute to someone’s economy, I prefer it to be with a small outlet where there is a significant impact being made directly on the maker as a result of his/her work.”
An example of such an impact can be seen in the lives of those who are employed by Alvarez’s Nicaraguan and Colombian workrooms.
“Something I am very proud of is our K-12 scholarship program for the children of our artisans,” Alvarez says. “And in our workrooms, we have a master artisan-apprentice program. If an apprentice has the opportunity to move on to somewhere else where their lives and those of their families can be better, that’s what we want for them.”
Alvarez—married to fellow Nicaraguan Eduardo and mother to four—is especially committed to working with indigenous women in Colombia and Ecuador. Through her connections with fair trade organizations that highlight the craft of these indigenous people, she has discovered incredible hand-woven fabrics and beadwork that she has incorporated into her lines.
“I love technology! Even in the most remote parts of these Latin American countries, the artisans use smartphones,” Alvarez says. “We FaceTime and I get to see the work happening in real time. It’s made the accessibility to these artisans and the opportunity to work with them so much easier.”
Alvarez believes that by managing the growth of her business carefully, volume will not trump the quality of the bags, the impact on the makers’ lives, or the relationship she has with her clients. She currently serves a clientele throughout Illinois, New York, Florida, Texas, and Tennessee.
“I can tell if I show somebody a bag if it’s for her, about her, and the story behind how the bag has been made resonated with her,” she says. “I can also tell if she’s just trying to agree with me and that the bag will end up on a shelf. In my mind, for my business, few things scare me more than a client purchasing a bag that will never get used. I try to listen carefully and come up with a bag that will fit her lifestyle perfectly.”
Clients can meet with Alvarez and create a one-of-a-kind custom bag, or purchase one from existing inventory. If someone visits Alvarez’s showroom, they will be overwhelmed with the sheer beauty, color, texture, and stories behind each of her handbags where she has clearly thought of the many uses a woman may use her products. Everything from the mini crossbody of the moment in an exotic neutral skin, to a vibrant-colored oversized woven clutch—Alvarez has captured every woman. She has also recently debuted a sleek weekender bag that would make an unforgettable gift for the most discerning man in your life.
“I love that I get to be a part of the different stages of the making of these pieces,” she says. “I love going to Italy to source lining, hardware, zippers, adhesives—seeing the newest technology for stitching. I love working with the artisans in South America, knowing that this business is making their lives better. And I love knowing that a client has purchased a bag from me that is exactly as she wanted it to be.”
To learn more about Angela Alvarez’s bags, visit angelaalvarezdesigns.com. You may also reach her at 847-767-1814.