FASHION | 11/10/2009 12:00:00 AM
Nancy Gonzalez, an ordinary woman from Cali, has revolutionized the fashion industry with her crocodile skin purses, desired even by celebrities who pay astronomical sums to have them.
But the best part of this story is that the woman who designs and produces these bags, entirely made out of crocodile skin, is Nancy Gonzalez, an economist from Cali who began producing them 25 years ago, and has since become a symbol of high couture. Magazines like Vogue and Elle have devoted their pages to her story and one year ago the Metropolitan Museum of New York included one of her purses as one of the 65 most outstanding articles of fashion since the XVII century. “That exhibition has been the greatest honor of my life. There were no other purses” declared Nancy to SEMANA in one of the few interviews she has granted.
Although it may be hard to believe, this “caleña”, as the people from Cali are called, never thought she was going to be famous. She was never interested in accessories and hadn’t ever thought about designing purses. She enjoyed painting, cooking an dancing. She married young - wasn't even 19- and when she finished her Economics degree at Universidad del Valle she was already a mother of two who wanted a part-time job. “Nobody is going to hire you” her father in law, Francisco Barberi Zamorano, an important entrepreneur, told her. They had a good relationship and he finally named her manager of one of her companies, Corredores de Seguros del Valle.
When she turned 30, her life changed. She divorced her husband and sought economic independence. She had a thing for cooking and thought about making cookies but her sister in law, Diana Zarzur, convinced her of going down a different path. “You have always been recognized for the way you dress. Why don’t you start making belts?” she suggested one afternoon.
In no time, Nancy was making calfskin belts in her mother’s backyard. Shortly after, she decided to experiment with another material: crocodile skin. “It was a true challenge” she says, “because it was about designing on something that already has design." The belts were an immediate success and Nancy opened a boutique in Cali, which she named Encueros. The customers couldn’t get enough and shortly, she opened shops in cities like Barranquilla and Cartagena. The demand kept growing, just as the number of national and international customers.
It was precisely one customer, who ordered pieces from New York, who showed Nancy the way into high-level fashion. “You have to start selling in Manhattan. I can arrange an appointment with the people at Saks Fifth Avenue or Neiman Marcus” she offered. But Nancy went further. “I want to sell at Bergdorf Goodman” she replied.
The customer arranged the desired appointment with the president of the high-level department store, one of the most elegant shops on Fifth Avenue. Nancy was already in New York and was only able to bring two purses for the meeting. Bergdorf Goodman’s president asked Nancy to refrain from showing the bags to anybody else, and asked when she could have “a collection”.
Nancy Gonzalez, who was beyond her wildest dreams, took the bait and promised she would have 8 purses in 5 different colors in two weeks time.
Fifteen days later she went, for the second time, to Bergdorf Goodman. It was a life-changing moment. It was May 1998 and a group of executives and directors asked her for exclusivity in Manhattan, they approved the first order for October and said her name had to become the brand’s label.
Taking it all in, Nancy rushed to Robert Ballantine’s, creative director of the Metropolitan Museum of New York and requested he design the label with her name. She went back to Colombia and closed all her boutiques to focus on the international market.
It wasn’t such a bad idea. Her bags sold out in no time in New York and customers, including some celebrities, fell in love. One year, days before Christmas, Oprah Winfrey bought 250 of her purses as gifts for her friends.
Today, 11 years after Nancy Gonzalez premiered her first collection, her purses are sold next to those by Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior and can be found in elite boutiques like Isetan in Tokyo, 10 Corso Como in Milan and Montaigne Market in Paris. Nancy designs 3 collections a year-150 models in total- and has hired advisers in France and the United States. Next month, Pamela Goblin, curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris, will publish a book about her life and work.
Yet, however important the international market can be, Nancy Gonzalez’s main workshop is still in Cali. She employs 400 people an the majority are single working moms who can leave their children in the workshop’s own day care.
And the ecologists? Don’t they protest against the use of crocodile leather? Nancy says they don’t and affirms the skins she uses come from cultivated animals, who have a chance to live and grow healthily until they reach a certain size and must be sacrificed.
"Every purse or key chain I create, comes with a Swiss certificate that clarifies what type of leather was used" she says.
Even though she spends time in New York, where her son Santiago lives, Nancy spends her time traveling the globe with a notepad and pencil. Her greatest obsession is trying to make her purses comfortable. But what she most enjoys is the happiness of those who buy them. She says it quite simply. “I know nobody needs a purse. Yet, what I love is seeing how one of my bags makes a woman smile.”