Dawn to Dusk: Chelli Look of CHC
Written by Amanda Harth
Photos by Felton Kizer
I knew of Chelli and her work for sometime and I always found it interesting that someone would gasp at the mention her name or her handbags. The first time I saw one of her handbags was during a shoot I did with Kizer-our Content Manager- for my denim collective at her studio. He had a black leather backpack made to carry his camera and other work things. It was exquisite. The bag was smaller than your average backpack and was gently at the top of the bag with a handle and zipper for closure, a separate pocket for storage in the front, and two slender straps to go over the shoulders. I finally met her about two years ago-warm and very funny. I figured she was a gifted designer that moonlighted as a model because of her features. She’s a driven artisan that constantly seeks growth through her creative process and has learned to welcome change as a person.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Chelli’s leather handbags is discipline. Last year she spent three months in Florence, Italy developing her craft as a leather goods craftswoman. She’s self taught. I tried sewing leather gloves before and it didn’t workout for me, so I stuck to cotton and denim. Her company CHC is a Chicago based leather goods brand-which started in 2013-that embodies a contemporary aesthetic and classic elements of design.
AH: I have a question because I don’t know the answer to it, so I’m going to ask. Chelli Look, that’s your government name?
CL: LOL, yes...mostly. My full (married) name is Michelle Look. My maiden name is Harms, which is where Chelli Harms Collection (CHC) comes from. But I married into the Look family; actually pronounced “luke.”
AH: What does your creative process began with?
CL: This is a loaded question to ask a designer; ha! The variance of answer to this is too wide to approach so I’ll leave it at: My creative process begins with a disciplined morning routine.
AH: You spent 3 months in Italy developing your craft further. What did you learn about yourself during this time?
CL: I learned about my lack of patience. Some of which has been perpetuated by the narrative in my mind and expectations I place on myself but being immersed in a very different culture allowed me to see how much I’m influenced by the American culture/narrative. I learned that my best work is done when I slow down and put complete focus on the next step in front of me and not jump ten steps ahead. I learned that lack breeds innovation as long as mindset is abundant and focused.
AH: Many designers pickup and go to New York or LA to expand their businesses. What has kept you in Chicago?
CL: I empathize and understand those that go to the established fashion cities. Quite honestly, the only reason I didn’t and haven’t is because my husband and I both felt (at least for the last 10 years) that Chicago was our home, our place to put down roots.
AH: What was the first piece you designed?
CL: A denim square crossbody bag with a white cotton lining.
AH: What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned about design to date?
CL: Design without purpose is pointless and lacks sustainability. Some title it as “play” but that’s missing the point that ‘play’ is purposeful.
AH: Where do you source your materials?
CL: I source leather and materials from Chicago, Ohio and California.
AH: Favorite bag you’ve created to date?
CL: This changes season by season...currently, the Horizon Bag.
AH: What business advice you know now, but wish you knew when you first started out?
CL: I’ve learned to stay in my own lane; that I am a Creative Director/Designer and not a business mind. If I were to begin again, I would have done so with a business partner to balance me in the areas I don’t excel so that I could solely focus on my strengths.
AH: What’s one thing you started with at the beginning of your creative process that you don’t do anymore?
CL: I used to make samples out of leather….so costly. Now I sample using faux leather or canvas so that I waste less.
AH: As an independent designer what are some of the challenges you face regularly?
CL: How long of a list would you like? Lol Some of the most common are Stable cash flow, time management, creative disciplines, consistent content, discerning seasons, maintaining creative energy.
AH: Tea or coffee?
AH: Vanity Fair or Vogue?
AH: Milan or Rome?
AH: Breakfast or dinner?
CL: Breakfast for dinner
AH: Champagne or Wine?
AH: What’s next for you? What’s next for CHC?
CL: Building my business back up as it took an expected hit after being away at leather school. I’m also working on transitioning the brand and looking to birth a second one:-)