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Fort Worth entrepreneur’s handbags going global

Leonor Salazar (on left) and niece Ana Maria Plata with one of the Kuna artisans who hand-sew the traditional molas that are incorporated into every Leonor handbag.
Leonor Salazar (on left) and niece Ana Maria Plata with one of the Kuna artisans who hand-sew the traditional molas that are incorporated into every Leonor handbag. Photo by Juan Jose Arango

When a brightly colored leather and fabric bucket bag won an international design award this summer, the victory celebration stretched from the awards podium in New York City to bamboo and coconut-frond huts halfway across the hemisphere.

That’s because the Múcura bag by Fort Worth-based Leonor incorporates the work, hopes and aspirations of a dedicated team across North, Central and South America.

On June 17, their work was rewarded with a coveted Independent Handbag Designer Award presented by InStyle magazine and Handbag Designer 101 in the category of “Most Socially Responsible Handbag,” a win that could bring big opportunities to everyone involved.

“The requirements of this category were that the bags were made in a developing country, and that we were working hand-in-hand with artisans in different communities with good working conditions,” explains Leonor Salazar, the local entrepreneur behind the Leonor brand. This is certainly true for the Múcura bag and every bag in the Leonor line.

Every Leonor bag begins with a cotton fabric panel called a mola. The mola is a traditional handicraft of the Kuna Indians of the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of islands between Panama and Colombia. The Kuna women sew each mola by hand from layers of colored fabric, using crafting skills passed down through generations, creating elaborate, mostly geometric designs.

Salazar works directly with Kuna women on the islands, buying completed molas that incorporate traditional colors like orange and red and commissioning others using nontraditional color combinations like black and white, always paying market rates or higher, she says.

“We are also trying to work with government officials to help us give back to the Kuna community to makes sure these traditions are kept alive,” she says.

But the bags are about more than just molas. They’re also multifunctional, modern and chic, thanks to Salazar’s niece, Ana Maria Plata, who works full-time designing Leonor bags in Bogota, Colombia, her home base and Salazar’s hometown.

A trained industrial designer and veteran furniture and home accessories design expert and trend forecaster, Plata makes sure that Leonor bags are always fashion-forward while remaining functional.

“These bags are made for women who appreciate art, color and unique bags,” Plata says. “The woman who carries this bag doesn’t want a bag that everyone else has.”

Plata selects all of the leathers that complement each of the molas with her specific designs, and she works directly with a family of leather workers in Bogota who assemble and hand-finish each bag. She also makes sure each style includes a little “something extra” — delighting dedicated bag lovers with a chain to transform a clutch into a cross-body, a hidden mirror or a luxe suede lining.

Commitment to quality

Leonor is not a new venture. Salazar and Plata had a line of mola-themed shoes and a few handbag designs that saw some success some years back, but they decided to relaunch the brand with a renewed commitment to quality and style.

Focusing solely on handbags (for now), they are working more closely than ever along with the artisans along every point of production “to ensure that every detail is spot on, every detail is perfect,” Plata says. This level of diligence ensures consistency across the line, but Salazar stresses that each bag remains a one-of-a-kind creation.

“No two bags are the same,” she says, “because no two molas are alike.”

Coming soon, Salazar says, are new packaging, new marketing and a new website designed to accommodate global sales, both retail and wholesale.

“When people buy a bag from us, they will receive a full experience,” she says.

That entire process has been put on fast-forward thanks to the Independent Handbag Designer Award.

“With this award, everything is changing for us,” Salazar says.

Case in point: As a result of the win, Salazar and Plata have been invited to send the Múcura bag in September to a Fashion 4 Development-sponsored luncheon with international first ladies who are working in fashion development at the United Nations. Also in the works are trade shows in New York City and Paris next year.

It’s all part of their plan to spread the word about the Leonor brand — the story and the style.

“This is something so special,” Salazar says. “We want to take it from Fort Worth and Colombia to all the countries of the world.”

Where to shop

Find the Múcura bag and other Leonor handbag styles, priced from $200 to $270 at www.handbagdesigner101.com; click “Shop the Handbag Awards,” located at the top of the page and enter “Leonor” in the search field to easily access the full range of bags. For more information, contact info@leonordesigns.com.

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