The Uffizi Handbag from Helena de Natalio
Helena de Natalio makes beautiful, soft, leather bags, but there’s much more to her story! Helen, the founder, learned how to sew while in the Peace Corps, and takes pride in her socially-conscious company that’s growing- even in today’s economy!
Read my interview with Helen
Crystal: From what I’ve read, it seems like the Helena de Natalio story begins when you joined the Peace Corps?
Helen: You’re right. I was in the Peace Corps from 2003-2005 in Paraguay. My assignment was to work with the farmers’ cooperative in south Paraguay. And as a side project I also worked with women’s groups to put together a small vegetable sale, kind of like a Farmer’s Market, with local goods. And while I was doing that, I was able to interact with some local artisans who created their own handmade goods, which taught me a lot about South American artisans and inspired me to work with them.
Crystal: And you learned to sew while you were there, too?
Helen: Yes- I rented an apartment from a woman who was a seamstress. She had a little quick-e-mart, and also did alterations for people in town. She let me borrow her sewing machine and taught me how to sew.
Growing up, my mother was a teacher and wasn’t much of a homemaker; so she didn’t really sew or anything like that. So I was 24 in Paraguay when I learned how to sew!
Then, following my experience in the Peace Corps, my husband and I (I actually met my husband in the Peace Corps- he’s from Seattle.) decided to move down to Buenos Aires. And there I took leather-working classes, and started making my own designs and working with factories and artisans in Argentina.
Crystal: You also met your hubby while you were there? How did that happen?
Helen: Yeah! It was funny because we actually had friends in common in New York, but we met in the middle of South America!
Crystal: Did you have an interest in fashion before you moved to South America?
Helen: I definitely hate to admit it, but I wasn’t all that passionate about fashion growing up. Now, I realize that I always liked creative outlets, but I studied and played a lot of sports instead.
So, I think I was exposed more to the fashion world while living in Buenos Aires. People there were very fashionable. I feel like people are more adventurous in their fashion there than in the States.
The combination of living abroad, and moving to a beautiful city that was so fashionable, and living in an apartment of a very artistic expatriate who used to work in fashion in New York (he was very influential) -all of this made fashion an amazing creative outlet that I’d never had before.
Crystal: How did you choose the name Helena de Natalio?
Helen: The name comes from the name of the town where I did my Peace Corps work. The name of the town was Natalio, and my name is Helen, and so my nickname there was Helena de Natalio (Helen from Natalio in Spanish), which I thought was pretty, so I decided to apply it to my business.
Left: the women’s group Helen worked with in the Peace Corps. Right: Helen buying leather in Argentina.
Crystal: Tell me about your company’s social responsibility.
Helen: Something that is really important to me is socially responsible production. I guarantee fair wages are paid, and people have a healthy work environment- no child labor. I visit all of my production facilities and do cross-references and guarantee that they’re not sweat shops.
Crystal: Did your time in the Peace Corps influence this aspect of your company?
Helen: I think that when you live abroad in a third world country, it obviously gives you a great perspective on the world. I think you don’t really understand manufacturing until you live in that world, because what I’ve learned in the Peace Corps is that obviously we live very well here.
So I felt like one thing I could do, working in manufacturing, was to take the time to do the research. So yeah, I was definitely influenced by working with people living in different countries with different economic situations than I was accustomed to.
Crystal: What was the most important thing you learned in Paraguay?
Helen: I think I’d say exposure to living in the third world. The good thing about the Peace Corps is that you’re there for two years, so you become part of the community and make friendships. It’s not a little work trip- you really feel integrated in the community.
I feel like it really changed me and gave me a different perspective on life. Because I was fresh out of college, I’d worked for a few years, and then I went down and I had this opportunity. So, just exposure to other parts of the world- because it helps you look at the world in a different light.
Crystal: Where do you get inspiration for your purse designs?
Helen: Well, now that I’m back in the States, I was actually kind of worried because I had so many great muses and inspirations in Buenos Aires. And now, I didn’t know where I’d find my inspiration. But I feel like I’m more of a typical designer now. My experience was a little bit backwards- I studied business and economics in college. But now I do ‘tear sheets’ and take pictures of clothing. I like details – like contrasting piping on clothing or cute buttons or different textures – and I’ll integrate that into handbags. I’ve become more traditional because I’ll now study print trends, and those kinds of things.
And I still love to travel when I can. I’m hoping to go to India really soon because we’re moving some production over there. And I think that that culture and the bright textiles will really inspire me.
Crystal: Is your hubby part of Helena de Natalio, too?
Helen: Definitely- whether he likes it or not, he’s a big part of it. He works in international development, which is similar to what we did in the Peace Corps. I’m mentioning that because it’s something I’m very passionate about, because it’s what we did in the Peace Corps, and he’s turned that into a career. So he’s a sounding board for my ideas. I want to continue socially responsible production, and once we are profitable and have some money to give back, I’d like to work and donate my time to non-profits who do international development work. So we’re always discussing that. It’s interesting how our work relates to each other- like what’s going on in Argentina or India- he has to be aware of that because of his work.
But actually my father is now an active part of my business, and helps me with all kinds of things!
Crystal: What’s next for Helena de Natalio?
Helen: We’re working on a new website. That’s in the near future and should be ready by the end of this month. And we’re looking to move more production abroad because fortunately we’ve been growing a lot in this economy, and it’s been kind of hard to keep up with production. So we’re looking into India and Hong Kong to look at leathers and production facilities and hardware, and I love the idea of working with Indian fabrics-saris and petit prints.
So for summer I’m thinking of doing fabric bags with leather handles out of India. But you just kind of never know. We’re trying to keep moving forward and just trying to keep it at a sustainable growth.
Crystal: That’s really great- in three years, that you’re expanding.
Helen: It’s interesting because I know it’s a bad economy. But I think it’s a combination of the fact that I’ve surrounded myself with some great people, and I think we’re a really good price point for accessible luxury, so it’s not an $800 bag. But I feel very fortunate for sure that we’ve grown so much!