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Conni Reed of Consuela Designs

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Recipe for success: Take the class of Coco Chanel, combine with the tropical-beach vibe of Tommy Bahama, add the sass of Betsey Johnson, then mix together in equal parts for a unique and memorable look. This is the art of the unmatched, as practiced by Austin designer Conni Reed.

By Deborah Hamilton-Lynne

Recipe for success: Take the class of Coco Chanel, combine with the tropical-beach vibe of Tommy Bahama, add the sass of Betsey Johnson, then mix together in equal parts for a unique and memorable look. This is the art of the unmatched, as practiced by Austin designer Conni Reed.

Reed’s studio and workspace, located above the new flagship Consuela store on Congress Avenue, reflects her creative vibe. The railing is covered with all types of bags from Reed’s new signature collection debuting in mid-September, and the table is covered with sketches, fabrics and embroidery samples for a collection yet to be designed. The floor is also covered with fabrics, vinyl and leathers, as well as various bags from several collections. Throughout the space, the eye is assaulted by color. The exception is the woman herself, who prefers to wear no makeup and stick to neutral colors in her everyday life.

“I prefer neutrals,” Reed says. “I am a tank-top-and-jeans kind of girl, and I like to make a statement and add a pop of color with accessories.”

And make a statement she does, with a wide array of fabrics and materials, ranging from stripes in bold lime green, to comical Mexican wrestlers and woven Navaho stripes, to classic gingham and distressed leather. Her new signature collection is made entirely of Italian leather. While it does include classic shapes made in three shades of buttery soft-brown leather, it also includes a lavender alligator look and aqua and chartreuse florals. There is no walking by an aqua floral bag adorned with bright-red straps without a second look. Make no mistake: The combinations are intentional. The combinations are not mismatched. They are the physical embodiment of Conni Reed practicing the look she has trademarked—the art of the unmatched—a look Reed says has been imitated unsuccessfully because others “can’t get the art of the unmatched because it comes from within me.”

To understand the art of the unmatched and where it came from, you have to know the story of Consuela Designs and Conni Reed’s journey. Living in Waller, Texas, a small town outside of Houston, Reed had a childhood marked by troubled parents, who eventually divorced when she was 13. The youngest of three, with a seven-year age gap between her and her siblings, Reed was essentially on her own from the age of 15. Moving first with her mother to Boulder, Colo., and left alone when her mother moved in with a boyfriend, she returned to Waller, where she lived alone in her father’s office, fending for herself, eventually becoming the victim of a violent crime. Artistic by nature, her creativity began to unfurl in Boulder.

“This is where the art of the unmatched was born in my mind and sensibilities,” Reed says. “It was part of my life and personality, small-town Texas and big-city Boulder, the heat of Texas and the cool of the mountains.”

Reed’s love of color also sprang from memories of yearly trips she took with her father to interior Mexico prior to her parents’ divorce.

“We would drive around in a beat-up VW and I took it all in,” she says. “The tiles, the dirt floors and the stucco. I loved the bright colors of the flowers against the neutral colors of the landscape. I was drawn to the women and their vibrant clothing, the embroidery. None of it matched but magically, it all came together and worked. I loved Mexico. For me, it was a happy place.”

Reed’s traumatic childhood was the foundation for her personal journey and the founding of Consuela designs.

“I was trying to overcome the past and find a way to relate to people. I wanted to create a way to connect and find the love I didn’t receive,” Reed says. “That is why my lifestyle brand is important to me. I want to relate to every woman and let them know that I know that you never know what someone may be dealing with. Everyone has a story.”

Other qualities that came from her childhood—creativity and tenacity—served Reed well, as she was determined to get a college degree. Although it took her 10 years to put herself through school while working full time as a waitress and bartender, she became only the second person on either side of her family to receive a college degree, graduating from Texas A&M with a degree in computer science.

Although she had always been into fashion and began creating unmatched outfits at an early age, Reed opted for the “good job with benefits and a salary where I could pay my bills and eat,” a job with Compac, which would later become HP. Although she was initially drawn to “every leather-jacket-wearing bad boy I could hook up with,” she eventually met the love of her life, Clay Reed, who became her husband. They moved to Dripping Springs, where he started a business and she telecommuted in a managerial position for HP.

It was on an annual vacation to Cozumel that Reed came to terms with the unhappiness in her life.

“Children weren’t going to be in the cards for us. I had a late-term miscarriage with complications. I was miserable in my job. We were in Cozumel, and I was so happy. This was the place where I got the feelings of peace and love that I needed,” she says. “I was getting wonderful visual stimulation to fuel my creativity. I was filled up with joy. I wanted that feeling every day, not just for one week out of the year. I decided to come back and quit my job. I knew I wanted to create a lifestyle company, and that is when the seeds for Consuela were planted. I came back, made the leap of faith and incorporated Consuela in 2005.”

Although she had no background in the fashion industry or formal training in design, Reed had drive and a vision. She felt that her personal journey could encourage others to break out of their ruts and find a purpose and joyful place. Starting with a booth in Canton, Texas, where she sold one-of-a-kind art pieces and bags, Reed went from “selling things in a barn,” to her first tradeshow in Dallas in 2008, from which she returned with an order for 400 bags. She opened her first 30 accounts and never looked back. The growth of her company took her to Mexico, India, China, Greece and most recently, Roatan—journeys she would have never taken if she were still working for HP.
“I would have never done these things and met so many people all over the world if it hadn’t been for Consuela. Travel opens your eyes and your heart. I am forever changed,” she says.

Focusing on her mission of creating and embracing the Consuela lifestyle, Reed has not let her lack of formal training hold her back. Incorporating practicality and originality in her designs, she has created stand-out collections loved by her customers. She saw her corporate friends going to work in their blacks and neutrals, and decided to give them a smile on their faces and a spring to their steps when their carried her happy, vibrant bags. She designed for the soccer moms who needed a large, durable tote but also wanted a little fun in their look. Whether it was a computer or a first-aid kit and Gatorade they needed to carry, the Consuela tote became part of their everyday ensembles, and is still the best-selling bag in the line today.

Describing the woman she is designing for, Reed says, “I am designing for every woman, and I know that sounds cliché, but I am designing for the woman who is young at heart, approachable and playful. I am designing for the woman who is independent, strong and embraces her unique personality. I hope that the love that is poured into designing and making these bags will come through as energy the women who carry them will share. You cannot carry one of our bags and not have people think anything except that you must be kind of fun.”

Although her designs are whimsical and fun, Reed also takes the practicality and the quality seriously. A lot of thought goes into each bag, with functionality at the top of the list. The inside is as carefully executed as the “skin,” with the intention being to create a durable and multi-purpose bag. While some bags can serve as a wallet and a clutch, each bag comes with a shoulder strap for hands-free comfort.

Fashion sensibility is at the top of Reed’s list of her four pillars, which make up the Consuela lifestyle brand.

“Our four pillars are look good, laugh easy, lift the world and live in color,” she says. “Look good is the first because I always want the product to be relevant in the fashion world. I want to be known as an awesome design house, no matter what your level of fashion sensibility. I love high fashion and, although we are fun and funky, I want to be considered at that level as well.”

The journey continues as Reed launches her signature collection mid-September and reopens her expanded flagship store Sept. 29. The company that started on a bootstrap budget with one-of-a-kind products manufactured at her home in Dripping Springs has grown to include product availability at more than 1,000 stores nationwide and an online presence at consuelastyle.com. With plans to expand on both the East and West Coasts nationally and to Latin America, Reed is looking to spread the word about the Consuela lifestyle. In addition, she plans to launch a philanthropic arm, Powered by Consuela, which will create and support initiatives that align with her mission of helping people empower themselves. As it says on the bottom of the thank-you card included in each Consuela bag, “Anything is possible. Now you follow your dreams.”

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