Samantha Cooley: Heritage, Heirlooms, and Handbags
The apple doesn’t fall from the tree. When it comes to Samantha Cooley, she tumbled from a tree woven of textiles and into a field of fine leather handbags and accessories. She lovingly creates small batch and one-of-a-kind, expertly hand cut, sewn and woven leather handbags.
“I wouldn’t be here without my family. My love of textiles came from my grandmother, she was a quilter. I remember watching her quilt when I was young and listening to her talk about it, and discovering that there was a story to every piece. It also came from my mother, she was a weaver,” Samantha recalled the influence in her formative years.
Like grandmother, like mother, like daughter. It was this maternal tradition that helped Samantha to find her purpose and sparked her passion for designing fine leather handbags, purses, wallets and key chains. “We would go to quilting shows together and visit the quilting museum. I started collecting fabric and it turned into a bit of a hoarding situation,” she jested.
As an adult, she diverged into fine art photography but didn’t find it to be a fulfilling path. She said of that time, “I dabbled. I hung my work in a few shows and ended up being a wedding photographer. Someone else was dictating my work and I couldn’t find happiness in that.”
She decided to step away from it and spent some time trying to discover a more meaningful and satisfying occupation. She drifted through a few roles working in healthcare, real estate and as a compliance officer – straight edged roles that in some ways offered more fulfillment in purpose but constrained the bounds of her creativity.
“You know, that is completely not me. I’m not a big by-the-book kind of person,” Samantha explained. To help feed that creative desire, she made bags on the side for fun. “I’ve always loved to sew for fun, so I would make bags for my friends, my daughter, my niece, their friends.” It was through this creative expression that she discovered her passion, and unsurprisingly, it traced back to her early days of listening to stories about textiles and quilting from her mother and grandmother.
“The one thing I love the most is that this craft is typically handed down through the generations. Historically women had bonding experiences around textiles, like in quilting circles.” She continued, “I like finding out about stories from different regions. Learning the different ways that textiles were made, like a weaving you might find from the Navajo Nation as opposed to somewhere else – different traditions come along with it.”
Having pinpointed this passion, Samantha tenaciously jumped in. She continued her adventures with her mother and grandmother, but also started thrifting whenever and wherever she went. At the time she travelled a lot, and loved to do it, showcasing her designs all over the United States. It seemed natural – as a self-proclaimed nomad who put her heart and soul into each stitch and weave of every uniquely designed item – to call her brand Gypsy Souls. Her first line was a line of travel bags. The idea was to create a lifestyle brand – a mixture of bohemian meets the rugged west.
The simplest explanation of Bohemian culture is that it represents unconventionality. Samantha’s bags bring out unconventional beauty. “I like to emphasize the beauty in imperfect things. Just because there is a scratch or a brand, or knick in the leather doesn’t mean it’s not useable. Instead, I like to highlight and emphasize them.”
This unconventional theme carries through Samantha’s choice of materials. Textiles have been mentioned several times but these can take a variety of forms and she is obsessed with using them all, right down to old ponchos. She has always used leather although formerly the weavings tended to be the star of the show. As her skills have grown the different materials used in creating these masterpiece bags have also expanded.
The leather hides come in so many forms – natural, dyed and treated. They can be purchased in chromium tanned, veg tanned, acid washed and the spectrum of colors – like electric blue. Although Samantha doesn’t do the tanning process herself, the experience of choosing the materials is no less personalized. “The leather I use is sourced globally but purchased locally, so I can go through each hide, one by one. I look for different distress marks. I love it. Sometimes I can find a branding on it. I don’t find them all the time but when I do, I do a little happy dance,” she beamed.
The meticulous choosing of her leather-crafting materials isn’t the only thing that stands out about Samantha’s line of bags. She also loves to work directly with clients to design customs or unique gifts for their special ones. She once took a single beloved family quilt and integrated a piece of it into a series of bags for each of the family’s ladies, so they could always carry a piece of their loved one with them. A family heirloom became heirlooms – the tradition expanded.
“There is a huge difference in something being made in a factory by a stranger versus knowing that you’re buying something that someone has literally hand cut and sewn together each and every piece. It feels like sitting with my mother or grandmother and creating – there’s a lot of heart and soul. I hope people can feel that when they get a piece from me.”
Samantha has several styles of bags that you will see repeated throughout her lines. In keeping with the idea of maternal bonding and tradition, her bag designs are often named for her friends and family. For instance, the ‘Tiffany’ and ‘Annie’ bags are both named for friends. The Tiffany is designed with a hand tooled leather strap as a nod to a friend who always wears hand tooled belts; and the Annie after a friend who sports almost nothing but Sling bags.
To live within her authenticity Samantha recently pivoted her shop away from carrying a large number of products and brands from other businesses. She recognized that she was allowing her fear to prevent her from owning her craft.
“To think that I could actually create something and I could sell it and I could do it well was very scary. When it comes to leather work, I am completely self-taught – but I do have friends I can ask questions.” She continues, “Gypsy is problematic language now. I don’t want to offend anyone and I’m no longer nomadic like I was, so it just doesn’t work. My brand will be my name, Samantha Cooley Handbags and Accessories. I’m recognizing that I’m a designer and this is what I want to do.”
If you want to see Samantha’s artistry, stumble across a treasure or help create your own, you can find Samantha in her workshop boutique in Denver. You can also visit her online boutique to see her inventory and keep an eye for any upcoming events. If you want to inquire about a custom piece email firstname.lastname@example.org.
2391 S. Downing St
Denver, Co. 80210