Angela O’Brien, Founder of Huntington Beach-Based Cleobella

The brand includes multiple clothing collections, shoes, and purses, all handmade in small quantities.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

While traveling the world with her husband, Angela O’Brien designed her first handbag and created Cleobella, named after her mom. Now sold at more than 300 stores, the Huntington Beach-based brand includes multiple clothing collections, shoes, and purses, all handmade in small quantities. “We live in Seal Beach, I grew up in Huntington Beach, and my grandmother lives around the corner from us,” O’Brien says. “It’s just an idyllic place.”

How did you come up with the idea for Cleobella?
Fourteen years ago, my husband and I left our jobs and traveled the world for a year. I had always known that I wanted to create a business. We were in Bali, and I’d always been obsessed with handbags. So I decided to design my first Mexicana clutch, which is still one of our bestsellers. After our trip, we moved to Hawaii, and I sold my leather bags at (flea) markets as well as wrap skirts that I had made from recycled saris from India. We moved back to Seal Beach (in 2008). LA Fashion Week happens twice a year, and I emailed a couple of showrooms, rented space at market, and I think I just got lucky and met a lot of good people.

When did you expand to clothing?
When I was pregnant with my daughter (six years ago), I decided to make a (clothing) collection and we had a really great response. It was a huge success—our business tripled overnight, and we moved our headquarters up to Huntington Beach.

Why did you open your boutique in Sunset Beach?
We were running the business out of our home and going back and forth between Bali, and I needed a working space. I found this little 1920s cottage by the beach. I thought, if I can have an office space in the back and sell enough pieces in the front to pay the rent, then I could really move the business out of the house.

Mexicana soft clutches and wallets from Cleobella; Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Why is it important that your pieces are ethically made?
Everything I do and the way I live my life is heart driven. We live in Bali for four months out of the year, and I think the fact that we work so closely with the artisans is partly why we are so heart connected, because we’re seeing a massive impact that we’re making on their lives, and the feeling is mutual. Everything we do is under an umbrella of sustainability—we work with natural dyes, we use mostly natural fibers and upcycled fabrics … made from recycled water bottles.

What’s new this season?
We’re going to bring in some home goods—we want to do plants, pots, and a dried-flower bar in our boutique. Our latest collection is very comfortable and 100 percent organic cotton. It’s something that we’ve been wanting to do, and we’ve been doing it in a smaller way, but with COVID-19 hitting, it just really helped me to reexamine the business. I thought, if I were restarting the business now, what would be the pillars that I want to stand behind? It’s always been about the artisans, the makers, and the women—we give 1 percent of our profits to multiple women’s organizations—but also, it’s the materials and what we’re putting on our skin.

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