Her husband’s love of surfing is what led them to leave their jobs in the mid-2000s and embark on a year-long trip chasing the world’s biggest waves.
But Angela and Jim O’Brien’s vacation, somewhat serendipitously, led to a much-wanted career change.
Angela now designs and runs a burgeoning accessories line, Cleobella, which is popular with the Hollywood set.
Cleobella opened its flagship boutique this month in low-key, cozy Sunset Beach. The couple resides five minutes away in Seal Beach, and Angela grew up in Huntington Beach, where her family still lives.
The inspiration of the line really began in Bali, the Indonesian island where the couple went to chase the surf in early 2006.
The O’Briens arrived in Bali shortly after the 2005 bombing. The island was quiet and still recovering, recalled Jim, 38.
Angela said she was inspired by the people — their kindness and welcoming nature — and by the island’s natural beauty and simplicity. Adding to its influence were the rich patterns, colors and texture of its vintage ikat fabric.
She walked the streets looking for inspiration and hunted the markets for various unique fabrics and beads.
The couple continued to chase big waves that year. Traveling from one place to another required Angela to only have a few items at a time, as well as a secure place for her passport, itinerary and lip gloss.
It was during their time in Bali that she designed the Mexicana, a large wallet with several pockets and zippers that can also be carried as an evening clutch.
Jim was to take a job in Maui the following year.
For Angela, having her own fashion line was a life-long dream, and she thought living in Maui could provide her the opportunity to finally start her own rustic, chic, boho-inspired, fringed and sometimes chandelier-shaped handbags.
“I thought I could have a business to enable me the flexibility to hang out in Maui and not work at a restaurant or a hotel,” she said. “I envisioned myself starting a business there.”
A painter from a young age, Angela started hand-sketching her designs, working with leather suppliers and then with the women who put it all together. When it was time to go to Maui in early 2007, Angela took the opportunity to sell some of her designs there.
The couple then returned to Bali in late 2007, where Angela designed a complete collection before coming back to Southern California, where the line was officially launched in January 2008 at LA Market Week.
The O’Briens now spend four months of the year in Bali, two months at a time. It’s where Angela designs a full season’s collection and works with the island’s people to bring it to life.
“Cleobella has made a difference in their lives,” she said. “They’re now buying homes and cars, and we’re contributing to their livelihood.”
The company is involved in international and local charity work, including the Illumination Foundation in Orange County, which fights homelessness.
The O’Briens continue to travel for surfing and inspiration. The spring 2012 collection was inspired by a visit to South Africa; Angela dubbed it Africana. For the fall 2012 collection, which isn’t out yet, she channeled Cleopatra and envisioned the kind of handbags and accessories the Egyptian queen would look for while on a visit to Indonesia.
On this side of the world, Cleobella’s handbags and clutches can be seen on the arms of celebrities like Halle Berry, Kate Hudson, Anne Hathaway, Fergie, Emmy Rossum and Jessica Alba. They’re sold online and at high-end boutiques throughout Los Angeles and New York, and blogged about by famous stylists like Rachel Zoe, the star of Bravo’s reality show, “The Rachel Zoe Project.”
Angela said buyers are now looking for items that are making a difference in their society.
Each bag and clutch is hand-beaded and hand-woven in Bali. And they are made using washed leathers, with some in the collection made using recycled brass and antique hardware.
“Consumers are getting smarter and want to step away from the big labels,” she said. “It’s more about the understated fashion, the craftsmanship in the product and the story behind it.”