You can say I was born into Atenti since my mother started the company when she was pregnant with me. Soon after I came into this world, so did Atenti Fashions.
My father worked in the film industry and often filmed in distant locations, which is how my parents met. My dad was directing a movie in my mother’s home country of Argentina, and my mom was his interpreter. With my dad gone a lot, new mom Andrea started designing and making bags with her friend and partner, Adriana Vilar. They worked out of our house at first, then set up a small workshop. As a kid, I saw firsthand how designs came about from the initial ideas and sketches through the assembling of elements into a finished piece, inspired by nature, colors, textures, contrasts and harmony.
Andrea’s mother, Grandma Lola, studied fashion design and is an inspiration for us all. She could knit, crochet, sew, carve wood, sculpt, paint — and she was a great cook. Grandma Lola designed for Catalina Swimwear in Argentina for a time in the late 1940s but stopped working when she married and started a family. She did not stop creating and teaching her daughter varied and intricate handcrafts, sewing and elements of design. She also passed on a work ethic that emphasized attention to detail and striving for perfection. We still have Grandma Lola’s design notebooks, which are little treasures. Her notes on “Domestic Economy,” all in impeccable calligraphy, are another treasure.
My mother, Andrea, passed on to me many of the things she received from her mother, in particular that “strive for perfection” work ethic. But, unlike Grandma Lola, Andrea did not back away from her creative aspirations to become a mother. Quite the opposite. Andrea used the occasion of motherhood to become a woman entrepreneur. She used flexible work-from-home hours to start a small company with her friend Adriana. (Adriana retired from the partnership about 10 years ago, and the two remain best friends.)
I always say that I think I could sew before I could read. As we grew up, my sister and I often spent after-school hours and days off at Atenti. We would play in the Atenti shop, rummaging through the trim basket beside Estela’s cutting table for fabric scraps that we could then use to make Barbie clothes or hair accessories. Estela still works with us today and fondly remembers us playing in the shop. I love hearing her stories.
I grew up in a world of colorful textiles, fashion and creation, feeling connected to strong women who always said: “I can make that!” I took that as literally as they did and was never afraid of a pair of scissors when altering my thrift store and garage sale finds. I once made a dress out of a pillowcase, threw a belt on it and wore it to a photoshoot.
And then there’s Halloween. I have never purchased any of my Halloween costumes: cartoon Harley Quinn, Mad Hatter, Steampunk Airship Pilot, Edward Scissorhands, Morticia Addams or Cruella de Vil, with a white-and-black boa wig.
My father made model trains and taught all the kids about miniatures with our fourth grade California mission projects. My love for miniatures and details starts there. I make miniatures by hand from found/bought objects. A button can take on a new life as a tiny tabletop or a broken purse foot can become a dollhouse-size lamp shade. I believe this helps me find a new perspective in other elements, including new trims for the bags and discovering fabric combinations. Detailed work can be seen in our designs and production at Atenti. Most bags we embellish with handmade or curated trims and reimagine materials in unexpected ways.
Our fabric selections, attention to detail and our handmade process attracted knitters, needlepointers, crocheters and other fiber arts people several years ago. While most of our bags function well as project bags for needle arts, we also offer needle cases, various pouches, caddies and other accessories tailor-made for craft artists.
My daughter Gianina (Nina) is now the face of Atenti as I am starting to move myself into retirement. I’m confident that at this point, Nina understands all that is necessary to direct the company and, in fact, surpass our previous levels by bringing the company to social media and giving it unprecedented popularity. Nina is full of life and charm, with a savvy eye for design, trends and moods.
With a degree in theater and anthropology, along with her youth, Nina understands the effect of era, culture and image on the modern woman. She also loves photography, which she learned from her filmmaker dad. She designs and shoots all her videos. She composes her photos and product shots and works with professional photographer Spencer Dryden. She also designs graphics and oversees the company’s ad campaigns. She is constantly learning new social media possibilities. I’m very proud of her and the way Atenti is transitioning under Nina’s fresh direction.
Our design process starts with the one element Mom and I cannot create on our own. This is where our fabric reps come in. They visit us periodically and show us new lines from national mills and importers. A ripple of excitement goes through both of us when we know we are onto something. Right away, we start envisioning shapes, trims, complementary elements, colors and textures. While we custom-make many of our elements, like strapping, piping and embellishments, the textiles themselves are one of the only elements of our designs not fully in our control.
On occasion, we have been able to order a fabric woven to fit our needs, but for the most part, being a small company, we do not have the luxury of designing our own fabrics. Therefore, the search for that perfect textile takes on major significance. We strive to source our fabrics from U.S. mills. This not only contributes to our “USA-made” ethos but also makes turnaround time for our woven-to-order fabrics shorter. We buy in small quantities and produce our bags in limited runs. This allows us to keep the line fresh and varied. Every Atenti design is essentially a limited edition.
We review fabrics in the form of headers — small square or rectangular swatches grouped by design, displaying the colorways. If we really feel confident in a fabric upon this initial presentation, we will order sample yardage at that moment. We will not order a large piece before we can explore the textile’s properties and design viability. This is a must. No matter how much we like a fabric, we have to make certain assessments: How are we going to combine it? Do we have, or can we find, just the right tones for trims? Will it go through our machines? Is it too thick? Too stretchy? Is the repeat suitable for our designs, or will there be too much waste? We love making unexpected fabric combinations, so we need time to play with all of the elements before ordering production yardage. These combinations have become a signature of Atenti.
Mom and I usually design together but sometimes each on our own. Our aesthetics can be quite different, but we have the power to understand each other, respect each other and trust the other. Having the workshop with its big tables and all the strapping, hardware, embellishment options and trim fabrics at hand, we get to work and play. I personally like to be alone on design days to avoid distraction — yes, but really so I can make a complete mess of our shop while blasting music and dancing my way through designing. I like to have a few different variations of each to show my mother when she shows me her designs.
The fabric usually tells us what shape/shapes to put it in. We also pay attention to the mood/feeling the textile gives us. It might present a very clear/linear/obvious direction where it can live elegantly and comfortably. It can equally beg for the rules to be broken, to be put in a body that contrasts its qualities. A fabric that might be more rugged and gritty may ask to be put in one of our more feminine body designs with soft lines and whimsical undertones. Conversely, a pattern with an overtly feminine motif may be better suited for a more masculine/androgynous shape. I like to set masculinity and femininity in contrast with one another in my designs.
One of the last bits of our process is laying out the embellishments for the bag. Out come various buttons, conchos, a beaded leather thong, varied tassels. Our “Llama Ear Tassels” are made by hand with different-color yarns and sometimes beads. These unique multicolor tassels are inspired by those crafted by Indigenous Andean artisans, who use them to decorate their llamas and alpacas.
Once we have a new line, it’s time to take the photos. I take all of our product shots on my phone in our shop. My close friend and photographer, Spencer Dryden, and I have started doing gorilla-style photoshoots on the weekends out of my car. These images provide us content for social media, our website and advertisements/promotion.
Our usual production runs are four to 12 of a kind at a time. Each bag is cut, sewn, trimmed, decorated and packaged by hand in-house, which assures quality, attention to detail and uniqueness. Keeping production in-house actually allows us to use more expensive fabrics by ensuring care is taken to minimize waste.
Our process for larger clients like Sundance Catalog is similar but diverges to accommodate their timing/season and their specific themes. Samples are made and presented, and once styles are chosen, we schedule out the procurement of the various elements and production time. Of course, the runs tend to be much larger than four to 12 units.
“Atenti is not fast fashion, and I am proud of that.” — Nina
From offcuts of fabric to offcuts of plastic to offcuts of cardboard, we try to not waste anything and keep a low carbon footprint. The women of Atenti make sustainable quality handbags and project bags in the United States that bring joy and are functional, wearable art that will not fall apart or go out of fashion.