Making waves with fashion

Sunset Beach boutique features work by couple who went to tour surfing spots worldwide, then launched handbag line.

April 18, 2012|By Mona Shadia
  • Angela O'Brien and husband Jim created Cleobella, a handmade accessory line business, after being inspired by a trip to Bali, Indonesia. The Seal Beach couple spent a year traveling around Southeast Asia.
Angela O'Brien and husband Jim created Cleobella,… (KEVIN CHANG, HB…)

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.

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