Chelli Look of the Chelli Harms Collection
Filmed & edited by Andrew Loewen
One Sunday morning a couple years ago, Chelli Look shared about her faith journey at our church. We had not yet met, but I remember welling up in the back row. She spoke powerfully about pain and forgiveness. How God's in the business of healing and redeeming. How He is her savior.
Fast forward a couple years, Chelli has been busy with her luxury leather accessories company Chelli Harms Collection. This past January, Chelli and I were both asked by our church to share about what God had been revealing to us during that season. Among many things, we learned we were both INFJs that day, and God put it on my heart to reach out to her. In addition to being a fan of her work, I was moved by her faith. So in May, my husband Andrew and I visited her amazing CHC studio. We were honored to interview her in that sacred space, but more so encouraged to hear how God's using Chelli's craft to do His work, how he's teaching her to worship Him through it all, and how she's learning how to steward her business with integrity and style.
How does your faith inform your work?
Something He’s shown me is how worshipful my craft really can be with Him, and it’s not just a worshipping on a Sunday morning thing, it’s worshipping with my hands.
You know how sometimes He’s teaching you something and you don’t even realize it until maybe one moment. And you look back and you think, “Oh wow, you were teaching me this all along the way.” One moment, in particular, helped me realize it. I had a show coming up, and I had over 20 bags to make in two days. And just the overwhelming thought of having to get all of this work done in a short amount of time, and do it really well. Because I don’t like to rush through what I’m doing, I want to make something really excellent. I had cut everything one of the nights, and it was all laid out on the floor perfectly ready for the next day. I came in that next morning, and I felt this weight of feeling so overwhelmed by what I had to do. I leaned up against the wall and was literally crying, feeling the weight and pressure. And I was like, “I don’t know what to do.” And I just had this little—I wouldn’t say whisper—but an inspired thought, where He was like, “Just worship today. Just spend the day with me, and worship with your hands. Just do that.” And it completely shifted how I viewed my day. I came out from behind the wall and looked at the pile of things laying there, and I was like, “Oh. This is literally a day to spend with Him. This isn’t a bunch of work I have to get done." He’s created this amazing space for me to be in, just me and Him. It was learning that my craft is worship to Him—time spent creating and getting inspired and realizing that He’s teaching me to create. He is the Ultimate Creator. I’m an image-bearer. So I get to be a part of something He does all the time. It informs my work on many levels, but [specifically] learning how to worship with my craft.
Aside from the obvious challenges of both owning and running a business, can you speak to the more nuanced areas of growth you’ve experienced while building your CHC brand, giving back, and creating a sustainable business model?
I’m no longer trying to go through other shops and boutiques. Now my focus is direct-to-consumer. So making sure that it’s small-batch, it’s catering to slow fashion, and it’s catering to what my customer wants. I'm focusing on quality and aesthetic and creating timeless pieces that I know she’s going to love and are worth her investment.
But the bigger message—that I realized was really on my heart—that I didn’t really know was there is the idea of conscious consumerism. Putting thought into what you’re actually purchasing. So my heart is to really focus on how I can I bring the best product to my customer, but it’s something she can put her money into knowing it’s U.S.A.-sourced, it’s Chicago-made, and it’s giving back to somebody. But that doesn’t leave out really beautiful design and really beautiful craft.
I want to approach with the mentality that [my products are] sourced consciously, made well, and they're giving back. It’s resetting my pricing structure, redesigning my line, really focusing on website to in-studio events. The whole experience being about my customer and really infusing the creativity back into it without trying to be picked up by somebody. So now, it’s CHC and our customer.
What do you enjoy most about the work you do and the leather goods you craft?
It’d have to be two things:
- Obviously the creating. When I get in the zone and it’s just what I’m doing. It’s the most liberating incredible experience high I can have in life.
- Connecting with people. While I’m an introvert, that connection and that face-to-face, that one-on-one is so invaluable. That’s actually one of my values is connection with people. I remember asking my dad—who is a successful business man—right before I went to college what the best investment is, thinking I’d catch him off-guard. And while it was a cheesy response, it has never left me. Without missing a beat, he said, “Invest in people. You’ll always have a return. Always.” So having that mentality in every environment I walk into, I think regardless of what level societally people are at, people are people. The other thing my dad always told me was, “Always leave a place or a person better than the way you found it.” Approaching business, approaching people, approaching staff in that manner—finding a way to give them something… I want to pour out to others, which is why generosity is such a massive value as well.
What’s your current favorite accessory?
My headphones. :) No, ok, real honest: I actually don’t like to carry handbags. Ever. At all. It’s the irony of my life. I don’t know why it is, but if I carry a bag, it’s purely out of necessity.
To be really honest, my headphones, because they're what get me in the zone.
In regards to product, I’d have to say some of my newer stuff. I have this amazing bucket bag that I just designed and made that turns into a backpack and a tote, and it’s super clean, super minimal, and really beautiful. I actually think I’ll use it.
We know the sewing machine is a necessary tool for you, but can you describe for us what else equips you for your day and helps you do your best work?
[God's] been teaching me it doesn’t have to look a certain way. It’s just time with Him, it’s just quiet with Him, it’s just clearing the air. It doesn’t always have to be praying. Sometimes it’s listening. Sometimes it’s worship. Sometimes it’s sitting and saying, “Alright. I’m just going to be here with you.” And honestly, when I miss that time, my day is like, “Forget it.” It sets the tone. It orients me to be aware of Him throughout the rest of the day.
Another thing is coffee, obviously. Fuel. But also, when I’m creating—to get in the zone—I have to have my headphones on. Whether it’s music, a book, or a podcast, something constantly has to be going on in my ears to help me zone in.
And then, time with [my husband] Dave. We text all day. Any time communicating with him is my favorite. He’s my person. :)
Your studio is what dreams are made of! Do you have a favorite spot or story about how it all came together?
Space and setting is really important to me, especially as a creative because when I’m in a space and and I’m going to create and do anything productive, it matters how it’s set up. And so I walked in thinking, “How can I set this up so I can actually like it?” I repainted the walls white, and the floor was grey. But when I walked in it felt off. About a week went by and I was like, “The floor needs to be white.” So I painted it white and stripped away anything that didn’t need to be here, cleaned up the environment and basically set it how I need my mind to be when I’m about to create. Get rid of the lists, get rid of all the extra stuff so you can just get in the zone. So it’s really important to me to keep this setting that way. But it’s also set up to give the vibe of who CHC is. When my customers walk into this space, I want them to be like, “Oh. This is it. Ok, I get it.”
I have two favorite spots. One is in the front when the sun is coming in, so it kind of maneuvers from side-to-side. And the other one is my little place with the Lord, which is right behind the back wall. Sometimes you just have places that He meets you, and that’s the spot: encounters with him, praise with him. It’s nice that it’s behind a wall because it’s more so hidden. It’s our little space.
You say on your site your “purpose is to build a legacy of creative excellence in order to become an innovative accessories industry leader reflecting generosity through a global audience to every community.” As an outsider, it seems you’re doing just that. What are your hopes for the future of CHC?
My desire is to become a voice of conscious consumerism, not only in the city of Chicago but within my industry in general, and using CHC as the tool to show how it can be done. Because a lot of what I talk about with conscious consumerism with being mindful of the products, like fewer things and better things, taking care of what we have and actually being a good steward of the things you have. That message can be hard to visualize. How do we actually make this happen in real life? I feel like CHC is my tool of showing how a company can source well, can treat people well, can pay people properly, and be a learning environment, but also make something really excellent and really beautiful in a city that isn’t necessarily easy to run and have a business. Here’s how it’s going to be done. Here’s how we did it, so here’s how you can do it as well. If that message can be carried forth, it really will revolutionize my industry.
Inviting Him into everything:
Some of the conversations I’ve had with people—when they see what I do—they say, “Oh, this is amazing. You get to follow your passion. You get to follow your craft. You get to bring the Lord into what you’re doing. You get to do what you love.” Yes. All of that is true, and I would never want to minimize that. But that’s also not to say that those same things can’t be met in a 9-to-5. This is His way of teaching me what it’s like to worship. I believe you can worship the Lord through coding. It’s whatever we orient our hearts to and how we decide to show up, knowing that He is within us and our environments. How are we treating people while we get coffee? How are we treating people on the bus? What are we doing in those little parts of our day? Because those are what make up our lives. So it’s focusing on bringing him into those little things because those make the bigger picture-living with the Lord in everything I’m doing.
Leather work is my craft. It’s what I love. Making something of high craft, to me, I think is so necessary for believers that are in the arts. Because for so long, I’ve seen artists I’ve grown up around whose work always had to have Jesus attached to [the product], or a verse had to be on it. It had to be Christian in some way. But I think being excellent in what you do is being a Christian. The level of excellence our Creator has…He is the greatest sustainer, so [we can ask ourselves], "How can He teach me to sustain something." He’s the greatest creator. How can He teach me to create something. It’s bringing Him into every facet because He made it all anyway. And in that, it becomes Christian. In my interactions with people and how I treat them, how I set up the environment to care for them is being a Christian. It’s actually living it out instead of putting it up as a poster somewhere.