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In 1986, country music had a renaissance, shoulder pads and pant suits for women were all the rage, and the iconic Western brand, American West, was founded. “It went by really, really fast! I was a kid and now I’m not anymore,” says Louise de Kok, CEO of the company she founded with her late husband, Michiel.

The duo didn’t start out with ambitions to create the go-to brand for classic, fashion-relevant Western leather handbags, luggage, briefcases, small leather goods and gift items.  Instead, it began rather innocuously when Michiel bought Louise a beautiful antique leather doctor’s satchel in South America.

“I loved it, and I got so many compliments on my hand-tooled train case,” remembers de Kok who used the unique bag as her carry-on when traveling.  Because it was so popular, Michiel eventually suggested that they sell the bag, and things took off from there.

“We sold that one, and we made it smaller, and then I designed other handbags with hand-tooling and without,” explains de Kok who says the company still creates all the patterns and designs by hand.  She studied design in college before launching the startup company out of a closet in the couple’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla., apartment.  “I have always been fascinated by the finer details of design and craft – it’s every single element that transcends a piece from bland to beautiful.”

The brand has remained relevant for three decades largely due to de Kok’s innovative spirit.  “It’s all about trends–following them and just being on top of it–and having something new and exciting to keep your customers interested,” de Kok shares.  She admits that in this regard she has a natural advantage.  “Personally, I get bored really easily, so I’m lucky in that sense,” de Kok laughs.  “If I do the same thing over and over again I get bored, so I automatically want to do something new and different.”

Functionality is another aspect of American West that has helped the treasured and trusted brand stand the test of time.  “We add a little fashion, but our focus is function,” explains de Kok of the brand that she defines as true to the traditional American spirit.

American West handbags are not only statement pieces that garner attention, but they also have all the little “extras” that women want.  For example, organization on the inside and outside of the bags–in the form of zip pockets and accessory pouches–is important.  Additionally, the straps are a little longer to allow women to comfortably wear the bags, even while sporting a bulky winter coat.

The quality of the full-grain leather and the lifetime guarantee that covers leather defects, hardware and more are other favorite features for customers.  “We’ve had people send back bags from the 80s!” exclaims de Kok.  “They keep our bags for a long time.  And we have customers who are collectors–they have several of our pieces.”

The artisanship of the American West leather goods is what makes them collectable.  The hand-tooling is done on vegetable-tanned leather by descendants of the Guarani tribe in South America.  “Every tooler has his own style, and they do it extremely fast!” marvels de Kok of the work that’s conducted at two woman-owned factories in South America.  “It’s incredible to watch because they’ve been doing it for so many years.” Hand-staining is completed after the tooling so the color can seep into the crevasses of the intricate patterns, enhancing the beautiful texture of the leather.

In honor of the company’s 30th anniversary, de Kok says the American West collection is getting a little nostalgic by launching a line this summer that gives a nod to the original train case that started it all.  “We recreated it and updated it a little bit,” says de Kok of the limited edition, numbered collection.  The train case replica will be available in a large travel-size case, as well as a smaller handbag size.

Also to commemorate the anniversary, every bag sold in 2016 will have a signature silver hanging keepsake with the newly designed 30th anniversary American West logo on it.  The new Cross My Heart Collection has also been launched just in time for the anniversary celebration.  According to de Kok it honors cowgirls’ love for Native American culture and appeals to a wide range of customers, from established women to the younger, boho audience.  The line contains muted earth tones of distressed charcoal brown and chestnut leathers that feature the hand-tooled Native American friendship symbol.  “Each bag has just the right amount of fringe and features, as well as a striking silver Concho,” describes de Kok.

American West leather accessories are available at select Western boutiques and chain stores in the USA and abroad.  To find a store near you visit www.americanwest.cc.