Searching for Georgia O’Keeffe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I discovered a soul sister in Mary Frances.

When I discovered her handbags, it was love at first.  I’d like to think, however, that the magic of the desert air helped them to found me before I left the land of enchantment in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I didn’t notice them at first, even though they were sitting front and center in the display window of a southwestern-style clothing shop.  My friend and I were on a mini ‘Thelma and Louise’ getaway last November and had just finished one last cup of the addictive Mexican-style hot chocolate.  We knew it would fortify our strength in the unusually chilly air blowing through Santa Fe’s town square.

The warm spices of cinnamon and chile still danced on my tongue as we tapped a light layer of snow from our boots at the store’s entrance.  We would only look for a minute before returning to our hotel to pack up and have one last dinner before a late night flight home.

Photo credit: MaryFrancis.com

I immediately noticed a flirty over-the-shoulder, beaded bag.  It was green with splashes of a pink and white golf scene.  I knew the friend who would love it as I tried to contain myself.

Every single bag was better than the last, and each told a story – a bag for someone traveling on a cruise, one for a horse lover, and another one with a garden of flowers that any woman would love.

And the picnic basket.  That was for me.  It glimmered like the others but the tequila bottles on the rocks were magic!   I could already feel the precision craftsmanship and creative designs tearing a hole in my pocketbook.

The sales manager smiled when she saw me.  I’m guessing she was well-versed on their hypnotic effect so she fell into t the story of Mary Francis, the fashion designer turned handbag virtuoso.

Mary Frances had originally forged a career in real estate but explored something more creative.  She moved from making costume jewelry in the 1980s to putting her jewelry onto a line of handbags in 1999.

Glitter and glamor were signature favorites, as Mary Frances recognized the popularity of more expensive Judith Leiber handbags.  But also she wanted to design a more affordable line that more women could enjoy and show-off at parties without paying thousands of dollars.

We’ve stocked a number of Mary’s handbags in our WomanScape Boutique for the month of February.  There are hundreds more but we wanted to highlight our favorites for this month of love, including the heart-shaped box of chocolate handbag and the heart lock and key handbag.

Mary’s bags are also a must see if you know a bride to be, an artist, or just a fan of Frida Kahlo. There’s an imaginative adventure of fun and elegant handbags just waiting for you to explore!

It’s no surprise this California native has won Accessory Designer of the Year award numerous times for her fast-growing company. Her handbags compare to the objets d’art made by Judith Leiber, without the sticker shock.

Lieber’s handbags are fashion accessories to some of the wealthiest women in the world and have been celebrated for their creative genius in the Metropolitan Museums and the Smithsonian.

Leiber’s bags have been carried by “Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Diana Ross, and Joan Sutherland. Queen Elizabeth II was presented with a bag during a visit to California, and Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of the Soviet leader, received one from Barbara Bush.”

What’s separates Mary Frances from Leiber, however, and many other handbag designers is also the positive impact her bags have made for the hundreds of women employed in her cottage industry.  Each bag is a work of art and takes one to three days to produce. But each is made by “women and men in cities and small villages who otherwise would have worked on construction sites, farm labor, and low wage service jobs. This work gives them dignity and livelihood which helps supplement their family’s income.”

Photo credit: MaryFrancis.com

Interestingly, research has shown that “informal economies” like these cottage industries create unique opportunities for women to work within their own homes. This is particularly attractive in developing countries because they help women to overcome barriers to entry like capital investment, education or technology.

From Kathy Phillips at Primitives by Kathy to trailblazers like Josephine Baker or Maya Angelou, Mary Frances shows us what happens when women follow their passion.  While Mary Francis occupies a small space in a large accessory market, women who buy Mary’s bags have fun and her bags make a difference in the lives of the people who make them.  I know this makes me feel good and helps me justify buying a few more handbags to add to my first purchase.

Rose McInerney

Rose McInerney

Rose combines her love of all things artfully-designed to connect women to a shared community of learning and a richer, more fulfilled self. As a passionate storyteller, published writer, and international traveler, Rose believes women can build a better world through powerful storytelling.

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