Nicole Steel’s new label, STEEL American Luxury, launches this month with a limited collection of handbags, pet carriers, and tech-inspired accessories designed to offer what she feels is missing in high-end retail. The line is a culmination of Steel’s life experience. A longtime fashion collector, the designs are inspired by her past and present: a childhood growing up in New York, long summers spent in France, a passion for art and architecture, and a lifestyle of travel. Five years ago, along with her husband and two boys, Steel relocated to Winnetka. She embraced the move as an opportunity to reexamine her professional passions and decided it was time to merge those interests in art and fashion.
The collection is currently offered online at steelamericanluxury.com and through upcoming private trunk shows in Chicago, New York, and Palm Beach. In an interview excerpted below, Steel discusses the influences that drive her vision and business venture.
What made you decide to launch this collection and focus exclusively on that sector of the luxury market?
I’ve been working in the luxury segment throughout my 20-year career in real estate and design. As a consumer, I was frustrated when I couldn’t find the ideal combination of materials, style, and brand philosophy. So, I had the idea to do it myself in the United States.
My parents escaped communism and lost everything when they came to America. I witnessed firsthand the possibilities of “The American Dream” as they worked to rebuild their lives; they taught me to face challenges with resilience and a strong work ethic.
From a real estate career that included building, designing, and developing, I learned years ago if you build with integrity, using the best materials, and superior craftsmanship, you will always have a buyer who appreciates the effort and end result. The STEEL American Luxury brand is meant to convey the message—do it right or don’t do it at all. If you want something for life, whether it be a building or a handbag, quality of work must be employed.
My team consists of multi-generational artisans whose lineage is rooted in time-tested traditions. I also know what it takes to compete on an international level. This venture was a huge investment but completely worth it to get where we are today.
How would you describe your lifestyle?
I am very tactile and love natural fabrics and textures. I also understand a lifestyle busy with travel, packed with events, and the desire to minimize luggage by using versatile pieces that will go from day to night or lunch to black tie.
There was a time when I’d be traveling from Munich, Cannes, Paris, and London to Dubai and Hong Kong. I disliked packing multiple handbags and longed for transitional pieces. That is what I thought of when I designed the “Everywhere” clutch, aptly named for where it goes. I ask myself all the time, “It’s beautiful, but what can it do? Where can it go?” The “Hero” tote is also a great example. You can stuff it full for the plane and then cinch it into a smaller elegant day tote for visiting museums and having lunch.
As a mother of two boys, I am always busy juggling family life and activities with a demanding work life. When I finally bought an Apple Watch to stay on top of scheduling, I felt it was so out of character from a style point-of-view. I couldn’t find anything to make the gadget best fit my wardrobe. My motivation drove me to work with engineers to dress-up the look for myself and others. This resulted in what I call the Apple Watch Cuff for fit and function as it doubles as an elegant leather bracelet for evening wear. I also designed a fun Rock Star Cuff that has a Rock & Roll ’60s and ’70s look.
Explain the concept of Art Walking.
I believe that fashion and accessories are opportunities to express ourselves. I love to mix a feeling of glamour, timelessness, and fun. I also love a sense of originality. That was the main motivator behind Art Walking and its membership program where patrons receive access to exclusive releases of hand-painted limited edition pieces. They can be collected but also be carried.
Having been involved in the art world, many artists and collectors invited me into their homes and ateliers to share their collections. Art Walking takes that intimate vibe from studio visits to the streets. In that sense, the handbag’s purpose becomes a luxurious canvas to be shared and enjoyed by all who view it. I am very excited to announce that our first collaboration will be with Los Angeles-based artist Spencer Mar Guilburt.
Explain your design process.
For me, the materials inspire the design. When I feel the leathers, I envision what shape they will take and what geometrics will highlight their grains and beauty. I might do things in reverse in that sense. This is why I am side-by- side with the artisans as we cut the patterns. It is a very visual process for me until the pattern looks like something timeless, a potential heirloom, and of course one I would love to carry.
Who are some of the artists and designers that influence your aesthetic?
There are so many: Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Albert Cheuret, Clément Mère, Jean Dunand, and early Eileen Gray. I also adore Nicholas Varney, an incredible mentor and artist. He studied fine art in Italy and has been creating stunning jewelry since he was 23 years old. When I finally had the courage to show him my work and received his blessing, it was all systems go.
I also think the Art Deco period has been a significant reference for my work. As a child, I admired the skyscrapers in New York, and the architecture in Chicago during walks on frequent visits to my grandparents here. That period was the beginning of modernism and an era that was energetic, glamorous, luxurious, with a distinct hope in progress of all kinds. I feel we are now moving into a similar time.
Explain the company’s sustainability mission.
Our mission is luxury with a purpose: American-made, benefitting conservation, ethically sourced, and sustainable. We prioritize transparency and traceability focused on animal welfare in the supply chain. This is why we voluntarily stamp each bag with CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) tags when applicable, a QR code to access every relevant point of contact, and personally know those involved at each stage of manufacture. We are committed to aligning with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and increasing biodiversity.
Fashion, like any art form, can take on regional attributes— share your thoughts on the ways Chicago stands out.
After living in Chicago for five years, I’ve come to appreciate the sophistication of the city—one that is both subtle and elegant. The other big inspiration here is the weather, of course, and I am working on pieces and finishes that can withstand a surprise snowstorm. For example, my “Hero” tote has a weather-resistant interior that can be reversed to incorporate both luxury and practicality. There is a sense of practicality that I am not sure I would have developed the same way if we had not moved to the Midwest.