China Chow is in handbag heaven. The Eurasian actress and style icon may be known as an art lover (her latest gig involves hosting a reality art show, Work of Art: the Next Great Artist, on US television), but today her mind is on a different type of investment - luxury bags.
Chow is in Hong Kong as the personal guest of accessories designer Nancy Gonzalez to celebrate the opening of the label's first boutique in the city. Chow's relationship with the designer dates back to her college days, when she befriended Gonzalez's son, Santiago, who now runs the business alongside his mother.
Since then Chow has amassed an extensive personal collection - not that it's stopping her from coveting more." I need more bags … my God, I want everything!" she exclaims, adding a sleek cobalt blue clutch to the growing pile in front of her.
Chow is one of countless women who have swooned over Gonzalez's designs. Over the past 15 years, Gonzalez has built an empire on beautiful bags. At a glance, the styles seem simple, but up close the details, bold colours and craftsmanship give them a high-fashion edge.
Most are crafted from crocodile skin and are free from logos. The brand is all about discreet luxury, and is a favourite with the style set, ranging from celebrities such as Blake Lively to yummy mummies.
"For me it's about being playful. We have a lot of collectors all over the world who come to us for something unique. They send me pictures of their closet with 50 bags - I wish I owned all of the styles," says Gonzalez, laughing. The designer, in her 50s, cuts a striking figure in a sleek white leather top contrasted with a bright fuchsia box clutch.
When Gonzalez started out in her native Colombia in 1988, she was one of a handful of designers specialising in exotic skins. A clotheshorse and haute couture buyer, she launched with a range of exotic skin belts, which she sold to friends. By the mid 1990s, the business had expanded to nine stores in Colombia.
"The people who were wearing the belts asked me for bags. They wanted something different. They had Hermès and Chanel already, so they wanted something new," says Gonzalez.
The turning point came in 1998, when she showed a collection of eight styles to the buyers at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. Back then, most exotic skin bags were ultra-conservative and badly made. So her lightweight styles in fantastical colours caught their eye.
"At the time, it was a whole new proposition for buyers. It was about creating a fashion line, first and foremost - the fact we used exotic skins was secondary," says Santiago Gonzalez, creative director and president of the company.
"Our customers tend to buy a beautiful piece because they like it - beauty comes first, then the material. For many other brands, their core value is being made out of exotics. For us, it's the opposite," he says.
Nancy Gonzalez's eye for creativity and experimentation has resulted in a loyal following. While other designers focus on preserving the skins, she slices, dices and weaves them into fun, chic designs.
She has created several exclusive designs for the Hong Kong store opening, including a woven bag made from strips of crocodile in three metallic shades.
Her current spring-summer 2013 collection features a larger than life cherry bag. It looks like it's made from wicker, but it's actually made of croc skin that has been woven together like pieces of thread.
"I like the idea that women buy my bags just for themselves - it doesn't matter if no one else understands it. To me, this is the largest luxury," she says.
"Look at this fuchsia bag - it's surprisingly neutral. It will match grey or blue because the colours are very precise. Many times I think about what I would buy, what I need, what I can't see. My daughter is great with accessories - we love to talk about what we don't see in the market."
The brand also creates an exclusive collection called "Santiago's edit", which is aimed at collectors. It features 300 one-of-a-kind styles handpicked by him, and it travels with him to trunk shows around the world for sale. Whatever is not sold - although there's usually nothing left - goes straight into the brand's archives.
"Our client base flies all over the world," Santiago Gonzalez says. "Our clients don't want to buy the same thing everywhere. This way, they know that what they buy will not be available everywhere else."
Despite the exclusive approach, there are plans to grow the brand in Asia. The company has partnered with Bluebell in Hong Kong, and is open to prospective partners in other Asian territories.
"We have Chinese customers, but I'm not manic about expanding too quickly," he says.
"It's a special product that is meant to be distributed specially. But we are taking steps towards Singapore and Taiwan."
"Women don't need bags; we need a surprise that makes us smile," adds Nancy Gonzalez. "Something that brings emotion, or makes you happy, even if you don't know why. As long as I create that, I am happy."