Cynthia Lucas has always been an artist, but for a long time she didn’t know she could make a living at it. Her clothing business, Bella Sisters, has grown organically, just like the nature designs she adds to vintage jackets. Now the mother of two has a studio in Northwest Portland, and sells her clothing line at the First Thursday Street Gallery and in a half dozen local boutiques.
The Early Days
Cynthia and her cousin Jenna Rose, the other Bella sister, grew up together outside Tacoma. “We were both interested in fashion,” Cynthia said. “We were budding little artists.” Back then, Cynthia liked to design dresses on paper, the more ornate, the better. The girls were masters of make believe. “Jenna’s parents are total hippies,” Cynthia said. “There was no organized play. It was go find an empty shed and make magic out of it.” The girls ran free on Jenna’s parents’ five-acre property. But they were also business-minded from an early age. Their first product was hair scrunchies, which they sold at a local farmers’ market. Cynthia said it was the ‘80s, so the scrunchies were, appropriately, neon.
The Beginning of Bella Sisters
As young adults, the cousins continued to search for the right business. They tried their hands at metalsmithing, but decided they lacked the patience to make jewelry. Then they switched to textiles. “We started with horrible hippie clothes,” said Cynthia. “The only thing I knew how to sew at the time was quilts, so we started doing patchwork hippie dresses and little tops.” They sold these on eBay. But one day in 2003 they made the jacket that changed everything. They started with a vintage coat, added sleeve extensions since the sleeves were so short, sewed on a little decoration, and had the prototype for thousands of jackets to come. Cynthia was a stay-at-home mom at the time, and was able to channel her creativity into the new venture. When she and Jenna had made a dozen jackets, they took them to Seattle’s Fremont Market.
“We began as completely collaborative,” Cynthia said, “sharing money, sharing supplies, sharing everything.” Cynthia was in charge of sewing, and Jenna led the design side. When Cynthia moved to Portland in 2005, the cousins’ collaboration changed. “We kind of split up the business,” Cynthia said. “I took a year off to have another baby.” Jenna kept the Seattle market, Cynthia got Portland. While the cousins are financially separate now, they both still use the name Bella Sisters, they work together on big shows, and they collaborate on designs. They meet up at least once a month, and frequently call and text to compare notes. “We have this knack of describing something,” Cynthia said. “No technical terms, just spit it out over the phone.” The two are so in synch that when they get together, the designs they discussed over the phone are almost identical.
When she isn’t working in her Northwest Portland studio, Cynthia spends a lot of time in vintage and thrift shops. “Half the job is finding really high quality pieces that were only worn a few times,” she said. “They have to be perfect.” The Bella Sisters line of jackets and sweaters is made almost entirely from recycled materials. Last year Cynthia started adding beadwork to her designs. She especially likes to use beads made from turquoise and pearls. “We try to keep things as organic as possible,” she said of their floral and animal designs. One of Cynthia’s favorite motifs is the poppy, which appears on many of her jackets.
Showing Her Work
“I love First Thursday,” Cynthia said. “I feel like the Urban Art Network has just given me a great venue.” The Street Gallery was Cynthia’s first regular show after she moved to Portland. Then boutiques started contacting her, asking to carry her jackets. Current stores include Dazzle, Frock, Moxie, Presents of Mind, Crafty Wonderland Pop-Up Shop, and Tender Loving Empire. She would love to expand beyond the Northwest, but is already swamped. “I’m in a constant state of panic because I can’t keep up,” she said. “It’s impossible to make this a business where you can just churn them out.” Her children are now five and eight, so she squeezes her work time into their school hours. One day her designs may make it to the East Coast, but for now Cynthia has a good thing in Portland. “It’s such a labor of love,” she said.
—by Teresa Bergen
Visit Cynthia's Profile Page where you can view more images of her work and read her Artist's Statement.