Ila Allen Interview

Ila Allen

“It’s an Ila Allen Designs Handbag!”

By Jean Cunningham

A fabulous logo and a unique design are the distinctive traits of an Ila Allen Designs handbag. Ila Allen is a handmade handbag creative artist and master seamstress who makes no two bags alike though each is part of a series. As an entrepreneur, Ila has a keen understanding of the complexities inherent in managing the flow of products and balancing the cash flow needs when a product set requires many diverse parts and pieces to create a compelling look.

The bag process starts with a fabric selection for the series. Then Ila steps through her creative process to discover a unique look that will really pop. Laying out the fabric on a worktable, she checks her patterns. How much of the fabric design will show? Will it be only on the sides of the bag or over the entire exterior? What about the faux leather textures? Raised dots? Snakeskin pattern? Will the overarching style be controlled or free form? Etc. With these decisions made, Ila next digs into her variety of buckles, zippers, and other accessories and places them on the table where she can look them over for a few days to guide her inspiration. Next, she will decide on how to vary each of the bags in the series. A series is typically 3 bags and each will have differences in the complementary elements such as the strap, closure, or sides. Finally a lining is selected, and the linings are just as exciting and unique as the exterior of every Ila Bag.

The bag series will be traced and cut out, sometimes in layers and sometimes piece by piece depending on the fabric. Occasionally there is wait time for the accessories to arrive. This is part of her strong entrepreneurial awareness. If you buy too many accessories or fabrics in advance, you will have all your money tied up in unfinished product. It is a well-planned balancing act!

Once all the parts of in hand, they are placed in a tray and are “ready”.

Like with most tasks, tackling the components you enjoy the least should come first. For Ila that is the lining. Sewing a lining is just like sewing the exterior—like making two bags! Once the linings are done, the series really begins to come alive.



Ila usually has two series prepped and one in process of sewing. Ila sews every evening after dinner, all day on weekends. If she is not sewing, she is watching for new ideas. She carries a notebook with her wherever she goes. When she sees a design she likes, she will draw it, but will only use one or more aspects of it when she creates her own original design.

It is clear that Ila’s home is her workshop with 80% work and 20% home. All her machines are setup and ready to be used. Ila is committed to her art and craft. The design is the most important trait of creating the bag. She loves the design phase. But she is also very vested in running her business. She says it is necessarily 90% business and 10% design because if the business is not successful, there will be no bags made and the design will not matter.

Initially Ila was not sure if Evanston Made was a fit for her work or for her as an individual. She makes handbags and she noticed that only about 20% of the artists at Evanston Made were 3D. And there were very few artists making functional products. She also did not see very many people of color. Would she be welcome? “Will the other artists want to meet me? Will they see that my handbags are my way to express my art?” If you want to see for yourself, or purchase a bag, check out the EM Art Stop, or visit her website and you will see that these handbags are truly works of art!


Jean Cunningham is retired after a career in business management and finance. She has written three books and authored many articles in her field, was a speaker at conferences, and taught at the university level. While traveling for business she began painting and drawing for relaxation and collecting art. She and her husband have lived in Evanston for 11 years and are avid walkers of the town and lakeside. She has a BS from Indiana University and an MBA from Northeastern University. 

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