When your father is a wealthy polo champion and your mother is one of the most recognizable faces on the New York social circuit, it goes without saying you grow up with privilege. But as much as Cornelia Guest loved her glitzy, glamorous childhood (she regularly posts throwback Instagram photos of herself with friends Andy Warhol and Boy George, or looking chic alongside her mother, C.Z. Guest, Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell and designer Halston), she recognized how important it was to give back, especially to those who don’t have a voice. The onetime equestrian — she stopped riding after her mother passed away in 2003 — has always loved animals, which sparked her desire to learn more about them. With her precious West Highland Terrier, Olive, at her side, Cornelia sat down during her recent appearance at Tootsies in Dallas to chat about her cruelty-free handbag line, and what clothing she borrowed from her mother’s fabulous wardrobe.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST ADOPT A CRUELTY-FREE LIFESTYLE?
When my mother got sick years ago, I started thinking about different things like our food sources. What shocked me the most was how animals were raised. It wasn’t like when my mom was little. These factory farms now are so horrific. When I first started I thought, “I can do this. I know what bags I like, and I know what I don’t like.” I wanted to use an alternative to leather.
YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY AN ANIMAL LOVER.
I am, yes! Olive was a rescue. I rescued her about two years ago from Florida and she’s just adorable.
HOW MANY OTHER PETS DO YOU HAVE?
I have seven other dogs. I have a donkey named Madonna and a tortoise named Socrates. They’re all [at my home] in Long Island. The most recent member of the clan is Love, a Great Pyrenees. He came from the National Great Pyrenees Rescue organization and they called him Lover Boy. I call him Love and he is the sweetest, most lovely thing. He’s about a year and a half. I’m blessed to have all of them. I find all of them teach me so much.
AND YOU SPENT MANY YEARS AS AN EQUESTRIAN.
To me, it’s the greatest sport in the world. I think horses are such unbelievable, beautiful animals, and to be able to spend every day with them is such a gift. I absolutely love that sport.
WHAT IS YOUR HANDBAG DESIGN PROCESS LIKE?
When I start to create a bag, I create what I like. I’ll talk to my friends and ask, “What do you like about that? What’s your favorite bag? What’s your least favorite bag? What do you love? What don’t you love?” It’s always a work in progress.
HOW DO YOU NAME YOUR DESIGNS?
They’re all named after my dogs and my animals. We’re starting to do the Sebastian, which is my hobo, in two sizes. I also designed jackets in collaboration with Project Gravitas. [I’m wearing] the Olive jacket, and there is also the Nelson and the Lyle. We did two colors each, and for spring we’re going to do more. I’m so excited about it. They’re warm and comfortable.
I love jackets. I have great ones sitting in my closet and I thought, “One day, I’m going to do this.” Lisa Sun, who is the founder of Project Gravitas, approached me — I was so excited, I ran upstairs to my closet to show her where I take inspiration. Funny enough, a dear friend of mine, who is a man, said, “You need an inside pocket!” I thought, okay, very smart.
YOUR PERSONAL STYLE?
Classic with a twist.
YOUR MOM HAD GREAT STYLE. DO YOU HAVE SPECIFIC MEMORIES OF OUTFITS SHE WORE?
She had some beautiful Oscar de la Renta [pieces] that I would steal. I once stole a red Valentino from her and wore it out, put it back in her closet, and then there was my picture someplace. She was like, “Oh my god, look at this dress. I have one just like it!”
WHO HAS INFLUENCED YOU?
Halston had a big influence on me as I look back because he started with ultrasuede, but there are also so many people like Bruce Weber, Jane Goodall, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta — the bodies of work these people have. Mother Nature is my hugest inspiration.
WHAT ACCESSORY CAN YOU NOT LIVE WITHOUT?
I need to have my Sebastian. I can carry my flats in it. It’s big but not too big, so it’s perfect.
OF EVERYTHING YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED AS A BUSINESSWOMAN, WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST REWARDING?
When I first launched my bags and saw my name on them, I remember going home and it didn’t sink in. It was in the middle of winter, I was on the subway and this girl had one of my bags. I said, “Do you like your bag?” I told her I was Cornelia and she was telling me where she got it and that she loved it. To see someone with my bag, that was just unbelievable. I was so happy, and I get to save animals one bag at a time.