NEW YORK — The founders and designers of Be & D handbags, Be Inthavong and Steve Dumain, debated a bit before describing the brand's look.
"Be is very luxury. I'm very edgy," Dumain said. "If you look at our handbags now, the styles look like our personalities, as if we beat each other up on the street and that's what came out the other side."
That combination of luxury and edge has catapulted Be & D into the major leagues after just over a year in business. The brand's slouchy hobos and barrel bags in skins ranging from deerskin to python and ostrich, which often feature disconcertingly proportioned straps and loads of studs, rings and other heavy hardware, are top sellers alongside looks by Chloé, Mulberry and Kooba. Mena Suvari, Penélope Cruz and Marcia Cross all carry Be & D, and in some stores there's a waiting list for coveted silhouettes.
"They've been our number-one bag in the store," said Christina Minasian, buyer for Kitson in Los Angeles, the first store to carry the brand on the West Coast. "Customers really respond to their leathers and the details and the great shapes."
Roopal Patel, women's fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, said: "I think they stand out among many of their peers because they are consistently in touch with the trends and because they are able to make the trends look so luxurious. It's still under the radar, but it's for that fashion-savvy customer who is a bit more eclectic and may not want that ‘It' bag, but wants something recognizable and stylish."
Inthavong and Dumain met about two years ago and hit it off instantly, despite what they recognized as their different material sensibilities.
"I remember that right after we met I drove Be and his friend to Fred Leighton in my old Mercedes that you had to shut off by lifting the hood and literally pressing a button," Dumain recalled. "We were driving down Fifth Avenue and Be was like, ‘You can't park that car in front of Fred Leighton.' But the truth is that I like old things because I'm drawn to the look of things and Be is all about craftsmanship."Dumain, who was born in Pine Bush, N.Y., and attended business school at the University of Vermont, was working as a screenwriter and film producer and living in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The Laotian-born and Dallas-raised Inthavong lived on Manhattan's Upper East Side and worked in production on belts, jewelry and other accessories. Both were ready to try something new, so they decided to go into business together.
They created a line of high-end jersey shirts featuring screen-printed designs. A trip to Beirut to visit a friend changed everything, however.
"Leaving Beirut, in duty-free, you buy so many nuts because the area is known for nuts," Dumain said. "You get them in these amazing screen-printed burlap bags. We decided to make our own versions out of denim, and the first person who bought it was Anna Sui to put in her own store. Out of that one bag, we decided to get serious and begin making bags out of leather."
The duo named each of the silhouettes in their initial 12-piece collection after iconic Hollywood sirens, such as Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, and watched their business grow from two accounts to nearly 150, including Neiman Marcus and select Bloomingdale's.
They continue to utilize the naming technique for the new spring line, which includes 50 to 60 silhouettes that retail from $850 to $4,300, but Inthavong and Dumain said a lot is changing.
"Our initial explosion was great," Inthavong said. "But it was good and not good. We want to learn from that explosion and take control now."
Be & D hand-finish all the brand's bags in what Inthavong and Dumain like to call their atelier in the Garment District.
"Everybody asks us why we are making everything here when we are shipping such big quantities," Dumain said. "They tell us we should be going to other places for our production. But we monitor every single step of the process. We look at each skin that comes in. If the skin is thinner, it can change the bag, for example. It's about detail."
Inthavong added: "When you do bag-making and treat it like an art, you can't expand too much. You can have demand, but that doesn't necessarily dictate supply or you lose the magic. And we're not here today, gone tomorrow."
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