All images by Travis Levius. All Rights Reserved.
“I don’t think anybody realizes how hard you have to work- we all hear about it, we all see the books about it- and no one knows what you really go through until you live it yourself. So you have to have ENDLESS stamina, ENDLESS energy, and ENDLESS creativity.” -Bill Martin
Through text, I could not accurately depict the impassioned tone of Bill Martin’s above statement. His delivery was so heavy that it could have only come from a place of personal experience. Though no major success story is the same, a frequent theme involves people who work towards something great in lieu of very trying times. When you’ve lost your job in a bad economy, need to make a living immediately for your family, and your passion [and prior experience] lies in the fashion business, what do you do? Brahmin handbag founders Bill and Joan Martin will tell you that when you’re in a position where you have NO CHOICE but to make it, you’ll be surprised how strong and able you really are.
Much to their relief, the husband and wife team will most likely never have a problem with “making a living” again. They now face a different challenge that some would perhaps love to experience: having a product become so popular, so esteemed and so heavily demanded that it’s difficult to keep up with the exponential growth. For starters, Brahmins’s leather handbags has become the oft-seen darlings of Vogue magazine, appearing in numerous ads and editorial spreads in their monthly issues (they will also be Vogue’s official handbag for September’s global super-fête “Fashion Night Out”). Other major fashion titles such as Elle and InStyle have also taken notice of Brahmin’s quality and ageless appeal, and now the rest of the world is quickly catching up. I had the pleasure of meeting the founding couple, along with PR figure Shawna Hassett and Brahmin’s CMO James Bunn, and discuss their ascent from discouraging lack to inspirational greatness.
Proud Brahmin founders Bill and Joan Martin at the Grand Opening
ML.com: How did your husband-and-wife business turn Brahmin from an idea into the phenomenon it is now?
Bill Martin: I had experience working in the handbag and shoe industry.
“In 1980 I worked for a handbag manufacturer, and America was in really tough times [during the Carter era] and I lost my job. I had to come home and tell Joan and I said ‘Oh my goodness, what are gonna do now?!’”
We thought about shoes, but they are about sizes, and widths and specific fit…three negatives. And so I told Joan, “Handbags it is.” Soon after, we started making handbags in our barn and in our basement- literally.
Joan Martin: I knew I could make patterns for handbags, and I assured him that I could sell them. After a little bit of work we figured out how to do it!
ML.com: Brahmin formed in 1982, so when do you think you had “The Big Break?”
JM: We went three years without really eating (laughs), but our big break happened right after we made the first five samples in 1984-
“we got a $5,000 order from Marshall Fields, and we didn’t have a factory to make the bags!”
It took us 6 months to make the samples so you could imagine… But they sold so well and then everyone in the country started calling me, because everyone saw these great bags and wanted to carry the line, so it was a struggle to keep up with the demand.
ML.com: Did you ever believe that an American brand company could compete with all the established European fashion houses in handbag design?
“That was one of our goals when we started, which was to make the best handbag made in America.”
We named it Brahmin because that was the sign of European quality- we sought out to make it the best in America and I think we have. The loyalty of the Brahmin customer is incredible- once you buy a Brahmin bag, you come back and buy another one.
Shawna Hassett: We work with the fashion magazines in New York all the time. Since the beginning when we introduced them to the brand, we’ve been getting calls off the hook- literally! Brahmin is in Vogue, Elle, InStyle, Lucky, everything. It’s just a testament to how great the quality is and we’re competing against those European brands.
Bill & Joan Martin chatting with their PR rep Shawna Hassett
Brahmin’s CMO James Bunn helps out with the Brahmin handbag give-away raffle
ML.com: I’m so glad you said that, which leads to my next question: What gap does the Brahmin brand fill?
James Bunn: Oh, that’s a good one. We’ve made it hard on ourselves by saying to the world, even in our Vogue ads, that we’re “redefining timeless style.” Our brand crosses generations:
“We’re not younger, we’re not older, we’re not preppy, we’re not trendy- we could tell you all the things we’re not, and what’s left is a unique position of who we are, and that is a timeless-style brand.”
ML.com: Which head designers or companies throughout the times of your handbag business have inspired you?
JM: When we started the company, Bill had been in the shoe industry and knew leather very well, and we knew the best leathers were made in I-ta-ly (giggles).
“We started going to Italy for the leathers and I became in love with the designers- Ferragamo probably the most.”
I just loved some the beautiful things I saw coming from them, and just wished that I could be that good. That ignited our efforts to be the best American-made handbag. First we had to learn how to do it well, because going from shoes to handbags is a different thing and we had to get the right machinery and a learning curve, but we got there and I will put our craftsmanship, technique, and styling right up there with the top [designers].
ML.com: What were some of the most challenging moments you’ve experienced in building the Brahmin handbag business?
BM: Well, let’s see- how long do you have? (giggles) That’s a good question. When you’re beginning, you really don’t want to run out of money. So when you’re an entrepreneur, and you can’t go to the banks because they have no interest in you, and you’re starting new and you have no footing in the marketplace, you’re really all alone. So you go to your relatives, your friends, you liquidate absolutely every asset you have in order to fund the project, and it’s like being 15,000 feet in an airplane running out of gas and you want to get the engine started before you hit the mountainside.
“We came real close to hitting the mountainside.”
I think in the first two or three years, that was an ever-plaguing problem.
A more recent challenge is: How do we deal with the growth? As you have more and more growth, the problems that could come is getting the resources, the raw materials, maintaining the excellence making sure you don’t compromise the product, and figuring out the internal ways to which you’re going to be able to deal with the growth. Over the last year, we’ve had such incredible growth that we’re sort of beside ourselves- Skyping 6am in the morning around the world on how we’re going to be able to keep up.
“We feel like Gladiators in the middle of an arena! So far though, we’ve been doing well, staying alive, growing, and still up on our two hind legs.”
ML.com: Now that you’ve achieved a great deal of success with Brahmin, what is the number one main advice you would give to fashion-bound individuals?
BM: I don’t think anybody realizes how hard you have to work- we all hear about it, we all see the books about it- and no one knows what you really go through until you live it yourself. So you have to have endless stamina, endless energy, and endless creativity.
“Have a huge amount of passion and live with it every night when you go to bed.”
You have to constantly try to figure out what the marketplace wants, where the holes are, and how you’re going to put all the pieces together to compete.
JM: I agree with everything Bill said because I lived through it with him and still living through it, but what I tell people about the success of our product is that we probably couldn’t have done it in any other country except America, “The Land of Opportunity.” If you have a passion, and you work hard, and you are willing to give up things are committed to your goal, you can achieve anything.
“It’s just having that extra passion and commitment to do it, and we did. We were not going to fail, and by George we didn’t!”