When we first entered the crowded showroom back in November, we did not quite know what to expect. Our previous experiences of meeting new fashion designers had overall been pleasant ones, we did not think that meeting Steve Dumain
and Be Inthavong
of Be & D
would be any different. Still, knowing the smashing success the two have had since 2004, one could not help but be intimidated just a bit.
It did not help that the day we were scheduled to sit down with Be and Steve, the company was hosting a breakfast for invited press contacts to present their upcoming Spring line. Interns and PR gals were hovering around the showroom quarters like bees in a hive, random, funky characters popped in and out, chatting, admiring, snacking on the mini pastries. We do realize that it's the way that fashion in New York City operates, it's still something both Meaghan and I aren't quite
used to, yet.
As Be was running fashionably late (we are not holding it against him, I promise), Steve took the initiative to sit down with us and tell us a bit about the company. Be joined us later with more interesting facts to share with our readers. It was an absolute delight to have met both designers, they are definitely the kind of guys that I would make a tasty sandwich for - as Meaghan and I say when we really like a person.
PB: How did you get started?
Steve: Be and I met in New York. We basically met through friends then we started making handbags 6 months later.
PB: Were you always a lover of handbags?
Steve: I guess no really. Or I was but I didn't know it. I remember seeing my mom's closet and the handbags and shoes were all over the floor. She would dump them out and the refill when she got a new one. The bags were very 70s and 80s -ish. I used to collect luggage while I was living in Vermont. I lived in Vermont for a period of time. So, I guess I have always been a lover of bags and vintage luggage. Be comes from Laos. His mother is definitely a collector of luxury goods. I am very downtown, and Be is very uptown. We definitely battle to the end with every bag. It is a complete creation of the two of us. We literally battle, but we come out in a good way. The battle is exhausting.
PB: And it has been 5 years, so the battle has worked.
Steve: The battle has worked. We started shoes which was really exciting and I've always wanted to do. Be was hesitant to do this. I don't know if you are familiar, but with the Asian culture at least with a lot of people there, the foot is a dirty part of the body. So a shoe isn't usually something that you put a lot of effort towards. Finally, we talked about Asian culture and temples with all the gold. The gold in the bottom of all the shoes keeps you elevated from the evils of the earth. That is the idea. It is our wishes to the women wearing these shoes.
PB: You are re-introducing the Garbo.
Steve: That is our iconic bag. There was nothing like that at the time. The Bergdorf buyer bought them. We met her at a wedding. Be was working with textiles, I was working in film. She asked us to go in and show her. She asked if we were making them (seemed surprised). For us it was a fun moment. The studs are the punk part of us, we are both punks - in a personality way. I think a lot of us have that in us. We met the divisional soon on and she said she hoped there was no hardware on the bags because that was out. So, we were a little upset about that. Then I saw the buyer not that long after and she told me not to worry about it - a great bag is a great bag. She bought 20, then 50, the 75. Then a bunch of celebrities started wearing them. Then Neiman picked us up and started ordering 200 pieces at a time. Then we made the Crawford - which we will be bringing back soon on. I think we ran away from the Garbo because the industry kind of caught on. At the time people didn't know who Be&D was and it hurt us that so many people copied our look. Then we went to the KanKan bag and somebody else did something very similar after. This time it stuck though, so it is better. The bags are done here in the studio and the shoes are done in Italy. We have a few other local studios - but all handbags are done in New York.
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PB: It is a really cool thing to say that your handbags are made in New York.
Steve: Right, a lot of people were telling us that it would be smart to put "made in New York" on our bags. Be and I are very New York and we liked being able to say that.
PB: Did you imagine 5 years ago you'd be where you are now?
Steve: I didn't imagine that I would be making handbags! So, definitely not. But it has been so much fun and it is nice to make something people love - that women love. When we travel and do events people say that when they look at our stuff they feel like it is made for them. We focus on soft leather and using like textile, the weave is something we've developed, the knit and we do all that locally. Then we introduced the exotics. We try to focus on special skins so we can make the collection intimate.
PB: That's great. Sometimes, with exotics like python it flakes.
Steve: Hopefully our python never flakes. If it does, send it to me! (laughs) But really, python shouldn't flake. We've also started to do some special bespoke pieces.
PB: Wow. How does that work, how would someone do that?
Steve: Usually they will write us or call us and there is a certain fee depending on the bag. We will work with our existing styles and they can tweak that if they'd like same with the colors and materials. If they are local they can come in and work with Be and I. If they aren't local they we can work on it through the mail. It's worked out to be very nice.
PB: I really love that aspect of what you are doing. By letting people, if they can, work with you, it really offers something special. Now, the Kan Kan is a bag that has done very well for you.
Steve: We've had the clutch shape which you've seen too.
PB: Yes, and what was the inspiration behind it?
Steve: Marlene Dietrich's tuxedo shirt. A woman's in a man's world. Our entire collection is about making a woman feel strong. Independent, making her own decisions and having a little punk side too.
PB: And what about the small leather goods you are working on?
Be: This season will be launching some new small leather goods. It was important for us to work with the DNA of the brand and keep the energy fresh. I used to design belts.
PB: So the two of you have different personalities?
Be: (laughs) Just a bit. I grew up in a culture where you don't cover the feet. In the West people do. You have people here who are obsessed with shoes and whatnot. So, it was like, "wow, I'm supposed to do this day in and day out?" I had to make an adjustment there. I think everything we do is a combination of our personalities, our backgrounds our views. But I think our vision comes together to identify the girl we design for; she is girlie, she has an edge and a bit of punk to it.
PB: Where do you guys see yourself in the next five years? This is your five year anniversary.
Be: In the next 5 years I hope to create more of an environment. When you add more categories, you really see the girl, see the world. To create that with a store and expand into another category would be great. Create more of the Be&D girl. I'd love to get to the point where you can see the entire girl and not just one product. When you see the belts, you see the parts of her body. When you see the wallet you see another part of her personality. So, to have the store, we can build her world.
PB: So you'd like to have the store here in New York?
Be: Ya, at first. For me everything you start should be under your nose. I have a background in manufacturing. So literally Steve and I made a bag off a kitchen table. When we became a company I took the same sewer, convinced him to come on board, bought the machines, set it up, and I took that concept without even thinking there was going to be anything else. I was taught you have to understand labor and manufacturing in order to make things. 99.9% of companies in NY outsource. I was the opposite. I was the factory that became the designer. It has helped us along the way. We were able to do trial and error. I do want to go around and see the clients. I want to know if studs are too much for you. You know? You can kind of get the sense of who people are. If someone wants to tell me they don't like the swing of the door in my store, I want them to tell me. I want to know these things. Just in the past year we've been doing trunk show. It was really interesting to go into some of the stores and think outside of the box so much. I may have this girl in my head, but when she is in the real world functioning, it is different. To see what she is using out of her closet, it's real. We try to listen and react as much as possible when you find your core DNA. The anniversary of going back to our Garbo, our first bag, is a true testament to us constantly trying to go back and find our DNA. In 5 years time I hope to have more. I'd love to do outerwear. To me outerwear is very similar to shoes. Because when you do outerwear it is about sizing, the complexity of the fit. At the same time, every piece must be executed technically but still has a voice.
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PB: That is a great next step. I was going to ask if you were going to expand what you thought your next step might be.
Be: Steve is obsessed with eye wear. He is probably the only person with a complete collection from the 50 cent barrel to eBay to who knows. He probably has over 100 and he switches all the time. To him a what a woman's handbag can be to a woman or a macho car can be to a guy, sunglasses and sneakers are to him.
PB: It is pretty funky.
Be: Ya, it is influential. You can't help but pick up on it.
PB: What are your challenges when it comes to working together? Since you are very different do you think that is a challenge or does it help?
Be: There are several challenges that lead up to something great. In the beginning you always have a view of what you want. It is like a marriage. In the beginning you are trying to figure out how to be civilized but you are obsessed - with being in love. That is like our company - it is our small child. You have the day to day trying to come to the middle ground. Those extreme differences from season to season you arrive at a point where all of that was worth it. You've built a household and rules. We've fought so much in the single vision for a handle or a single vision for a silhouette. I don't care what people say, you need to have challenges.
PB: We like to ask that question because we work together and we are married.
Be: I was just going to ask you that.
PB: We are recently married. We work together, live together.
Be: Also what I have realized, when things are really good you sit there and think "really, you have no comment?" I think the mind always seeks the problem to get security. I think insecurity can be okay. Just because you have the perfect company, the perfect product, that doesn't mean that it stops there. Your mind constantly wants to be challenged. Learn to listen to your body. Learn to listen to your psyche. That's what I've learned in working with a partner who shares my focus. With our operation it includes Steve's father and I work with Italy - I see a lot of wives, husbands, daughters, grandfathers work together. I see this from a small shop to a huge factory so I think we have practice and are able to work with them.
PB: Being in NYC, and you have a huge following, is it something to see people on the streets carrying your bags?
Be: I do I get excited sometimes. But I think my friends get more excited than I do. I was in a restaurant about a year ago and we saw someone carrying one of the bags. My friend was like, "you should totally go up to her". But I didn't think I could do that. I get stupidly excited, but at the same time I hide, they don't have to know I made it. I mean, I'd love to be in a room surrounded by our handbags, belts, whatever to see the reaction. It made me happy that day that I designed it, but I did it for you - for your closet.
PB: Did you imagine that you would become one of "the brands"? I mean, it has become a household name.
Be: No, not at all. This started from passion, from a place that was so unexpected. The spark that started this thing is still there - still off of that kitchen table. I think yes, as a business now, yes. But there is still a part of me that can't believe it.