PB: The question every interviewer probably asks, how did you get started in handbags?
Jackie: I was a lawyer and looking for something to expend my creative energy on. Whenever I went shopping I thought many things could be improved. And I was living in Spain, surrounded by beautiful leathers and soft colorful handbags. I realized that women would love it if we could make their lives beautiful by combining friendly, specialized, personalized service and beautiful products and we started with handbags because I love colorful leather and I there were no independent international handbag companies to speak of, certainly none providing the kind of service that we provide. And here we are, 5 years on.
PB: How did you come up with the name Belen Echandia?
Jackie: Belen Echandia is a Spanish girl’s name and our story began in Spain. I lived there and was inspired to create BE there when I discovered soft leathers, colorful skins and came up with details I knew women would love. I wanted the name to reflect the history of the brand, its roots, its origins and I also felt that it was pretty romantic. Given its length, we often shorten it to BE. And that has turned out to be the perfect abbreviation. BE beautiful, BE stylish, BE independent, BE confident, BE.
PB: When you are designing your handbags, who (what kind of demographic) are you designing for?
Jackie: I am designing for the woman who is stylish, curious, intelligent and independent in spirit; the woman who seeks out well-made, well-designed, items produced in a socially responsible way. I am designing for the woman who has the confidence to know what she wants. There isn’t a particular demographic – these are women of all ages, from all walks of life, with all kinds of adventures and all kinds of stories – although Italian-made bags are relatively expensive, so our customers tend to be relatively affluent.
PB: Handbags are here to stay. Despite the economic status these days, why do you think women will always spend money on handbags?
Jackie: Because a fabulous handbag lifts the spirits and makes everything else look expensive. I also think that women will always love the unique couture service we offer because they get so much choice!
PB: Where do you draw inspiration?
Jackie: I am a very curious person and I find inspiration everywhere. More concrete places include vintage magazines and my friend Jonathan Ward (a former fashion designer from NYC). But mostly bags are inspired by the lifestyles of the women who wear them and created as a work in progress. Drawn, tweaked, refined. It is a time-consuming process.
PB: Which existing handbag designers have you always loved and/or admired? Why?
Jackie: I love the Hermes bags which are still hand-stitched. There is something immaculate and flawless about them.
PB: Working in the UK, do you find it easier or harder to tap into other markets? Why?
Jackie: The internet makes everything easier. London is a great place to be because there are so many entrepreneurial people cheering one another on. And all the best buyers come here. London is a hub of creativity. Customers also love the fact that our bags are made in Europe – I have traveled a lot, and in my honest opinion this is the best, if not the ONLY place handbags should be made.
PB: Why do you insist on making your bags in Europe, specifically Italy?
Jackie: We believe that how you make something is as important as the end result.
One of the main reasons I went to South America in 2007 (on a press trip to write a piece about keeping the artisan tradition alive) was to look at the leather work, because I had heard that Argentineans make great bags.
Whilst in Ecuador and Argentina we looked at some leather goods to see if we could work with some artisans there, but the South American leather work and design we found was frankly too basic for BE. And China…I have nothing against China per-se. But the extent of mass-production required, the stories of burns from poisonous chemicals in leather sofas and handles disintegrating, – it is all too scary even to contemplate. I recently went into a store in Stockholm, one of the “top” brands there. All the tickets said “Designed in Sweden, made in China” Those words just immediately degraded that product for me.
Not only that – Italy has a long tradition of expert leather work. All the best ateliers and tanneries are in Italy. All the best hardware producers are in Italy. They are a dying breed but I am on a mission to keep the ateliers alive. Women don’t realize what they will be missing out on if they disappear completely. Prada has already acknowledged in the Italian media that there are not enough Italian artisans left for them to produce everything in Italy even if they wanted to.
This is also another way we distinguish ourselves – for example virtually no brands available in the US produce everything in Italy any more, if they even produce in Italy at all. They might say they do, but…
PB: Celebs. There is certainly a celeb craze. Do you have a celeb following? If no, do you hope to see a celeb carrying your bag someday? If yes, who are some of the celebs who carry your bags?
Jackie: Claudia Schiffer, Kylie Minogue and Kate Middleton (Prince William’s girlfriend) all carry BE bags. Of course we love it when stylish women wear our bags. But we don’t really mind whether they are celebrities or not.
PB: When it comes to handbag trends, where do you see your handbags going over the next couple seasons?
Jackie: That would be telling! I never like to give away too much in advance but let’s just say there will be some amazing new designs and more of the soft cervo leathers that are becoming so very popular and for AW09 lots of dark jewel colors.
We do also have a few new ranges coming out, but more details at this stage would spoil the fun! Ultimately we have a lot of things happening just now – we are setting out to change the world of online retail as you know it. But that will take years, probably!
PB: You pride yourself on interacting with your customers – what is some of the best feedback you’ve received?
Jackie: Where would I even begin? We get truly amazing feedback every single day. Sometimes it makes me cry. People really appreciate the amount of time we spend with them, the way we interact as a team and the lengths we go to at all hours of the day to assist and support them. The BE kind of service just doesn’t really exist anywhere else on the internet and I am so excited to be a part of what we are creating. It is an amazing feeling to watch all your hard work and ideas become reality!
We don’t always get it right, by the way, but the line between customer and friendship is always blurry for us. The best feedback does not come in words but in actions – the vast majority of our custom is repeat business and that says it all for me.
PB: What are the next steps for BE? What can Purse Blog readers expect/be excited to see?
Jackie: We have just launched BE Couture. Yay finally! BE Couture is a unique service for the luxury fashion industry, allowing customers to order their handbags online. It was originally planned for last summer but it has taken us longer than expected to perfect because we wanted to create a sophisticated system enabling customers to do everything online – place their order, change their minds, choose to have it produced in the future, see whether it has been cut yet, check the production calendar, see bags ordered by others, get together with others to order the same bag.
5 years ago Belen Echandia was the first and remains the only luxury company to offer a made-to-order handbag service on its entire collection of leathers and styles and we are very proud to be finally bringing the service online. It is already a pretty sophisticated system and there is more to come.
PB: How did you come up with the idea for BE Couture?
Jackie: When we started producing handbags in 2004, we offered a bespoke (made-to-order) service. I have a habit of always taking the difficult route in life because I always want to be different. If someone says something isn’t possible, I always want to know why. It was the same with our bespoke service.
I loved the idea of offering a service that didn’t exist at all in the luxury market – since you cannot just walk into a luxury handbag store and say “I love that bag but by the way I want it in this color, with this lining and this hardware. And could you please add me on a messenger strap and change the buckle?” Everyone I spoke to thought I was crazy but I couldn’t understand why this shouldn’t be possible. Or at least, if it was even a remote possibility I was going to make it happen.
I don’t need to tell you that women loved it! The press went crazy and the unique concept really launched BE into the luxury handbag market. This eventually became too time-consuming and too expensive for the Spanish workshop we were working with, but our bags are now produced in Italy and we have reintroduced the service. We have been planning and developing the online platform since January 2008.
It is exciting because 5 years since we began offering it, there are still no other luxury handbag companies offering this service on their entire collection at this price point. Anya Hindmarch has one bag you can put your name on and Mulberry offers one or two styles and a small selection of leathers. Hermes does offer a bespoke service but their made-to-order bags cost a fortune and their waiting lists can span 6 YEARS.
We will be introducing a more expensive range very shortly, because there is demand amongst some of our customers already. And I don’t rule out a cheaper range as well (retaining our quality, our ethics and our Italian production). We want to make everyone’s life beautiful, so we want our world to be accessible to as many women as possible.
PB: How does it work and where can we try it?
Jackie: You can find the service on our website at www.belenechandia.com. I won’t reveal more here so as not to spoil the surprise. The only thing is that we don’t always have the exact combination pictures on our site because we have over a million combinations and would have to render the pictures in Photoshop, which doesn’t look good at all.
Waiting times for our bespoke service is currently between 2 and 6 weeks and we will do our best to keep it that way.
And now a few fun questions:
PB: When you aren’t designing handbags, how do you spend your time?
Jackie: When I am not working, I particularly love working out and spending time with the people I love. I spend so much time at my desk that I try to get out and exercise twice a day, even if just for a walk or a swim. I love going to the movies, reading, running, pilates, traveling for fun (as opposed to work) and learning new things. I am always learning something new. Of course, I also like shopping, but these days I prefer to do it online as much as possible.
PB: It seems like almost every time I talk to you, you are either coming or going. Do you love the traveling lifestyle?
Jackie: Actually no, I don’t love the traveling lifestyle. Yes, I love visiting new places, Yes, I love staying in fabulous hotels, Yes I love different cultures, but I also like my routine – my favorite cafes, my exercise regime and spending time with my friends and my fiancÃ©. And sadly I can’t take those with me when I travel! Although I do take my trainers and I once had my free weights confiscated when trying to board an airplane with them in my cabin bag. My traveling companion thought it was hilarious!
PB: With all the traveling you’ve done, tell us about your favorite trip.
Jackie: The best trip I ever took was a press trip to Ecuador. Ecuador has beautiful scenery, traditional haciendas and amazing food. It is definitely a best-kept secret destination.
PB: What is something you can’t live without?
Jackie: A beautiful handbag of course! Currently I could not live without my black glossy Hug Me. I take it everywhere. As I write this I am sitting on a plane, looking at the snow over Stockholm. The Hug Me is at my feet full of 10kg of my belongings and still looking as great as the day I bought it. I use it as a day bag almost daily with just a wallet, keys and notebook. People must be sick of me harping on about my Black Glossy Hug Me! I promise to get a new favorite soon.
PB: Can you leave us with a final thought about BE, that you would like everyone to know?
Jackie: The BE team is dedicated to delivering a genuinely amazing customer experience and everyone who works with and for us is 100% committed to and passionate about everything we do. We love getting close to our customers and whatever happens we will always retain our old-world values and our small-company heart. Watch this Space!