Local Designer’s Handbags Capture Luxury Fashion with Rustic Flair

Designer/maker Bri Brant at home in Chadds Ford in her Arden + James workspace

Functional objects; natural materials. It is not surprising that shoppers have become obsessed with Arden + James’ one-of-a-kind modern handbags, table runners, candles and stuffed animals made from raw materials and inspired by basic geometry.

Chadds Ford is home to this workshop and mercantile founded by Brianna “Bri” Brant. With a background in industrial design, hand-cast porcelain, ergonomics, local/natural food and beeswax candles, she’s settled on a design style wherein no patterns are used. Each object is pieced together from materials such as hand-cut leather, linen or waxed canvas. Details are rustic but made to last, as the materials are chosen to age beautifully together.

Brant sources the best local, natural materials, including linen, waxed canvas and leather.

Brant’s schooling, at Philadelphia’s College of Textiles and Science, was geared toward furniture. However, upon realizing that her studies were leading her toward mass-produced furniture, she turned her focus to more craft-based businesses.

She went so far as to write one of her teachers to say, “I think I went to school for the wrong thing.”

Porcelain egg maker and Wawa provide business acumen to the artist

He advised her to pick up craft magazines and contact the artisans in the back directories to seek an apprenticeship. Her tutelage under a porcelain egg maker, Chadds Ford’s Piazza Limited, allowed her to learn the craft business. The eggs sold in stores such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom as well as nationwide craft festivals, giving her some exposure to fulfillment at the corporate level, and also the traveling life of a craft-show hawker. These skills would one day form the basis for selling her own goods.

“It kind of opened my eyes to the other side of the art business where you could actually be an artist and still have a business.”

Brant’s bags on display at Arden + James, her flagship store, in the Chadds Ford Barn Shops

There were lots of things she loved about working retail at Wawa, including her ability to gain five years of corporate marketing experience at the convenience store empire’s headquarters before moving away with her husband. She credits the marketing she did for a small honey company in Colorado for even more business skills and the means to inspiration.

While out west, she started making the bags she’s now known for.

Copper rivets are applied to each handbag and tote. The triangle pieces feature her brand.

“We had had nothing to do. No friends, no family, nothing to do. We were out in Boulder, and it was just like this hippy fest. I had this honey job and living on a mountain, it was just a funny thing. So, eventually we had enough of that and just came back home, and I just kept making bags here.”

Her return to southeastern Pennsylvania brought her back to her retail roots, but also connected her to the farmer’s market culture, one that embraces artisan vendors of all kinds.

Between markets and a home show, she sold enough teddy bears, candles, rag dolls and linen bags to realize she might be able to make a go of in textile business.

Family history on Fabric Row in Philadelphia

A friend from her retail life introduced her to the owner of Moon and Arrow, an environmentally conscious boutique on Fabric Row in Philadelphia, and the linen bags became a big seller.

“Fourth Street in Philly is my favorite street because when my grandfather came over from Russia, that’s where his parents had a little stand on Fabric Row. He was a tailor and made custom suits [with] nice fabrics and quality textiles… So, it’s like history.”

Ragdolls, scarves, candles, wallets at Arden + James in Chadds Ford

In addition to her grandfather’s talent, she inherited her mother’ eye. A painter, her mother always told her she was an artist, but Brant says, on reflection, “…I thought my skills were really suited to Wawa.”

“I feel like since she’s been gone, my creativity and my business really started. It’s almost like she was doing it and like it wasn’t me.”

Brant expands on that idea, saying that she doesn’t really know where her ideas come from, hinting that her mother is planting the ideas from beyond. Yet it’s clear, like many artists, her product is the result of the material, just as Michaelangelo, seeing the angel within the marble, carved until he set it free.

Brant sources her leather from a decades-old tannery in Philadelphia

Locally sourced, quality materials

Early on, she discovered gorgeous woven linen from Belarus which, paired with leather, became the first batch of totes.

Arden + James’ leather goods start with a 150-plus-year-old tannery in Pennsylvania. Since it’s considered the best in the country, when Brant asks for some of this and some of that,” the material inevitably inspires the work. She customizes the color, the thickness, the softness and the interior color of the leather to fit the personality of the piece, cutting each bag’s straps one at a time.

Simple and hand-hewn, the Arden Tall Tote

She stumbled upon wax canvas from another 150-year-old company, a mill in New Jersey, which specializes in military textiles. Rivets, in materials such as copper, come from a 100-year-old factory in Baltimore.

Local materials, local business.

She said part of the purpose of her business is to, “…rejuvenate the Barn Shops at Chadds Ford.”

You won’t find Arden + James on Amazon

She used to do wholesale and work with retailers such as Urban Outfitters, but it doesn’t fit her vision. She currently crafts around five bags per week.

“I don’t want to get any bigger because then it just gets crazy. I chose to keep it as a creative business – each thing has to be made by me.”

Bri with her adorable pup Lacey. On the table sits a waxed canvas tote, which Brant says is indestructible and can hold anything, even doubling as a cooler.

She enjoys offering her bags to organizations such as museums as a way to support the local community. It helps to build her brand, and the local museums represent the things she cares about.

Otherwise, she relies mostly on word-of-mouth for marketing. Making each bag special, and crafted to last a lifetime, ensures she continues to hear stories from customers of bags being shared intergenerationally.

Find Arden + James online at her store in Chadds Ford, at WorKS Kennett Square, and in the gift shops at the Brandywine River Museum and Longwood Gardens.

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About the Contributor

JulieAnne Cross

JulieAnne Cross

JulieAnne Cross has built a career around making her home state a fun place to live, working with restaurateurs, festivals, artists and arts organizations to bring people together for good times.