raw materials, hand woven pieces of local, Pennsylvania leather, carefully choreographed etchings + patterns—there is a certain elegance to the handmade leather bags which Chadds Ford resident, Bri Brant, assembles for her self-run company, Arden + James. We met with Bri to learn more about her bags (which were just named Best of Philly!), what inspires her designs + the revival of artisan craftsmanship in the Brandywine Valley.
hg: what were you doing before you started arden + james in 2006?
bri: my husband, James, and I are originally from this area, but we moved to Colorado to take a break. I started working for a honey company out there—making beeswax candles + selling them at farmers' markets. The best thing was meeting customers while making something I really believed in. We were kind of out there by ourselves. We had no friends or family so we had all of this time for hobbies. I started making bags + selling them, and eventually on my made own website.
hg: tell us the story of arden + james? Where did this name come from?
bri: Arden is a small artist village in Delaware. It was founded in the Arts + Crafts period in this country, so the early 1900’s. An architect named William Price designed the village as a Utopian Community, especially for actors, musicians, and craftspeople. They hold a fair every year called the Arden Fair (currently in its 100th+ year) where the craftspeople sell their wares. There’s live music, a beer garden in the woods—I went there when I was a kid and I remember being so inspired. People were making stuff + selling it, and I wanted to be part of it.
As I grew up, I wanted to be an Industrial Designer – a product designer - but I also loved traditional craft using authentic natural materials. I find a material such as raw woven linen, and ask, 'What does it want to be? Oh, it wants to be a bag.' How can I show this to people who would otherwise never see linen from this little mill in Belarus? That’s what I love. I source everything locally from Pennsylvania besides the linen, because linen does not grow wild here. My leather is from a Pennsylvania tannery that’s been around since 1867, and is one of the two original vegetable tanneries in the country.
hg: what prompted your desire to create handmade leather goods?
bri: I began sourcing the best leather possible for straps for the linen bags. While I was working with that leather, it occurred to me, 'What does it really want to be?' It just wants to be a simple tote. I use minimal hardware, in order to show off the natural beauty of the leather. Also, I can assure that the entire bag ages perfectly, and is a simple design that is “in style” season after season and year after year. An heirloom.
hg: your bags are a mix of function + aesthetics, from where do you draw the inspiration?
bri: it's a handcrafted modern aesthetic, inspired by minimal mid-century design, featuring natural materials with lots of unique character. Do you know Wharton Esherick? His workshop is in Paoli— he was trained as a painter + was really good at making wooden frames for his paintings so he instead focused on woodworking. His work is both sculptural and functional.
hg: all of your bags are handmade, how much time does it take to make one of your bags?
bri: it can range anywhere from an hour to five or six hours. Designs can take years to develop and evolve the way I want them.
hg: all of the materials you use are carefully curated. How do you find + build relationships with these suppliers?
bri: I am very passionate about working with small companies that produce amazing natural materials. I feel fortunate to be able to order larger quantities now, so that I can order directly from these companies, and they allow me to customize my materials to that I have a truly unique product. They have a rich history and take a lot of pride in their work. We have a mutual respect and appreciation for each other, and that makes my work meaningful. Sourcing the best local materials takes years of research, but the discovery is one of the most exciting parts of my work. And it is the backbone of my designs.
"That’s the coolest thing—you’re supporting local businesses + those businesses just happen to be the best there are."
hg: what is the production process like, from sourcing to finished product?
"The materials themselves are the inspiration."
What do they want to be? Then I’m playing with shapes + sizes to get it to be a really functional product that is the right size for people to use. I'm getting customer feedback as I make them + changing things so everything is a constant evolution. I’ve been making the linen bags for about seven years—I really enjoy the constant improvement of the designs.
hg: what do you think differentiates your bags from other ones on the market?
bri: it’s a bag that’s meant to be used. Most of the time, when you get an expensive bag, you’re afraid to set it down, afraid to spill anything on it. My bags are meant to get beat up—I want you to throw it around. The bags will look better the more you use it + the older they get. The copper, leather + linen are going to age together. Everything is meant to be completely wiped off. This is equestrian leather. This is harness leather. It’s meant to be outside. You could bury that bag in the ground for two years, dig it up and it would look better.
hg: your bags are featured in some very special stores such as Longwood Gardens, Moon + Arrow, Chicago Botanical Gardens + many more. How did that come about?
bri: I always put my authentic self and work out there, and people respond to that. Social media has made that easy for me. If you are honest in the work you do, the right opportunities come to you. They may not be the “biggest” opportunities but they are the meaningful and appropriate ones for you. The stores I work with are ones that I truly admire. My business grows organically – as my boys grow up I have more time to work, so I make and sell more bags. In the next couple of years, I plan to have a workshop / shop space where people can come and see all of my materials and processes in person and place custom bag orders.
hg: there is a revival of artisan + locally made products, are you noticing a surge in demand for your products?
bri: growing interest in locally made products has definitely boosted my business. People write me looking for bags made with local and natural materials. Bags that are sustainable designed and will last for years to come. I have always valued these things, and it’s so exciting to see interest grow!
hg: what’s next for arden + james? Are you looking to expand your product line? Are there any functional features that you are eager to try out?
bri: I plan to offer more semi-custom bags. For example, a customer could choose a bag style, size, material, color, and decorative detail. My friend Tara, of Scout & Annie vintage homegoods in Kennett Square, is opening a collaborative space called WORKS in September. We will be part of that, and I hope to have one of each of my bags on display so that people can see them in person. It’s always hard to shop for bags online without seeing and touching the materials in person. I am excited to show off the functional variety of bag designs and the beauty of the bags’ natural materials.
hg: do you have a dream project? A “pipe dream” bag or craft that you dream of doing one day?
bri: I would like to do a lot more handwork. I make a lot of bags that are “blank canvases" where I can add decorative features such as weaving, etching, handpainting. That’s where things get really fun, and I get to differentiate my work from what’s out there. I can make someone a bag that no one else will EVER have. It's cool when I go out around here + see people with my bags, using them. When the bag is beaten up—that makes me happy.
"Bags are so personal, you shouldn’t compromise on them."