Made in Northern Michigan: b. May Custom Handbags

Handcrafted here in Northern Michigan, b.may Bags handbags are internationally coveted for their artful, simplistic designs and unexpected leathers. When she’s not giving trunk shows in New York, Miami or Vienna, b.may creator Barbara May can be found, along with her business partner Chris Van Winkle, in her baglab, a renovated shotgun cottage in Bay Shore near Petoskey, amid rolls of python and crocodile leather (non-endangered varieties, of course) and silver-embossed lambskin stitching up some her legendary zippered clutches and other varieties of the hippest arm candy available. We sat down in the b.may studio, near Petoskey, over a few glasses of wine and the scent of leather to talk fashion and inspiration and to examine the concept of Northern Michigan as an unlikely epicenter of haute couture.

Pulling up to this little Northern Michigan cottage I didn’t immediately think couture handbags, am I the only one confused?We get a lot of, ‘Where the hell am I?’ when people walk through the door. We like to be Bay Shore’s parallel universe of snakeskin bags and leather smells.

The fashion scene sounds glamorous. Is it?Hard work is the furthest thing from glamorous. I would rather be unknown and in control of my business than glamorous and at the mercy of every trend.

I understand you studied film?I designed fabric for a clothing designer in Boston after college, and then tried to be responsible and go into sales, textiles. Then I worked in film production, set design, art direction, which led me back to wanting to make something. Film was a very brief part of my life.

Why are you making handbags and not movies?The film process is all about the production. You spend your time, all your money and all your family’s money making something that lasts for two hours and may or may not sell. I found a need to make things that last.

So you went to apprentice under a handbag guru?Not exactly. I had the idea of making zipper bags and started selling them in the boutique where I was working, Huzza’s in Harbor Springs. I’d go to work as a shop girl for eight dollars an hour then come home and sew bags. I’m completely self-taught, so everything was an epiphany: how to install zippers, how to do edges. Zippers were a big wow. Because I had no technical expertise, when I figured out how to install a zipper, I felt like I was the first person in the world to do it.

What were those first bags made from? I went to the leather district in New York and started buying odd pieces and lot ends. I would buy a small python, make a bag, sell it and use the money to buy a bigger python.

Pythons?I get them in Miami. From a guy named Ruben.

We all need a little danger right?Yeah. The exotic reptile skins are all wild; there are bounty hunters. It goes bounty hunters, Ruben, me and then your wife’s arm. It sounds exciting but in truth it’s totally legitimate and highly regulated. None of the species we deal with are endangered.

How do the materials factor into your style?My style is really driven by the skin. It’s all about texture, color and simplicity. The bags are unstructured, and we use very little hardware or embellishment.

No big gold buckles?No.

As a brand, how does b.may fit in the universe of fashion?I’m not from the fashion world, and I think people find that refreshing. Branding scares me. I don’t want our bags in every store, just the best ones, the ones where people get what we’re doing. We’re not trying to be on the arm of Cameron Diaz, and if we are we want her to pay for it.

She can afford it.She can definitely afford it.

Northern Michigan: isolation or advantage?Our isolation is our advantage. Living here for 12 years, I’ve met more interesting people here than I ever did in New York City.

Really?Really. We don’t make bags like anyone else, because we don’t know how. I don’t get to hire art students to work in my studio. One of my girls is a Ukrainian clothing designer; the other is an ex-automotive upholstery worker.

So what inspires your collections?There are definite zeitgeists in the fashion world, and sometimes I’ll find myself caught in one of those, but mostly I’m inspired by art and meeting artists in my travels.

Tell me about your collaboration with the Austrian pop artist Andreas Reimann.We met at one of my trunk shows in Vienna. He’s does silk screens and developed a technique for printing on leather, so we decided to collaborate on a Detroit project.

Vienna to Detroit?Vienna being so clean and orderly; Andreas loved the anarchy of Detroit and the rock and roll iconography. He came over and took a bunch of photos and sketches, and then I hauled bags to his studio in Vienna. We painted and hand-finished everything. It was a blast.

The collection is definitely edgy, how was it received?I think people are very loyal to the mythology of Detroit and want to see it come back. I had proper ladies from the suburbs with cropped haircuts and Peter Pan collars paying $1,200 for rock-and-roll handbags.

What is b.may moving toward?
I never really know. We want to keep this business personal and grow slowly. The greatest satisfaction for me is keeping my hand in everything we do and working face to face with my customers. For a long time I was convinced that I would win the lottery and be confronted with a crisis of ‘now what?’ If that happens I’ll keep making bags and use fancier leathers. If it ever stops being fun we won’t do it anymore.
If I want to buy a bag is there a password and a waiting list?Absolutely not. Last year we opened a store in Harbor Springs that carries the b.may line, and almost all of the work I do here at the studio is custom. Our turnaround time on custom orders is only two to three weeks.

What are the tiers in your collection?It’s important that we’re accessible to everyone. Our pouches and wallets range from $65 to $150 and the really labor-intensive pieces made from exotic skins like caiman (a small alligator) top out around $3,200 with lots of cool options in between.

Python i-Phone cases?
Yep.
Anything else?Well, one thing that has been really gratifying is that this has allowed me an opportunity to work with family and friends here and share this success with them. My dad built my tables for me, and my mom helped me paint. We have a cottage on Grand Traverse Bay where I’ve spent every summer since I was 2, and I still sleep in the same bed. It’s where my heart is. I love it.

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