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Meet the Chadds Ford Native Crafting Sustainable, Durable Handbags

Photo by Angie Gray

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As a graduate of the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, industrial designer Bri Brant set out to build one-of-a-kind furniture pieces. Instead, the Chadds Ford native found herself concepting frivolous products for big-box stores.

“Our challenge was to first create something visually appealing, then invent a need for it,” she says. As an environmentalist, this didn’t sit well with Brant. “Urging people to consume more ‘things’ they don’t need is the opposite of what I wanted to do,” she says. “I’d rather design something beautiful that you’ll have forever.”

As a hobby, she dabbled with linen and leather crafts, among other natural materials. When she couldn’t find the style of tote she’d been shopping for, she sewed one herself. Family and friends wanted one, too, and soon Brant got carried away with a handbag business. Arden + James (“Arden” is for the artists’ colony in Wilmington, which she loved visiting as a child, and “James” is a family name) started a decade ago with an eponymous tote that has become her brand’s signature.

Brant has designed exclusive collections for Urban Outfitters, Longwood Gardens and Brandywine River Museum, and two years ago opened a boutique within her family’s charming brick-and-mortar Chadds Ford Barn Shops. Over the years, she’s developed dozens more designs, all constructed with the same philosophy: It should be sustainable, and as functional and durable as it is beautiful. To customize bags to her clients’ needs and tastes, Brant’s ecommerce site allows them to choose details—like size, color, inside pockets, strap style and outside logo—from select options. Here, she shares her inspiration and reveals what’s inside her bag.

Delaware Today: Why leather and linen?

Bri Brant: A professor once told me to be true to the materials—choose those I love and create from there—and I am drawn to these organic materials. I source saddle leather from a historic Pennsylvania vegetable tannery—one of only two left in the U.S.—where it’s treated with plant tannins. I like the grainy texture this brings out and the patina it develops over time. Linen is always organic and antimicrobial, and softens with use. I’ve also added a beautiful waxed canvas from a local mill, which has a lot of texture and character.

DT: What inspires your creativity?

BB: The late-Victorian Eastlake style—classic but functional, and without frills—inspires me. I think that we [society] have an appreciation for that again. All the excess isn’t making us happy. We want simplicity and longevity.

DT: How does the Arden + James collection reflect that?

BB: The simplicity is in the materials and design, and they’re made to last like a tool bag. You can load them full, drag them around, beat them up, wipe them down and even hose them out—and they just get better with wear. I sew using the thickest thread, then burn the edges and finish them with pure copper (also locally sourced) so they never come loose. You won’t find zippers on any of the bags, because high-quality zippers just don’t exist—eventually, they’re all going to break.

DT: Wait, I can hose it out?

BB: [Laughs]. Yep. For regular maintenance, just wipe the inside clean with a damp cloth and Dr. Bronner’s soap. For bigger messes—I’m a mom of two young boys, so I know all about those—you can literally hose it out.

DT: What makes your bags versatile enough for every wearer?

BB: All styles—from totes to bucket bags to wallets—work in all seasons, and custom detailing (order online or schedule a meeting with Brant at her shop) give you the look and size you want. All straps are adjustable, so you can wear it over your shoulder or as a cross-body.

DT: What other limited-edition collections have you created?

BB: Occasionally I partner with other artists—like my friend who hand-painted our “tie-dye” tote. And some of my styles have botanical etchings or paintings, all made with natural dyes and paints.

DT: What is your go-to bag?

BB: The Arden Tote is my staple. It’s a good size for all my stuff, and my boys’ stuff, and the inside pockets hold my phone and other items I need to reach quickly. I also make leather key chains that clip right onto a hook inside the bag, so my keys are always at the top and easy to find. All my totes have this feature.

DT: How do your bags support the community?

BB: Aside from sourcing materials from local businesses, I donate any remnants I don’t use to local schools for arts and crafts—nothing goes to waste—and sales go back into the Barn Shops. It’s a special place where I spent my childhood, and I want to preserve it for future generations. My shop also carries goods from other local artisans, like pottery and scarves and jewelry.

For more about Arden + James and to view the full collection, visit ardenandjames.com or visit the Chadds Ford Barn Shops, 1609 Baltimore Pike.

Published as “Haute to Tote” in the April 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.