There is an old elevator in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, so old that there are no buttons to push, but instead, a handle to maneuver expertly once the primitive steel doors are closed. This is as vintage as it can be: breathing life into memories and ghostly stories alike while eluding a romantic New York, a far cry from the Hudson Yards that recently opened just a few blocks away to the West.
Once inside the second-floor loft, painted in dark and woody colors, a feeling of entering a special world takes the visitor even further. The furniture is a balanced mix between antique tables and lamps found in flea markets and modern sofas and tables. On the right, a small corner office is filled with leather pieces, bouts of fur, African jewelry and a dozen of handbags: clutch, shoulder, tote, crossbody and pouch styles. They are all part of the collection that Ingrid Bruha, a French woman who moved back to the United States with her American husband Sheldon and their three children in 2013, has created for her eponymous and fast-growing brand.
When traveling to Vietnam four years ago, Bruha particularly liked the jute crossbody bag her sister was wearing. Back to Manhattan, she designed one for herself, but one with more personality and singularity where she added recycled fur from one of her grandmother’s coats. She also included leather and a horn shaped button. Bruha soon created more than a bag: she had invented a style that would become the Ingrid Bruha handbags company, her second fashion venture. This time, however, she wanted to make sure that her brand would match her lifestyle and philosophy, a trend that the newer generation of consumers and retailers are increasingly requiring: she wanted her handbags to be luxurious and sustainable.
As an ethical brand, Ingrid Bruha addresses one of the top four current challenges found within the fashion industry. According to the McKinsey/Business of Fashion (BoF) study The State of Fashion 2019, “sustainability is evolving from a tick-box exercise into a transformational feature that is engrained in the business model and ethos of many recent success stories.”
Ingrid Bruha is one of several new small-size brands that disrupt a market fueled by an appetite for newness, sustainable fashion, and a decline of brand loyalty.
“I have created handbags that have character, sophistication, and uniqueness,” Bruha explains. “I want each client to choose the bag that allows her to express her individuality, voice, confidence, and leadership; I want my clients to embody the story of the handbag itself.”
Founder of Journey of a Braid and Miami icon Danié Gómez-Ortigoza explains that “the new luxury in fashion is to wear clothes and accessories that elude power, the power within more than the power a label gives you.”
“A product can no longer be only and purely craftmanship plus creativity and heritage: we need to add values and emotion to it. Products need to be meaningful,” echoes the Balenciaga CEO Cedric Charbit in an interview led by McKinsey and BoF.
An Ingrid Bruha bag depicts a quite simple story, yet it reflects layers of recycled and upcycled products unfolding an idea that if a handmade bag is by essence unique, it then becomes a staple within a woman’s wardrobe for years to come.
The founder of The UpCycle Project—an education platform to raise awareness of the waste the fashion industry creates—explains that she needed her clothes to be more than just a brand, more than just beautiful. “I wanted a story, a story of purpose, respect, transparency, and reasonability,” Gabriella Smith says. “There is a new and growing consciousness about a culture of recycling and upcycling materials in order to address waste issues,” Gómez-Ortigoza adds.
For Bruha, it first means creating products that correspond to both a necessity to protect our environment and to impact her supply chain positively.
Each of Ingrid Bruha’s bags is sewed in New Jersey with buttons made of horns, jewelry recycled from African beads, feathers from cruelty-free raised birds, furs upcycled from yesterday’s coats, and leather bought from resellers. No items are neither purchased nor created to respond to a demand: her designs are based on existing materials. Bruha takes pride in telling her clients how each bag is made displaying the bag’s contents as open knowledge on her website.
According to McKinsey, “Transparency has become an important issue further upstream in the supply chain, with consumers increasingly concerned about issues including fair labor, sustainable resourcing and the environment. Consumers want to support brands that are doing good in the world, with 66% willing to pay more for sustainable goods.”
“The 4p’s of brand marketing—product, place, price, and promotion—need to be changed to 6 p’s,” Smith says. “We need to add People and Planet.”
Long before it became trendy, the head of Kering Americas Laurent Claquin, explained that investing in sustainability had become imperative to the fashion industry whether the act of buying a Stella McCartney product for instance was driven or not by efforts to protect the people and the planet. As The State of Fashion 2019 study shows, 9 in 10 Gen Z consumers “Believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental issues; GenZ and Millennials account for $350 billions of spending power, and Gen Z will account for 40% of global consumers by 2020.”
“At Kering, we strongly believe that sustainable business is smart business,” Claquin said at the 2017 Luxury Lab in Mexico City. “It responds to current consumer demands, drives innovation, and in many cases, it reduces cost. It is also the only way to respond to the critical challenges of the 21st century, including population growth, resource scarcity, the loss of biodiversity and climate change.”
Traceability is sometimes complex to achieve in an industry when the supply chain is opaque. Bruha repetitiously asks where the products she purchases come from but admits that her suppliers are sometimes unaware of their origins. She hopes that industry pressure or legislation will soon impose resellers to enforce transparency on sourcing—similarly to what has been done in some markets for food products after scandals endangered people’s lives.
“In a perfect world, consumers would purchase fashion based on their value system, which can include ethically made, cruelty-free, social responsibility, fair trade, eco/recycled materials, women empowerment to name a few. But I believe the biggest change will come when brands successfully communicate their values to their consumers and make it easier for customers to make decisions,” Smith explains.
There is room for improvement. According to The UpCycle Project, the United States generates an average of 25 billion lbs. of post-consumer textile waste every year, of which only 15% gets recovered through donations or textile recycling. In the summer of 2018, the British brand Burberry generated an uproar when it decided to burn a stock of clothes and accessories worth almost $40 million rather than to sell it, even at a lower price. To Bruha, brands produce too much, at a wrong price level and are forced into permanent sales. “Ethical also means a control of quantity and price,” Bruha says. “To be small is a philosophy and lifestyle.”
Aligned with the fashion proposition of Ingrid Bruha, McKinsey adds that these small brands “are capitalizing on three trends—millennial preferences, digital marketing and retailer requirements for differentiation and margin. Millennials crave the new, different, and authentic, while often scorning traditional brands; digital technology gives small brands an easy way to engage with consumers; and retailers need to distance themselves from e-marketplaces and discounters.” This category of business attracts a growing amount of VC funding. According to McKinsey’s consumer practice, across the whole of consumer sector, more than 4,000 small companies have received $9.8 billions of venture funding over the past ten years –7.2 billion of it in the past four years alone.”
By all standards, Ingrid Bruha is still a small brand. But to paraphrase E.F. Schumacher 1973 book, “Small is beautiful.” As Bruha says, “you can have ‘big ideas’ and be small, and you can think ‘small’ and remain a giant.” Her next project, in light of companies’ social impact strategy, is to work directly with two women entrepreneurs from the Kibera slum, the largest in Nairobi, Kenya. Bruhua would then have a greater impact on their own economic sustainability and ‘will move her handbags a floor up.’
By JC Agid
To go further: