Arden + James: An Interview with Bri Brant

Sitting down with Bri Brant at Chadd’s Café, I was struck by the amber, honey-colored eyes looking back at me. With her face also framed by long copper-colored hair, I couldn’t help but think of the parallel between the natural beauty of the artist and the leather bound creations that she is famous for. Designing bags and wallets of the highest quality vegetable tanned leather, she describes her work as a blend of industrial and craft-based design—informed by natural materials. Bri was gracious enough to sit down with me over coffee to talk about her award winning company; Arden + James, as well as her family’s newest passion project: the Chadd’s Ford Barn Shops.

Photo by Parikha Mehta Photography

How is working with leather different to other creative disciplines?

It’s really expensive, so you have to be really careful! If you make a mistake, you make that piece into something else. You can’t afford to have any waste. I only work with natural materials, so no matter what you do, it’s always beautiful because the material itself is beautiful.

Do you have any favorite custom orders that you’ve done?

Yeah! The Brandywine River museum, their founder Frolic Weymouth was having an exhibit of a bunch of his paintings—it was in the Spring when they had it— and they asked me to do a special bag with Virginia bluebells, which were his favorite flower. He also has this really famous painting with Virginia bluebells, so I did a special bluebells design thatI etched onto the leather, and they sell them at the museum. I also do special botanical bags for Longwood Gardens and those are really special. And then, everything on my website is semi-custom, so people are getting exactly what they want. They’re choosing their own options— like their sizes, colors and strap style. That’s really fun being able to give people something custom and made-to-order, but still being able to be in control. It’s not something I can’t make or hardware that I don’t have. It’s like, here’s your A, B, C, D, but it’s still a super custom bag that nobody else is going to have, but I can handle it as a one person business.

You’re a mom. Is making your craftsmanship part of your routine helpful in balancing the busyness of raising young kids?

You have to be really flexible with your schedule, because you never know what they’re going to need, and they always need something! Now both my boys are in school from 8:30–3:00, so that’s how I’m able to do this. It’s like a nice vacation!

Bri also makes lovely beeswax candles that smell heavenly.

Any advice to anyone who wishes to start working with leather, but is a little bit nervous try it or be creative in that realm?

You have to really love the material—whatever material you’re working with. Whether it’s leather, clay, paper—anything—you just really have to love the material, because that’s going to inspire you. Otherwise, you’re just going to be bored, you know? So you have to really love the material! Not loving the final product that somebody else makes—that’s not going to inspire you. You have to love the material yourself and come up with your own design. So, it’s that first. Then with leather, you can buy scraps if you go on Etsy or even eBay. Buy scraps of really good stuff and work with the good leather, because that’s going to give you better results.

I’d like to know more about the Chadds Ford Barn Shops and how your family is bringing it back to life. How did it get started?

Well, I grew up down the street and my first job was in a Wawa in Chadd’s Ford— so I worked there and it was like the town general store. I got to know everybody in town— basically all our neighbors were the only ones that ever came in because it was like the smallest Wawa ever! So, I got to know everybody and it was so fun—I enjoyed it so much and it really changed me as a person. When the Wawa closed 10 years ago, I always missed it and the whole community really missed it. We never saw each other anymore. So, it was always in my head that we needed a gathering place.

So then, when our family started the rejuvenation project on this little village a couple years ago, it was always our plan to have a café, because we knew that the only way to get people to really come and hang out is with coffee! So, we did that, and I put my store in the front there so that I could be part of the whole thing too.

The Barn Shops have been here for almost 50 years— next year it will be 50 years. And when they were built, tour buses would come in; they’d go to Longwood Gardens or the River Museum—and Chadd’s Ford became a shopping destination. Then, people stopped coming over the years and started going to different places when all the malls popped up. I think people are ready for this again. The past couple years—it didn’t need anything major, it was always nice. We just wanted to bring the attention back to it, so we have been adding things in, like the cafe and more stores to bring people in and have a reason to make it a destination again.

It was more of like a marketing project. Everyone goes really fast down Route 1 and totally forgot that it was here. So, we just had to remind them, that’s all. So, I’m like all Instagram and Facebook and everything’s getting the word out, and I’ve done that for a bunch of different businesses. This is my home town so I really wanted to put my energy into this.

What’s really interesting is that there is this community of artisans on Instagram that are super supportive of each other. For me, I tended to think of the negative side of social media for a while, but there is this wonderful, awesome upside to it too! What has that been like for you, to interact with customers and people that love your work?

Social media is amazing, as long as you always keep it positive. And if you do, people pick up on that positivity and you attract the right crowd. You don’t get the kind of people I call ‘time wasters’—you know with all the junk. We’ve been able to attract so many people. My business completely started on Instagram. That’s how I got every one of my wholesale customers and got the word out on everything. But you just have to be consistent about it and post all the time. But as long as you’re being honest about it, and putting your true self out on social media, then you attract the right customer. You get the results that you want. You get the customer that you want, not a customer that’s not great for you—which is almost even worse than no customer at all. For my bags, I’m always attracting people who understand my brand, because they can look at my Instagram and see what the mood of it is, and the style and the materials and they can know all about it without even ever having seen a bag in person. Versus, if you’re putting advertising stuff out there or paying for ads and all that, you attract a customer that’s not necessarily right for you, and they’re a customer that may not be happy with what they get.

So just to keep it simple, you have to be really authentic and put your authentic self out there—and that’s true with everything. Otherwise, you end up with a life that you don’t want. You just have to be honest and authentic and then you’re fine. That’s what this[café] is too. This café is authentic to the Barn Shops. It’s nothing more and nothing less. That’s why it’s called Chadd’s, because we’re not trying to be fancy. We’re not trying to be hipster. We’re not trying to attract any particular group. It’s a café for everyone. The Barn Shops are for everyone. We’re not trying to be exclusive or fancy or any of that stuff. That’s why I think people are responding to it, because it’s a happy place and everyone feel comfortable.

I think a lot of places, especially restaurants, you almost feel uncomfortable with who they’re trying to attract or the image they’re trying to portray. It’s almost insulting in a way. You feel like you’re not worthy of being there or eating there, and it attracts a strange customer that thinks that they are worthy of being there. Do know what I mean? That customer—we don’t want that customer! You know, like they like deserve to be waited on[hand and foot.] It is what it is! It’s self-serve for the most part. You know, here’s what we have, we have to keep it simple. It’s like a barn! That’s how we feel, and it’s family and friends that work here—you better be nice to them!

Within an easy distance of both Longwood Gardens and the Brandywine River Museum, The Chadd’s Fords Barn Shops are well worth a visit with it’s cozy atmosphere, wonderful coffee and unique shopping items. I know this humble correspondent can’t wait to go back!

Follow Bri on Instagram here and Facebook here.

Design your own bag by Bri at http://www.ardenandjames.com

And don’t forget to head out to Chadd’s Fords Barn Shops and follow them here!