Understated Italian chic on the outside. New Orleans funk and soul on the inside. BENE Handbags is a marriage of Eleanor Schwing’s two worlds. The New Orleanian moved to Italy in 2014 to teach English. A few years later, with no formal fashion training, she shook up the luxury handbag world when she launched a line of exclusively shaped and whimsically lined everyday bags. We’re tickled to share Ellie and BENE Handbags with you.
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Ellie Schwing founded BENE to fill a void. She never dreamed of becoming a designer. But after seven years, she’s created bags of all shapes, sizes, colors, and designs and has collaborated with dozens of inspiring Southern artists.
Tell me a little about the word bene.
It’s an Italian word. It’s a positive word that essentially means “good,” but you use it in many different forms. You could have an entire conversation using the word in different ways. I didn’t want my brand to be named after me. I also loved introducing a new word the English. It’s a four-letter word that I hear 8,000 times a day. But after launching, I realized it’s not easy to say. I need to do a whole campaign around how to say it. It’s “bin-ayyy,” not “bean” or “beanie.”
The Alexa Pulitzer x BENE collection celebrates the soul of New Orleans jazz. The inside liner is the original “Keep Your Head Up” sheet music by Ben Jaffe of Preservation Hall. And a portion of each bag goes back to The Preservation Hall Foundation. Ellie creatively showcases New Orleans’s rich art culture through multi-layered collaborations.
Were you a creative kid?
I’m a total tomboy. I played soccer for 16 years. My sister is the creative one. But I love handbags. My grandmother had this fantastic collection of handbags, so I always had a beautiful designer handbag to cover up my soccer rags. It elevated any outfit. Later on, I didn’t need those designer bags anymore. I just needed things that I wanted. I couldn’t find anything that was not heavily logo-ed. But I also didn’t want a Target bag. I wanted a travel tote, and I thought, I live in Italy; why don’t I get this bag made? I envisioned this little old man in glasses hammering out my bag. That is not how it happened. The reality is that those craftsmen do exist, but they work for a family team that has been around for 400 years.
Because she lives in Italy, Ellie has a relationship with the artisans who build each BENE bag by hand.
How did the travel tote turn into a full-time gig?
I hired some consultants to introduce me to some luxury studios and teach me the process if I wanted to start my own line. It’s hard to do just one. It’s either go big or go home. Finding production studios is really difficult. But I have contracts with these studios, and whenever I am there, they’re working on Dior, Marni, and Prada. They work with smaller brands in between the larger contracts. I’m one of those.
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I just thought I would make my travel bag, and that was it. But I spent a year researching and understanding how to test products and how much to invest. I created a budget and a plan to sell x number of bags. To do that, I needed to start with three basics. I didn’t want to get pigeonholed right off the bat with a tassel, a fringe, a this, or a that. I started basic. And I just learned. I thought it’d be over at the launch party, but then I just thought, “Oh, I have to keep up with this now.” It’s changed a lot over the last seven years.
The Nott (one of Ellie’s original three designs) showcases BENE’s unique shape. The buffalo hide pictured is sourced from the Campania region of Italy. It’s an oil-based hide whose patina only gets richer with age.
Tell me a little about how you mix Italian style into your New Orleans spirit.
What I love about Italian women is that they’re dripping in labels, not logos. They all wear Prada, Dior, and Gucci head-to-toe, but you will never know. But in the US, if someone’s buying that logo, it’s on the outside. I have Italian clients who have many more handbags than just BENE, and when I finally meet them, I point out the subtly reversed letter B on my hardware. Most of the time, they haven’t even noticed it. They just liked the bag. And that’s the ultimate compliment to me.
Ellie picks only the highest quality and most luxurious leather to craft each bag — from metallics to croc.
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What’s a common misconception about working in this world of luxe accessories/fashion?
If you go to LA or New York, or even to the shows in studios [in Italy], they have something like 40 bag shapes. You send them your leather, liner, and hardware. They make it, then you gold-leaf stamp your brand on it. That’s what most people do in my sector because it’s easy. It’s expensive to own your patterns. So you see the same exact bucket or shape everywhere because the makers don’t own that. I do it the luxury way. Either I am so dumb, and my competition is laughing at me for putting so much into this, OR I’m a genius in 20 years because I own everything. I do very beautiful, simple designs. But if you know about stitching and leather, you can tell that it’s not with a random pattern anyone can buy.
Ellie is proud of the sideways B detail (can you see it!?) and what is inside each bag. Beth Vizard Lambert, a 70-something fine artist and Ellie’s now “best friend,” has created a slew of visage patterns for BENE liners.
What’s the story behind all the fun designs that line your bags?
Everyone knows New Orleans and Italy, so I was thinking about how to encompass those two things. What better way to bring in my New Orleans heritage than by showcasing these local female artists inside the bag? I get to collaborate with these incredible artists whose art is in renowned galleries and installed worldwide. To be able to put their art in this vessel is just so cool to me. The inside should make you as happy as the outside.
Each BENE is silk-lined with custom artwork by New Orleans female artists, like these glitter chicken bones by Artemis Antippas.
You do the most notable collaborations with many brands and artists we adore. How do these come to fruition?
It’s kind of an evolution of conversations. It’s not as if I feel pressure to have a new artist every year. Some years, I won’t launch a new style, and some years, I will launch three. It’s all about when something is right. Frankly, a lot of artists don’t inspire me. The women I work with are pillars of the community. They give back. They are genuinely inspirational artists that are doing really cool shit. When those conversations happen, that’s when I get excited. But it’s all by chance.
BENE teamed with Charlotte-based artist Windy O’Connor to create a line of fabulous cell phone bags and handbags.
My travels really inspire me. I have spent the past few weeks in Japan. There was this costume designer I visited there. The whole country is just wild. They’re so respectful and quiet and put-together. On the regular, Pierpaolo Piccioli, Valentino’s creative director, is my god.
What’s your favorite hidden gem in NOLA? How about in Italy?
I love the local po’ boy shops in New Orleans. I love getting to know the barista and the guy behind the cash register at the local coffee bars anywhere I go. Since we live in Rome, we love to go to Montepulciano, a little Tuscan town. We will sometimes close our eyes and put our fingers on a map. We love going to tiny towns that may not even have a restaurant.
Shortly after moving to Italy, mutual friends connected Ellie with an Italian guy named Dario, who helped her acclimate to a new life. They were friends for a year, fell in love, and recently married, sealing Ellie’s ex-pat fate. She still visits New Orleans and other stateside cities regularly.
One BENE bag you’re currently obsessed with?
I love the last three styles I launched: The Louise, The Isabel, and the Catherine (the cell phone pouch). Remember, I didn’t go to fashion school. This career is really out of my comfort zone. I am always learning and getting more confident in my craft. I make so many mistakes! But I apologize, and I try to do better. I plugged all the “basic” holes first, so now I can make some beautiful things. I have so many bags in my brain! Hopefully, I can grow BENE enough to make them all.
“I cannot take the cell phone bag off my body. It’s just so fun,” Ellie says.
Thank you, Ellie, for a delightful conversation. All photos courtesy BENE Handbags. Check out more of Ellie’s designs at BENEHandbags.com.
For even more wonderful Southern retail destinations, check out our store highlights.
Zoe is a StyleBlueprint staff writer, Charlotte native, Washington & Lee graduate, and Nashville transplant of eleven years. She teaches Pilates, helps manage recording artists, and likes to “research” Germantown’s food scene.