Behind the Brand: Bembien | Neighborhood Goods

Behind the Brand: Bembien

Written By: Matt Alexander

Published on December 27, 2018

When Bembien’s founder, Yi-Mei Truxes, arrives for our meeting, she’s in the middle of an intense back-and-forth via WhatsApp with her Bali-based production manager. Messages are flying regarding a large wholesale order; specifically, that more weavers will have to be sourced to fulfil the order in time. It turns out that our interview comes at the point at which Yi-Mei is facing the inevitable need for growth that popularity brings.

As every entrepreneur knows, this is A Good Problem To Have (TM). That age-old challenge presented by supply-and-demand is a pretty reliable signal of a company’s success, and after just nine months of working for herself, Yi-Mei is ready to expand her Brooklyn-based studio, too: “I don’t have a salary,” she explains, “so it’d be the first salaried role.”

Currently, Yi-Mei shares her Greenpoint studio — where she designs all her woven basket bags — with her boyfriend Gray, who helps out in a big way, including the occasional weekend fulfillment hustle. “It’s so nice going to the office in the weekend, and not being by yourself.” In fact, when asked if it’s hard for the couple to achieve a healthy work-life balance, Yi-Mei describes what sounds like a pretty perfect situation: “We live four blocks from where we work, we go to work every day, we sit at the same table every day. It’s been so good to have his brain a part of Bembien. More diverse thought, you know? Actually, it’s only been great…” Yi-Mei pauses, suddenly aware of the idyllic, drama-less portrait she’s been painting, and laughs “… which isn’t very interesting!”

Of course, there’s enough drama to be had when you run your own business. The genesis of Bembien arrived six years into Yi-Mei’s role as Marketing Director at Vogue, when she found herself at a crucial point. “I was about 30 at the time I had the idea,” she says, “and it fulfilled a need I had for just creating something; just seeing if I could do it. I think a lot of people feel like that: like, ‘I wonder if I can do something?’”

That something was triggered by a moment in the summer of ’17 when Y-Mei saw a woman crossing a cobblestoned street in New York — as the official brand story goes — and on her shoulder swung a perfect, woven basket bag. “When you’re working in fashion,” she explains, “you’re constantly thinking about it, and when you walk around the street and you see people, you really take in what they have going on: their vibe, their aesthetic. Walking to work that day, I was totally stopped by this woman.” Yi-Mei describes this moment with such enthusiasm, it’s clear that this wasn’t just a story made up for the brand’s About page. “It was one of those magic moments where the sun was shining on her. Totally out of a movie.”

Inspired by this effortlessly cool stranger, Yi-Mei embarked on her quest for a similar bag and remembers her desk at Vogue, cluttered with 30-plus bags she’d ordered as research. “It’s a classic ‘why does anyone start anything?’ story: I couldn’t find it, so…”

Part of her search was realizing that these types of bags come from artisans and weaving villages in various corners of the world. “The ‘not produced’ look is about using hand-made from materials that are harvested from the earth,” Yi-Mei explains. “It looks like this for a reason.” She cites it as a classic look, but not something that has ever really hit mainstream fashion at the time.

So, with a small range of bags created by female weavers Yi-Mei had eventually found in Bali, Bembien launched — and it did well. “Or at least a lot better than I was ever expecting,” she says. “People bought bags. We got press. We were able to get it in the hands of many cool and fabulous women. Next thing you know, we’ve created a brand that’s living and breathing, and people follow it, and it was honestly…” Yi-Mei half-laughs and you can feel the pride building in her. “I don’t think about this enough in my day-to-day anymore, but it was a very exhilarating experience to have something come out of nowhere that people can appreciate and understand the vision behind.”

This pride is well-deserved. Bembien is a brand that not only gives back 10% of its profits to Bali — via the nonprofit Nest — but also pays its artisans a premium. “If you go to Bali and see a bag somewhere in the street, I make sure my artisans are paid a premium, and the reason I do that is because I essentially secure them constant work,” Yi-Mei explains. “In return, I’ve been able to find the very best weavers.”

So give yourself a little pat on the back, too, if you buy one of Bembien’s bags: you’re helping preserve this craft. “It’s a weave that’s been around forever,” Yi-Mei explains, “but it’s one of those things that just needed a little bit of branding and marketing, a platform, an e-commerce space, and someone who’s worked in fashion.” She believes that all too often, businesses make the mistake of seeing something unique to a culture and then trying to mass produce it elsewhere. “You don’t want to strip a culture of what they’ve been doing for so long,” she says. “That’s stealing, in my opinion.”

And so we return to the question of what’s next for the brand. “I didn’t set out to build the biggest business I could,” Yi-Mei explains. “It’s meant to be very intentional and grow at the right place. I mean, I guess I could raise capital and open up a factory in Bali and hire hundreds of weavers, but my artisans weave every bag in their homes. It’s an incredibly peaceful, at-home working experience.” It’s an admirable attitude to have, and it’s a great pleasure to help Yi-Mei spread the work of her weavers far and wide. “We’re also starting to expand into new categories of artisan-made accessories that are both consistent with our original ethos — supporting small artisan communities, promoting/protecting/supporting handmade skills that have been passed down for generations — and the style and aesthetic that Bembien has come to represent.” You can find Bembien’s bags in our seasonal gift guide, online and in-store.

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