Rian Berry: Reinventing The Handbag

Photo: Greg Stonebraker - Waymire Cross Body, Rian.

Rian Handbags are as Aesthetically Appealing as they are Functional.

Fashion designer Rian Berry has carved out his corner of the international retail market for handbags. From canvas to leather, Rian bags are unique and creative works of art.

Photo: Greg Stonebraker - The Waymire Cross Body (Rian).

Berry began pursuing art when he was about seven years old, and continued his interest in painting until about 2002 – when he began formulating with some colleagues about something they could do on a more broad scale. “Painting was just limited to what I could do … I was trying to find a way to combine it with something bigger,” he says. “The first bags I made were canvas, which felt natural because you paint on canvas … then as we did it more and more, I became a lot more interested in the fashion side of things.”

Designer trends and the functions of the fashion industry were somewhat elusive to the Rian team, and Rian Berry when they launched the brand in 2004. “I didn’t know anything about the industry … I wasn’t really savvy to who was doing what,” Rian said. Outside inspiration and an artistic approach defined the pieces, and according to him, “That’s what makes it somewhat unique for us, we adapt each idea with our kind of ‘radical’ approach. We definitely watch trends, but a lot of the design is just us doing our own thing.”

This trailblazer attitude seems to have worked well for the Rian team. “Not having any experience in fashion kind of gave us this bliss. We had no idea of what we were getting into, it was just kind of simple to us. We knew that there was nothing like what we have, and we didn’t look at that as a clue that we were doing the wrong thing, but as an opportunity,” Berry said. “It was actually a little of both; the product needed to be refined, but the unique ideas were good.”

Different materials, and the use of them is one of the aspects that makes Rian bags unique. “We try to develop our own materials, and develop new textiles and leathers to keep it interesting. I guess the art background pushes us to try new things,” Berry said.

Photo: Greg Stonebraker - The Waymire (Rian).

The bags began to sell at smaller stores in 2005, but Berry was concerned that the brand was beginning to be stereotyped with the bags they were selling at the time – leather bags with cityscapes of Seattle, New York, San Francisco, and Paris. “People began to ask us, ‘what city will you do next’? We didn’t want those bags to define the brand,” he said. They wanted to get Rian bags into Nordstrom. “Nordstrom was a different market, while our bags were more niched. So, we started to evaluate the product. We started to treat it as a fashion label, begin to understand the market better. In the meantime, I was getting a passion for the fashion side of it. Art became the foundation and the undertone instead of the primary purpose.”

It took five more years before Nordstrom began to sell Rian handbags. In October 2010, Nordstrom began carrying the bags in 11 stores, and now the bags are sold in over 60 stores nationwide. Not at all surprisingly, Rian has experienced many challenges alongside the brand’s successes. “We’ve faced all the challenges that any new business faces … and the economy has been unbelievable,” Berry said. “There have also been challenges with things specific to our industry, like the rising cost of production and materials … The brand has to make the concession, and a lot of people don’t realize that. Everybody puts the risk on the brand. It’s hard to survive, because you’re on an island by yourself.”

Struggles are part of life, and the satisfaction Rian has with the design process and result is what keeps him going. “I am in my element at the most when I’m designing. In my mind I can see it, see the translation to the product, I can see how it’s going to be,” Berry said. “I get so much satisfaction from having the idea, then executing it in design, and finally seeing the finished product … It was just an idea at one point!”

Those ideas can get pretty crazy. Berry’s recent favorite is a women’s leather tote bag with a zipper detail, “The zipper wraps around the bag like one chaotic zipper. It was one of the more difficult bags I’ve designed, and I even brought in an engineer friend who helped with the math. It’s a favorite because it worked – it was one of those crazy ideas that worked, stores liked it, and people bought them,” he said.

Handbags from Rian have been successful internationally, and although they are sold in some Seattle stores, Rian Berry would like to see them in more fashion hotspots such as Sway and Cake for his women’s lines, and he would like to have his men’s bags sold at Anson Asher. And he’s not just limiting himself to bags, either. “Shoes are next! They’re the next natural step. I’d also like to do ready-to-wear lines in small exclusive editions, where one store will have one style of shirt in only three sizes, and that’s it for Seattle. It makes it unique and each collection is very story-based,” Rian said.

Poverty Flats is Rian’s second label and was launched in 2008. Poverty Flats bags are sold at lower price point, because “We wanted to do something different, and Poverty Flats hits a younger demographic. “Poverty Flats” is an area near where I grew up, and it has a rugged landscape, so the bags are vintage, washed, and distressed, with a little bit of urban styling,” Rian said. “It really appeals to the music and art crowd, so we’re working with art groups, colleges, and bands.”

Rian bags can be found in Seattle at Nordstrom, Mario’s and The Queen Anne Dispatch, and Rian’s “Poverty Flats” brand is available at Urban Outfitters. The handbags are also sold online. In addition, Rian will be hosting a sample sale of both men and women’s sample and retail bags at his studio (159 Western Ave. W Suite 457, Seattle) on Thursday, May 5th from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.