By Kylie Gumpert Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Faith Kohler wears skinny jeans, ankle boots, chunky bracelets and cropped jackets. She wasn't about to settle for a handbag that didn't fit her style.
And that was the problem: She couldn't find a purse that would fit her wardrobe and also her handgun.
After years of wearing her firearm on her hip as a federal agent, Kohler, 44, was looking for an option that would give her more versatility: a concealed carry handbag.
So she's created her own handbag company, Been & Badge, with Milwaukee-native handbag designer Jodi Been, who lives and works in Los Angeles.
"For me it's second nature to carry a firearm," said Kohler, a New York native who graduated from Marquette Law School and lives in Milwaukee. "I looked, and I couldn't find something that was really 'me.'"
She and Been, who met through mutual friends, began collaborating about a year and a half ago, communicating almost solely by video calls -- comparing swatches of fabric and sharing thoughts on designs, then shipping materials and prototypes back and forth in the mail.
"We wanted things that didn't read like our competitors," said Been, 37. "We didn't want to make tactical safari bags. We wanted to make contemporary, on-trend handbags."
They met face-to-face for the first time in March, having gotten their venture off the ground with a $10,000 investment.
To save as much as possible for materials and production, they were conservative in the number of bags produced and in their use of cosmetic touches, such as product labels, photos, graphic design and logos.
The company is a start-up in the truest sense: After getting a start by creating interest online through social media sites such as Instagram, it launched its website at beenandbadge.com last week.
It offers two types of handbags: a clutch and a tote that converts to a cross-body bag. It also sells three holsters that fit small to full-size guns.
Each handbag has a concealed pocket inside that snaps closed and is lined with Velcro. The pockets are made to hold the holsters, which were developed by Wilde Built Tactical, a San Diego-area company run by law enforcement officers; the holsters can be inserted and adjusted by users for comfort and efficiency, in case they need to quickly access their handgun.
"The industry has realized that 'women owning handguns' is growing," said Brian Hugh, a retired federal officer and the Been & Badge team's gun expert. "Their response -- and you have to understand that this is pretty much all-male boardrooms -- is, 'Well, we'll paint it pink and then they'll buy it.'"
Or, Hugh said, companies will go to another extreme and make bags that he describes as either "cutesy" or something your grandmother might use.
Been & Badge handbags are made from textured brown, black and purple leathers, and range in price from $259 to $354. The holsters start at $20.
Not just for gun owners
But you don't have to be gun-savvy to buy these handbags. You don't even have to agree with concealed carry laws or gun rights.
Instead, the company's target market is simply "women who want beautiful handbags," Kohler said. So far, it has actually sold more bags to women who opted out of purchasing a holster.
"People buy bags because of what they look like on the outside. How they use them on the inside is an entirely personal decision," said Been, who doesn't carry a handgun. "Some people might opt to use that pocket to stow a mini iPad there; it's just a small, safe and concealed pocket."
Been worked with a Los Angeles artisan she knows to produce the handbags, which he makes in his studio.
"You think there would be more people making leather bags, but it's almost a dying art. There aren't as many local producers," Been said.
To help with some of the details of starting and running a business, Kohler and Been reached out to attorney Mike Bamberger of Beck, Chaet, Bamberger & Polsky S.C. in Milwaukee and CloudSixteen, a search engine optimization company that put the finishing touches on the Been & Badge website.
"We learned that we didn't need to know everything so long as we built our network with people who are experts in their own fields," Kohler said.
Minding state laws
Marilyn Lavin, a professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, said the proliferation of concealed carry laws could definitely work in Been & Badge's favor. As of last July, all 50 states have some sort of concealed carry law in effect. Wisconsin's was signed in November 2011.
"Women are probably just as likely as men to want the 'protection' of a gun," Lavin said in an email. "So I'd say the market may be definitely there."
But even with these laws in place, some stores and public venues ban weapons, concealed or not. That was a point Lavin brought up: Where would women who buy handbags to conceal a handgun actually be able to carry and use it?
That's where Been & Badge's lengthy legal disclaimer comes in: The disclaimer says the company is not liable for what its customers might do with their firearms in jurisdictions where it's not lawful, and advises customers to follow all firearms laws.
Been & Badge has started small, a strategy that Troy Vosseller, entrepreneur and co-founder of Madison start-up incubator gener8tor, said is wise. He has a "100 rule," advising start-ups to avoid making big investment decisions until they have sold 100 units of their product.
"The best way to finance is organically, by selling a lot of product and having a lot of cash flow," Vosseller said. "What I see a lot of small business owners do is they optimize for volume, and they haven't even proved they can sell."
Made in the U.S.A.
Been & Badge isn't thinking about opening a brick-and-mortar store. Kohler said they want to see how they do in the market, and if they can continue to afford manufacturing in the United States, that's what they prefer to do.
Been, who has worked for accessories retailer Claire's, is familiar with the differences between overseas and U.S. production.
She said producing in Los Angeles, while more expensive than making handbags overseas, is important because it's possible to oversee the slightest of details and make quick changes. It's also a selling point.
Vosseller said he's seeing more and more business owners looking to produce in the U.S. His advice is to focus on core competencies.
"That might be about marketing and branding, and not making your widget," Vosseller said. "But, if your core competency is a specific skill, like sewing and picking patterns, then you should focus on that."
As they look to expand, the Been & Badge team is looking to wholesale to retailers, such as boutiques and small retail shops -- what Vosseller calls a smart way to tap the market. Their eventual goal is to sell in department stores.
"Someday, in a perfect world," Kohler said, "I would love for us to create jobs and have our own facility."