At home with the founders of Brahmin Handbags
Brahmin handbag founders Bill and Joan Martin on starting from scratch, giving back, and their life in Naples
When Bill and Joan Martin bought their eighteenth house last year—just eight months after their last move—their son, Scott, couldn’t believe it. But believing is how the Martins have approached life over 52 years of marriage, 11 of which they have spent living in Naples, where their current residence is a waterfront home in Naples Bay. Whether it’s remaking a home or creating their beloved Brahmin handbags, when this dynamic duo has a vision, they embrace it and dive in.
Thirty-five years ago, the Martins launched their designer handbag company from their basement, with little cash and no access to loans. But the couple stitched it together with grit, and that they had in spades. Today, Brahmin remains 100-percent family-owned and continues to grow its luxury brand, no small feat in a fickle fashion industry.
Such determination is what got Bill through college—admittedly, on the sixyear plan—despite having dyslexia. But after 15 years of rising through the ranks at footwear industry leaders like Florsheim, Stride Rite, and Dexter, Bill was fired in 1980 from a company that sold handbags and shoes. His first thought was, “I’m ruined. The economy was bad, and I worried that I’d never get a job again.”
It was a turning point that happened early in his marriage to Joan, and he says her optimism helped him see the setback as an opportunity to launch their own accessories company. When deciding on what to sell, they knew it would not be shoes, in part because Bill was well aware of the pitfalls in that category, including inventory considerations when you have to carry multiple sizes and widths for each style.
“Handbags it is!” Bill told Joan. “They don’t have to fit—and what woman doesn’t like them?”
Joan had no experience “other than good taste, good looks, and the ability to razzle dazzle people,” says Bill. But he had faith.
“She’s artistic and clever, and I hire the contractors and handle the bills.”
Time has done nothing to erode the couple’s affection, admiration, and faith in each other. “I remember the first time I saw him and thought ‘Cute!’” says Joan, who spotted Bill in their high school corridor one morning. “He wore a blazer, which was unusual for public schools back then. He was much more interesting and worldly than most boys because he flew his own airplane and gave cool parties on his family’s farm.”
While it may be hard to conceive of Bill as anything but confident, when he first noticed the effervescent, fair-haired Joan, she says he became tongue-tied.
“He’d have a mutual friend call me and ask if I’d go out with him,” Joan recalls. “I’d say, ‘If he’d like a date he needs to call me himself!’ It took him several years.”
When Bill and Joan married, she focused on raising their family. With a penchant for fashion and design, she would make clothes for their children, Scott and Sandy. As for Bill, he applied his discipline and affinity for order to manufacturing—first shoes, now handbags.
In October 1982, they converted their basement playroom into Joan’s design studio and the barn into a factory, where Bill would cut her patterns in Italian leather.
Then living in Hingham, Massachusetts, the Martins chose the name Brahmin to reflect their deep Boston roots and their target audience: the elite with discerning taste.
For three years, Joan flew across the country trying to court department stores. Not a nibble. Undeterred, she studied chains’ wares, asked questions to expand her skills, and drew patterns on flights home. “I learned on the job,” adds Joan, who would tear apart handbags to figure out how to assemble them.
Despite Joan’s devotion, the Martins were on their own; the recession and their inexperience yielded no bank loans. “We sold everything but the children for financing,” Joan says jokingly.
They kept Brahmin afloat by hosting Tupperware-style sales parties in friends’ homes, while Bill’s mom in Naples sold handbags out of the back of her car. Those were lean years.
“My travel budget was less than $50 a day for hotel and food,” Joan recalls. “I was thrilled when I was invited to seminars, because they had coffee and doughnuts.”
In hindsight, the lack of a financial cushion was a blessing. Today, the Fairhaven, Massachusetts–based Brahmin handbags are sold at more than 750 retail locations across the country and staff has grown from a family of four to approximately 250.
The popularity of the bags appears to stem from the Martins’ focus on function as much as fashion. Brahmin bags stand out with a blend of crocodile and snakeskin textures in nuanced gradations of colors. But what truly sets them apart are the details.
Bag interiors are light-hued. “If they’re dark it’s like looking into a dungeon,” Joan says. A backside pocket fits a boarding pass, straps adjust by pressing a button (avoiding long tongues), and the interior has pen slots and pockets sized for sunglasses, cocktail rings, or credit cards. The key clip dangles on a long inner strap, so you can open doors without detaching it from the bag. And tote handles have a squishy interior—neoprene tubing used by auto shops—so they don’t dig.
The Martins’ homes, as with their purses, show a focus not just on style, but also function. Their new Naples home can fête many charities and accommodate their two children and six grandchildren, ages 6 to 18.
The couple also host charity dinners aboard their Horizon luxury catamaran, named Lil after Joan’s mother, to benefit the Naples Winter Wine Festival (NWWF). The annual festival is the primary fundraising vehicle for the Naples Children and Education Foundation, one of the Martins’ favorite causes. The couple recently became honorary trustees of the nonprofit organization, which supports many programs that serve the neediest children in Collier County.
“Naples is such a giving community,” Joan says. “We love to entertain and are committed to charities that help Collier County’s underprivileged and at-risk children.”
All couples attending the NWWF’s live auctions are gifted Brahmin handbags. This year alone the Martins donated 350—one for each female guest—amounting to a total of 1,400 handbags over four years.
Those stylish purses also take center stage in Joan’s custom finishing room, next to their master bedroom. The 8-by-8-foot closet flaunts 40 of the latest and greatest Brahmin bags on 12-inch deep shelves with individual LED accent lights. Shoes are displayed beneath, while jewelry, wraps, and cardigans are hidden behind adjustable mirrors.
“My goal was to make it easy for me to coordinate my final look,” she says. “I try to keep only current bags because my friends watch me and want to order them. So I wear a different bag almost every day.”
Making waves down the hall from her collection is Bill’s upstairs man cave. “Everything’s heavy, dark, and eclectic Bill,” Joan says. His love of boating extends to the home itself. He bought two antique Russian naval binoculars, one of which overlooks the bay. Nautical nods also include British colonial–style sconces at the fireplace and hanging lanterns in the ground floor halls. A smattering of sailboat prints and models on the Italian buffet buoy the boating theme.
“Yachting is part of Bill’s DNA,” says Joan of her husband, who grew up boating with his parents and three older brothers. Every summer, his dad would charter a cruising sailboat in Maine or Cape Cod for two weeks. A portrait of Bill’s great-great-great-great grandfather, Ambrose Bowen Martin, hung over his childhood fireplace—and has been in each of their homes since. It joins a watercolor of Ambrose’s schooner, The Raven, and mounted plates from the ship. A silhouette of The Raven is part of Brahmin’s logo—a reminder of the longstanding success that has allowed the Martins to retire in Naples, which they grew to love during visits to Bill’s parents, who moved here nearly 50 years ago.
Coming full circle, as the Martins entered their 70s they were ready to coast, too—and saw a need for fresh ideas. “We didn’t want to be the owners who won’t let go, to the detriment of the company,” Joan says. While it was hard to hand over the wheel after being involved so heavily for so many years, Bill promoted Susan Thacker to chief executive officer in 2014. “We found someone in the company with extraordinary leadership and good taste—and who said, ‘I’m ready, coach, send me in!’’ For the Martins, the commitment to women in leadership is woven into the fabric of their company.
“We make handbags for women, designed by women, and sold by women. When I go into our conference room, I see one guy and 25 women. At Brahmin, there is no glass ceiling,” says Bill, who sails from Naples to Nantucket for a monthly check-in at headquarters.
“Taking over a business they built from the ground up is a huge responsibility as a non-family member,” Thacker says. “I confer with Joan on creative development and with Bill, but ultimately the business decisions are mine.”
Those include adding a casual soft-sided, smooth leather line along with accessories like bangles, smart phone covers, coasters, and luggage tags.
With such changes, Thacker appears to be proving the Martins’ instincts correct. Sales have increased 60 percent since 2013, according to the company. By the end of the year, Brahmin is expected to launch a program that will extend its reach around the globe. Thacker still calls Joan “the inspiration” for the brand. “She has a talent for understanding what customers will want,” Thacker says. “The Martins also have very high integrity. They never cut quality or craftsmanship. That’s why customers are so loyal.”
It’s also why the Martins may never truly retire. “I cannot go past a store I know carries our bags without checking them out,” Joan says. “Brahmin is our third child.”