Ellie Schwing assumed it would be easy to find a chic leather travel bag in Italy. Nearly a decade ago, the New-Orleans-native-turned-Roman-resident began a fruitless search that turned up heavily logoed luxury or low-quality pieces – but not the bag she wanted. So, Schwing took matters into her own hands and created BENE (and a travel tote that remains her constant companion).
“Italians are always dripping in labels but not logos,” said Schwing. “That was important to me from a branding level. I wanted to be known for raised leather and craftsmanship, not because I stamped my name or gold leafed BENE on [the bags].”
Schwing describes her adopted home, like New Orleans, as “culturally eccentric,” so marrying the two influences seemed natural. BENE handbags are crafted in Italy, with exteriors that exude Italian elegance and sophistication. Interiors reflect NOLA “spirit and funk,” with custom-printed fabric liners featuring the work of female artists (to date, these have included Gretchen Howard, Artemis Antippas, Beth Lambert, and Alexa Pulitzer, all New Orleans-based).
“There are so many amazing artists out there, but a BENE artist has to be very distinct,” said Schwing. Her capsule collection with Pulitzer and the Preservation Hall Foundation raised more than 60,000 dollars, and she and Pulitzer have collaborated on a new bag, the Isabel. An upcoming limited-edition collaboration with Charlotte-based Windy O’Connor will feature that artist’s paintings on each bag’s surface.
Though she has no formal design training, Schwing began collecting handbags at an early age. The former thespian also harbors a taste for the dramatic, which may explain her preference for eye-catching hues and textures like pink metallic and emerald croc.
When Schwing created her first collection in 2015, the vision was short-term. “I thought I would have a party, sell some bags, and that would be it,” she said, never imagining a brand with an Instagram following and placement in luxury boutiques throughout the Southeast. Above all, Schwing wants BENE to spark feeling. “If you just get a millisecond of beauty and art and inspiration… that’s what I want my customers to have every time they open their bag.”