There is nothing better, and harder to find, than a perfect summer straw bag. Which is exactly what Yi-Mei Truxes was thinking while working at Vogue. She did a lot of research and came to realize that because a straw weaving is an ancient art, a good straw bag is only as good as the artisan who makes it. She found the artisans and launched Bembien last summer (while still at work). Fast forward less than a year later, she launched in Club Monaco this April and J. Crew’s new marketplace last week. At this rate, I can only imagine where Bembien will be in five years. Here, she shares her obsession with people watching, the women and man (lucky guy) who inspire her, and why if you’ve got an idea, get on with it.
What is your background? How did you get into straw bags? I was at Vogue for six years on the marketing team on the publishing side. I essentially grew up there. Before that my first job out of college I worked in an advertising agency on beauty accounts. I sort of serendipitously ended up at Vogue and had this amazing experience that ultimately led me to being so immersed in fashion that you can’t help but notice trends coming and going, and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
For me, it was a complete education. I’ll never forget, I immediately had to do a whole thing about CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund, and I had no idea who anyone was. My old boss rattled off a bunch of designers to me and it was just like….I was phonetically spelling Proenza Schouler. I thought, I can’t do this. I remember feeling like this is a foreign language. Over time obviously, it ended up being like a family to me.
I started this brand when I was still there, which was a crazy thing to do. [Straw bags were] something that I loved, and I didn’t see them fully in the market. I did tons of tons of research and travel, and a whole journey later, I thought, “Do I launch this thing or not?” At the time, my best friend at Vogue had launched a sneaker company. She basically said, “Yi Mei, do it.” I credit so much of being able to get this off the ground to her. We were in a meeting and she actually wrote down on a piece of paper steps for me–start an LLC, all that. We’re both very executional type people–give us a to-do list, we can do it. Whatever. No task is too big if you whittle it down to a bunch of little steps. She helped me see that it was not that hard.
So, I did it. Also, it was proving to myself, “Oh, I work on this marketing team, but really at the end of the day, so much of what I do is like geared towards the business. Do I have the chops to market something?”
You were testing yourself? Yes. When I thought about it, I technically knew what I would need to do, but could I execute that? Could I start an Instagram account and create this brand? Create a website? Could I appeal to influencers?
Why did you start with woven straw bags? What was your inspiration? That was the whole vision of the business. It comes from within. I’ve always been someone who believes that beauty comes in more than just having a Gucci bag or whatever. There’s something natural in what makes a woman elegant or stylish.
And I just have always been obsessed with people watching. I always have just sat in cafes and watched people and observed. I started noticing basically, there’s something that I think a lot of brands are trying to achieve in going after a type of vision, but it’s not quite executed right.
Two summers ago, I tried looking for straw bags. I went online and I ordered like a million. But I couldn’t find any I liked. I realized, it’s not something that can be produced in China. The beauty of these products comes from the weaving tradition handed down from generations. These bags are beautiful, because there’s so much heritage. It comes from a material that has sustained generations of people.
Straw bags have been around forever. Forever. Forever.
But, it is hard to find a beautiful one anymore. That’s the thing. The trend is quite frankly blown up so much that there isn’t a single designer right now, who I don’t think has a straw bag on the market. But in my opinion, the beauty comes from the heritage. The origin. It actually really breaks my heart to see bags like this recreated on the Chinese market.
Where do you have yours made? These are woven in Bali.
How did you discover the artisans? Just by traveling. I happened to meet someone who handles my production over there. She’s this amazing woman who’s a mom and an accountant in the morning and she makes it happen for Bembien in the afternoon. She then in turn, helps handle, manage, and just nurture the villages of artisans who make these bags. I think it takes the Balinese culture actually to achieve this beauty. Hands down, they’re the kindest, most thoughtful, gentle people.
I started super, super small batch basically. I think I ordered fifty of each style. I drained my bank account. It was one of those situations where you’re like, “Oh it’s cheap to start a business. Just kidding. Now I need to order my inventory.” I did whatever I could afford and basically launched and photographed my samples myself with my iPhone. Then I put it up for pre-order and it sold really well.
You’ve expanded pretty quickly. It’s expanded really quickly. We did a Club Monaco order that delivered in April. Then the bags are going to go up on J Crew, which it is amazing. It’s part of their new marketplace program, they’re curating a list of younger brands.
What inspires you? I’m so inspired by the people around me. I would say primarily, especially for this business, the women around me. I think you feel the same way I’m sure. One of the things that I’ve learned starting this is the insane network of women that I have. I had never fully understood or fully identified that it was a network of people that would be so helpful and so loving and supportive. I never activated any favors ever in my life, but as soon as Bembien launched, it was clear that I was putting something on the line. Even if I’d ask people, a lot of people also offered.
From there I have been so fortunate to end up in a group of seven or eight women who all are self-employed and have small brands or small businesses. I also get together every Wednesday with my best girlfriends at one of our apartments and catch up on the real stuff. They are so inspiring. One is a doctor, two have their own businesses. We hash out everything.
The other person who is incredible is my boyfriend, who has been right there next to me the whole time. He has been up late with me for six hours packing orders after we both finished our day jobs.
What motivates you? I’m dedicated to making this business work. I’m a little competitive with myself and now I’m at a point where month over month I want to see the same increase in sales.
To make this work and in “X” amount of years have a family and be able to work for myself is a dream I have. I want to have kids and be able to dictate my schedule. My real motivation is to have a balanced life when I start having kids and make Bembien work.
Where does the name come from? The name is bem means good in Portuguese and bien means good in French and Spanish. It’s like a beautiful, friendly word that means happiness. Plus there’s literally no trace of Bembien anywhere else on the internet. There’s no confusing this Bembien for another Bembien that sells auto parts. I love the name and I feel like the name grew into the brand and the brand grew into the name.
What was easiest for you when you started out? What was the hardest? One of the things that I was terrified of and I was so relieved about was building a website. We’re on Squarespace and it was such a dream for me. My boyfriend is a web developer. He was dead set on wanting to build a website from scratch, and at the end of the day, at the time especially, it was not our full time jobs. I said, “Can we just make something beautiful?” Now I can go in and edit stuff all day long. I’m surprised at the ease of building a site and I say to people constantly, “Hey if you have an idea or you are a freelancer, or a textile person, literally anything, build a site. If I was able to do it, other people can do it and it’s a great way to put yourself out there.”
Then the hardest? So many things have been hard. Right at the outset I think the hardest thing was not taking things personal with customers. Now I’m over it but at the time, all last summer basically, when anything negative came in, I felt so upset by it. Then you realize that they think they are dealing with a big company. It’s kind of like the highs are high and the lows are extremely low. Now I’ve readjusted to my highs and lows, but at the very outset, rejection is horrible.
Role models: My mom of course. My mom is incredible; she moved to this country when she was fourteen from Vietnam. She’s where my and my brothers’ work ethic came from. She’s extremely hard working. No job is too small; we will work endless hours to get the thing done. We never will miss a deadline. And I think it’s because of my mom. She’s also beautiful, the best cook and loving. I talk to her every day. And at Vogue, I had an amazing boss. She was one of the reasons Vogue was so great for me for so long. She sees people for their best and will cultivate that out of them. And she really soaked in stress that was coming down from the top and never let it affect us. I’ve been thinking about her recently because I’m starting to hire interns. It’s one of the first times I’m delegating work and she’s coming more top of mind to me. How was she able to both be such a hard worker, so efficient and so good?
Your advice to a new entrepreneur starting out: Go for it. I think a lot of people have ideas but usually they end of getting blocked at some point. I basically think everyone should go for it and just launch. Work really hard to get proof of concept, start collecting consumer data and feedback and see how it feels when you launch. You can always edit and change and make it better. I know a lot of people who are scared of putting out a not-perfect thing, but nothing’s perfect.
Plus the marketplace changes so quickly; your idea from yesterday might not be that relevant tomorrow. I think the success of brands has a lot to do with timing and timing as in getting on it, not waiting for three years until exactly the right moment.
Three words that describe you: Determined, empathetic, visually minded.
Three words that describe Bembien: Heart-filled, nostalgic, independent.
Life goals: To feel inspired every day.
Daily goals: To respond to every email that hits my inbox!
Favorite inspirational/motivational read: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Favorite sites/people you follow: Garance Doré of Atelier Doré, Lucy Laucht of These Foreign Lands.
Daily rituals: Coffee, coffee, coffee.
How do you unplug: Sitting outside our local Greenpoint watering hole with my boyfriend, Gray.
Hidden talent/hobby: People watching!
Favorite charity: Nest. Nest is dedicated to the growth and preservation of the global artisan community, issues that are at the core of Bembien. We donate 10% of proceeds to Nest to help give back to this mission.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: My Hermès watch. It’s a classic that I had dreamt of for years and years. It was difficult to pull the trigger but I don’t think I regret it.
Favorite small indulgence: A bottle of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo. It’s $11 and fantastic!
Album currently on repeat: Lake Street Dive, “Free Yourself Up”
Scent that brings back memories: Lilac. Growing up we had huge purple lilac bushes surrounding our house… the smell will forever remind me of being young and outside.
Lucky charm: My girlfriends.
Favorite hour of the day and why: 7pm in the summer. The tough stuff is usually out of the way, and there’s an hour of golden light left to enjoy.
Follow Bembien: Instagram.