When Gretchen Bauer moved from Philadelphia to Sarasota seven years ago, she planned to maintain a successful home design business. Instead, thanks to a chance meeting, she launched BSWANKY, a line of upscale handbags manufactured in Sarasota by immigrant women working in ethical conditions.
"I was decorating the home of a couple in Harbor Acres who asked me to use David Rodriguez, their house painter," Bauer recalls. "We went on to do two more huge projects together, and when we were finished, he told me he had something for me." That something was a bag that Rodriguez's mother had made by hand for Bauer, "to thank me for the work I'd given her son," Bauer says.
The bag was a tote with leather trim and a polyester base. "It was the ugliest green color you've ever seen," Bauer says with a laugh, "but it was so well made."
Rodriguez's mother worked in a San Antonio sweatshop assembling purses for a handbag manufacturer. The company had promised Rodriguez's mother a certain rate per bag, but when she handed in her completed work, that rate was slashed—for no reason. "And those bags sold for $208," Bauer says.
Bauer was moved, and after reading the book Start With Why, she decided to create her own line of handbags, hiring immigrant seamstresses away from unhealthy sweatshop environments. She brought in business advisers, decided on a name—"the 'B' in BSWANKY stands for 'be the difference,'" she explains—and got to work designing her first bag.
Initially, Bauer planned to work with seamstresses working in the same San Antonio factory as Rodriguez's mother, but the logistics were tricky. "The bags weren't perfect, and the process wasn't making sense," Bauer says. So she decided to look for a local factory, visiting three in Florida, including one in St. Petersburg. She was shocked by what she saw. "The conditions were terrible," she says.
A business partner suggested that Bauer open her own factory. They signed a lease on a space on Porter Road and hired four full-time seamstresses. "Two came from a sweatshop in North Gate—they were paid by check and then charged to cash their checks," Bauer says. "One is from Russia and a graduate of The New School's Parsons School of Design. It's magical here. There are no quotas and we pay 30 percent over the industry average." The Rodriguez family has driven to Sarasota twice to train new employees, and Bauer makes sure to provide comfortable chairs and snacks throughout the day. "It's a culture of ongoing learning," she says. "These women have joy in their days again."
Bauer and her team currently have two bags available for purchase: the Sophie, which starts at $350 and comes in a variety of colors and finishes—including a hot pink option that benefits the National Breast Cancer Research Foundation—and a custom option. A third bag, designed by and named after one of Bauer's seamstresses, Magnabel, is coming soon, as are BSWANKY keychains.
"I caught Magnabel sneaking into the design room one day and asked what she was doing," Bauer says. "She said, 'Designing a bag!' So we compensated her and she came up with a bucket bag that also works as a crossbody bag, shoulder bag or backpack."
BSWANKY bags are currently sold on the company's website and through a showroom in the Sarasota factory; the company also has sales reps in the U.S. and internationally, including two in the U.K.
Bauer says response to the company's designs and mission has been fantastic. "We have one woman in Pennsylvania who has bought nine bags, Tori Spelling has one and Madisson from Siesta Key asked for one in python," Bauer says proudly. "People buy the bag based on our story and the look."