WHEN THE AMERICAN FASHION photographer Richard Avedon took the advice of 20-year-old German actress Nastassja Kinski to photograph her in sultry repose, naked, with a large boa constrictor unspooling along her body, they created one of the most iconic images of the 1980s: “Nastassja with the Serpent.”
Produced by the media company Condé Nast as a poster, it may have embellished almost every bastion of young male and some female hangouts in North America and Europe in those days — college campus dorms and fraternities, in particular.
But its popularity doesn’t mean Avedon and Kinski got the image right; they didn’t. That’s because they didn’t have Gretchen Bauer.
Founder, CEO and chief designer of the Sarasota-based BSWANKY handbags, she’s established an international market for a company not quite three years old that manufactures objects d’art with both beauty and utility in mind for women.
And now she’s designing handbags, not only with eel skin or cowhide, but with wild-caught pythons from the Everglades. Newly killed and tanned, each snake’s skin is different, and thus each handbag is unique. It would have been a lot easier, and perhaps just as lovely or more so, if Ms. Kinski had simply donned one of Ms. Bauer’s python handbags, getting swanky with art rather than merely naked with a snake.
The first time Gretchen Bauer traveled with a BSWANKY python handbag, she sold two in an airport security line. Striking and stylish, the bag can be converted to a backpack when needed. COURTESY PHOTO
BSWANKY bags can be quickly converted from handbag to backpack — say at the airport, in the TSA line, where Ms. Bauer sold two the first time she traveled with a bag — then back again for an evening soiree in a distant city, she says.
That seems oddly appropriate for a python-skin bag, especially since the invasive predators themselves can seem to appear and disappear like smoke in the Everglades, returning in larger numbers and different settings later after eating a wide variety of Florida’s native mammals, along with reptiles, amphibians, birds, but so far, no humans.
Pythons are now among the most destructive invasive creatures ever to enter the Sunshine State and the Everglades. But they’re fascinating in behavior and even beautiful in appearance.
Left: Jill Lonstein-Meistrich (center), bought three BSWANKY python-skin bags the night she met company founder Gretchen Bauer (left) at a factory wine and cheese tasting event. Right: Traci Smullen with a BSWANKY python handbag that converts to a backpack.
“No two skins are alike,” explained Ms. Bauer, who recently received 35 new skins from Amy Siewe, a highly skilled python hunter in a profession that can quickly turn dangerous, especially at night in the Sea of Grass, with snakes over 10 or 12 feet.
“The colors, patterns, shapes, sizes — they’re all totally different,” said Ms. Bauer.
That would create an unhappy challenge for some designers — the ones who own snake farms in Indonesia and use python skins commercially raised to control not just the price, but the patterns and thus the ability to mass produce products.
“But that’s not a problem for us,” Ms. Bauer insisted. Mass production is not her goal.
Something else would also create a challenge for many manufacturers of handbags and other products in the garment industry: treating employees — women in particular — well. Or even just treating them fairly.
Do well by doing good
For Ms. Bauer — an entrepreneur whose chief ambition, perhaps, is not big production but big good — one of the key purposes of the business is to empower women, she says. Especially women who work for her, or women she meets and discovers to be mistreated or unfairly treated in their work lives.
In looking to start the business she toured factories in Texas and Florida. She finally built a factory in San Antonio and brought in women working for a manufacturer who paid them less than minimum wage because they worked at home, she recalls.
When she discovered San Antonio was too far for her to travel and manage the business correctly, “I left them with the building and all the equipment — so they’re better off than they were, by far. The distance for me was just too challenging.”
“Left them with.” In other words, she gave it to them. Now the bags are made in Sarasota.
As it turns out, Ms. Bauer is an aggressive philanthropist.
Five percent of all sales from the high-end BSWANKY handbags, with prices running in the $1,800 and up range, are donated to the South Florida National Parks Trust, along with all sales profits from the company’s popular $60 python key chains. The nonprofit trust is devoted to preserving four of Florida’s gems, a goal and places also dear to Ms. Bauer, she says: Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, Biscayne National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve.
She donates profits or handbags for charity auctions and to do-good organizations such as the National Breast Cancer Foundation in Frisco, Texas, where she created “a crazy pink bag of western tooled leather to stay true to their western roots, one of our best sellers. We increased the breast-cancer-awareness-month giveback of 10% to 20%.”
BSWANKY also supports Tidewell Hospice and its blue butterfly house for grieving families, in Sarasota, Venice and Port Charlotte; and Josh Provides Epilepsy Assistance Foundation. Among others.
Raised on the mainline in Philadelphia — the close comfortable suburbs of the City of Brotherly Love — she studied at Vanderbilt University, went on to the Philadelphia Textile School (now Philadelphia University), and worked as an interior decorator for 25 years, a world that challenged and polished both her business acumen and her creativity.
Now once again, she said, “I’m thinking outside the bag.”
Why clients adore her
She pays employees at her factory and showroom in Sarasota well over the industry rate, she notes, and “they all receive a bag a month. So they’re all carrying $1,800 handbags. We fill the refrigerator with fruit, give them coffee and handbags, and give them a flexible atmosphere. We don’t work on Fridays. If other (business owners) would just do that kind of thing, the rewards they get would be worth it. And it’s FUN!”
She also listens to her employees, incorporating their design ideas into the bags, she says.
Ms. Bauer’s consideration of working women, along with her pragmatism, her creativity and her handbag aesthetic, appeals to her customers — she calls them clients.
Rochelle Coburn has taken BSWANKY bags the farthest, perhaps — carrying one at the royal wedding of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry at Windsor Castle, in 2018, with her husband, and to the U.S. Capitol, where she worked for years, including as an aide to Rep. Curt Clawson, who gave up his political career in Florida’s 19th congressional district in 2017 to be with his elderly parents.
“I discovered them on social media, from a blogger on Instagram — and I went to an event at their store,” said Christal Gentile, a Realtor at Michael Saunders & Co, who owns four BSWANKY handbags.
“Their story is amazing, from the beginning to what they’re doing now, empowering women, giving back to the community.
“I always tell Gretchen when I visit them: I leave in a better mood than when I got there.”
Jill Lonstein-Meitrich fell in love with Ms. Bauer’s kind enthusiasm, good will and design talent during a wine-and-cheese event at the factory. “I ended up buying three bags that evening,” she said. “Now, I’m the proud owner of eight! I absolutely love the outstanding quality, versatility and uniqueness of these beautiful bags. Each bag is a work of art. Oh, and the compliments!”
And Traci Smullen, co-owner with her husband of a medical cannabis company, AltMed, including 23 dispensaries throughout Florida operating under the name MÜV, puts it like this: “In my mind there are lots of ways to run a business. Her inspiration and the way she’s gone about building her business — the working conditions she’s created — is just a phenomenal story to me. I love it.
“You can appreciate nice things. Louis Vuitton, Chanel and all that. Those are beautiful, wonderful handbags. You can put her designs right up there with any of those, but you can elevate her in your appreciation because of her mindset.”
Doing good, in other words, is good marketing.
“There are certain women who go above and beyond, to help other women. They’re not threatened by other women. If they see a woman trying hard and building something, they’ll do whatever they can.”
Ms. Smullen is that way, too, she points out.
“I sit on the board of the Josh Provides Epilepsy Assistance Foundation. She was quick to donate a handbag or two at various fundraising events. That’s been helpful.” ¦