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Brenda Briand of Benah

Studio Visit

7th February, 2014
Lucy Feagins
Friday 7th February 2014

Sydney based designer Brenda Briand of accessories label Benah, in her Surry Hills studio.  Photo - Phu Tang.

Sydney based designer Brenda Briand of Benah, in her Surry Hills studio.  Photo - Phu Tang.

Details in the studio of Sydney accessories label Benah.  Photo - Phu Tang.

Bags by Benah, on display in Brenda's studio.  Photo - Phu Tang.

Benah accessories.  Photo - Phu Tang.

Interviewing people all the time is pretty bloody awesome.  For one thing, it means I am in a perpetual state of awe / inspiration with all the creative genius I am constantly exposed to, and also, I get to ask all kinds of nosey questions right off the bat, far more than would be appropriate in any normal social situation!  I guess when I interview someone new, I feel like I learn just as much as you guys do!  BONUS.

Case in point - today's interviewee, Brenda Briand, who runs her own accessories label, Benah, in Sydney. Brenda has been on my radar for a while.  I first met her quite by accident, because she works in the same building as jewellery designer Elke Kramer, whose studio I visited about a year or so ago during a visit to Sydney.  Elke introduced us, and I was instantly intrigued by Brenda's beautifully crafted accessories... but I'm easily distracted, and I was supposed to be meeting Elke, so I filed Brenda away in my brain for future follow up.  Then late last year I noticed her INCREDIBLE accessories collab with Karen Walker, which launched at New York fashion week last September... and I totally kicked myself for not pouncing sooner!

So, FINALLY today I am interviewing the very talented and intriguing Brenda Briand, better late than never!

Brenda is originally from New Zealand, and first moved to Sydney in 2003.  'It’s a rite of passage for every New Zealander to travel; I just didn’t get too far!' she says. Ten years on, after marrying an Australian and having a daughter, Brenda says Australia has firmly cemented itself in her heart.

Brenda is an interesting character, and Benah is not your usual accessories label.  Cutting her teeth at iconic Australian fashion label Lover, as one of their very first employees, Brenda acquired an incredible range of skills in production and operations - invaluable experience she still draws on today.  Coming from these foundations, Brenda possesses a rare gift - an uncanny ability to elegantly balance right-brain creative vision with pragmatic left-brain decision making!  Unlike so many creatives, Brenda admits to a particular affection for the production side of her business - 'nothing gives me more delight than seeing a colour coded, formatted spreadsheet!' she says!

Benah is a thoughtful, effortlessly understated range of accessories, designed by Brenda in her Surry Hills studio, and manufactured across the globe, in Europe, Turkey and China.  The range is produced with a meticulous attention to detail - each bag, purse, and pouch is painstakingly crafted, and beautifully finished.  Brenda's designs are the kind of classic staples that don't grab attention, but quietly infiltrate all the right wardrobes.

As Brenda says so eloquently below, 'Benah is a personality.  She may not be the first person you see, or even the second, you have to look for her. Most probably a close friend introduces you to her for the first time, the conversation is easy, and it feels like you have met before. You find her intelligent, inspiring and maybe even a little aloof, but it’s enough to make her intriguing. You know that by the end of the night you have found a friend for life.'

Huge thanks to Brenda for sharing her story with us today!  Benah accessories are available online here, and keep an eye out next week when Brenda's second range with Karen Walker debuts in NY!

Tell us a little about your background – what did you originally study, what drew you into fashion, and to launching your own label, Benah in 2009?

I always knew that I would work in a creative industry. Coming from a farming community in small town New Zealand, where becoming a vet, teacher or working in the bank was the norm, this was quite a revelation.

Working within fashion was just a natural progression really. At school I was drawn to graphics and architecture - creative subjects that had some sort of reason and logic to them. Even today, if I wasn’t working in fashion, I think that I would be an industrial designer.

Moving to Sydney at 23 was a big turning point for me. After spending all my savings and having the time of my life doing it, I started a course in Clothing Production at TAFE, interned at Lover, and went on to become one of their first employees. Over the next five years I worked in production/operations manager roles.  The experience I gained and the people I met continue to help me even today.

I really do love production. Bringing the designs and dreams into reality; this is still something I find really satisfying. Too many people discount the importance of learning this skill set when starting off in the fashion industry. My advice to anyone wanting a career in the industry, even if you don’t want to end up in production, is to intern somewhere where you get an insight into the department. Your eyes will be opened to the realities of building a brand, and what it takes to get that dream into the hands of the customer.

Coming from a garment background, accessories were not the first obvious choice when starting my own brand. But I love the freedom they allow you to have. From a business point of view, it was something I could produce at a certain level of quality, while still making an accessible product, which was very important.

How would you describe the Benah aesthetic – what influences do you draw on when creating new collections, and what common thread ties all your work together?

Classic, understated confidence.

I tend to think of Benah as a personality, she changes slightly with each collection, just as we all do depending on what is happening in our lives. But ultimately, she still holds the same core beliefs year after year.

She is the girl standing in the corner. She may not be the first person you see, or even the second, you have to look for her. Most probably a close friend introduces you to her for the first time, the conversation is easy, and it feels like you have met before, this is someone you actually want to get to know. You find her intelligent, inspiring and maybe even a little aloof, but it’s enough to make her intriguing. You know that by the end of the night you have found a friend for life.

Every collection is always a progression on the previous, and we tend to stay with classic silhouettes, and develop them with different finishes and textures. Nothing is too much of step away from our core classic aesthetic.

My creative process tends to start with a big, philosophical concept that becomes diffused down to form the foundation of each collection. Once that idea is simplified, usually into the form of a quote or poem, I can pinpoint exactly how the collection should feel. I think of each range as one of Benah's many personalities.  What colours would she been drawn to in that state of mind? Which textures would she want to be associated with? What is her world like in that moment?

In design I am constantly responding to the world around me, and my place in the world, so each collection seems to arise from these kinds of principles. Looking back, I can always pinpoint exactly what was going on in my life with each collection. What is happening in my life always informs the principal idea. For example, a past collection, Sunshadows, started as a meditation on Carl Jung’s shadow theory, which explores the idea of duality within the self, the darkness and the light together. I was thinking about these ideas as I’d just become a new parent, and was seeing this little human being becoming a mirror of myself.

I started thinking about all the personally traits your children inherit. What you have control on and what you don’t. What you should embrace and what you need to accept. For without the dark there can be no light. And often the brightest lights cast the darkest shadows. The quote for this collection was:

No matter how fast the light travels, it finds that darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it. – Terry Pratchett

The concept of shadow theory is very relevant for any creative person. All my collections have definite dark/light, hard/soft qualities to them. The duality is what I find inspiring.

Architecture continues to be a major influence. The way light and glass is used to create space and texture and essentially ‘life’ to the structure, its something I keep coming back to time and time again.

Inspiration for Benah's ongoing collaboration with Karen Walker.  Photo - Phu Tang.
In addition to your own collection, you recently collaborated with NZ designer Karen Walker on an amazing collection of bags and purses to complement her 2014 spring/summer range. How did this collaboration come about, and what can you tell us about this collab?

We initially approached Karen Walker about collaborating, they said yes, and it went from there. Karen and her team have been incredible to work with. The whole process has been seamless. Being from New Zealand, the Karen Walker brand is somewhat of an icon to me, and we are incredibly humbled to be given the opportunity to work alongside such an inspiring team.

The collab debuted on the runway at New York Fashion Week in September last year, and combines both brands' effortless, unpretentious sense of style and love of colour, with high quality materials and impeccable craftsmanship.

At the core we wanted to create a line based around utility and functionality. There is something for every occasion. Silhouettes include a phone pouch, clutch, messenger bag, utility satchel, tote, Boston bag, shoppers and an overnight bag. It was listed by The Huffington Post as one of the top nine accessories of the season!

This is an ongoing collaboration, and we will be showing again as part of NY Fashion week on February 10th (next week!).

Bags by Benah for Karen Walker!  This pic from the collab's debut at New York fashion week.

Bags by Benah for Karen Walker.
Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of Benah? Where are you based, how is your office structured, and how many people do you employ, and what significant tasks do you outsource?

The studio is based in Sydney and we work within a hub of creativity in Surry Hills.
I am lucky to have some wonderful people around me, with OurKingdom, our fantastic PR agency on the same floor. We are a small team, with most things going through my hands at some stage. Coming from a production background I welcome the areas of the business that most designers shun. Nothing gives me more delight than seeing a colour coded, formatted spreadsheet!

Over the past five years I have been lucky enough to have some incredible interns that have gone on to have fantastic careers in their own right, I would not have been able to build the brand without them.

Benah's classic 'Tara Mini chain' bag in Onyx.  Photo - Phu Tang.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?

Everyday is different! We live in a household filed with wonderful creative chaos.
My husband Ben is a filmmaker and we have a three-year-old daughter, Milla. She is the light of our life, and keeps us on our toes most mornings.

I’m constantly on my phone, answering emails from dawn to dusk. Be it from factories in Europe, publicists in Tokyo or sales agents in New York.

Usually I’m across three seasons at once so it can be crazy, but would I want it any other way?!

A typical day could involve selecting leathers and prints for current collections, approving hardware castings and finishes. Working on PR and sales strategies for the upcoming season. Shooting product for online and devising concepts for campaign shoots. Visiting the warehouse to check on deliveries, attending briefing with creative agencies to work on custom products. Skyping the sales agent in Tokyo and always answering relentless emails from around the globe.

Brenda at work in her Surry Hills studio.  Photo - Phu Tang.
Can you list for us 5 resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?

Right now I find silence inspiring. After years of being consumed by the digital life; I’m trying to pull back a little. I use to read many blogs/websites but now I’ve pared it back to only a few. But I know this will change; everything goes in cycles right?

I have a few publishing houses and book stores that I regularly keep up to date with. We are a book loving family and have piles and piles of them around the house. I particularly love: Mack Books, Vincent Borrelli, and LN-CC. Current additions to the home library include: Holy BibleTodd Hido: Excerpts from Silver Meadows, and Astronomical.

I always read the Huffington Post and I particularly like the TEDWeekends section.

I have a very healthy eBay addiction. I am constantly trawling for various out of print books, rare artworks, vintage clothing and accessories.

Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you liking at the moment?

Alice Babidge, costume and set designer – Alice is a dear friend and frequently collaborates with both my husband and myself. She works across various mediums in costume and set design, is extremely talented and one of the hardest working people I know. She has a raw talent and eye that cannot be learnt. In Alice’s case, she was born with it.

Ben Briand, film maker – Given the fact that Ben is my husband, I may be biased here. But if I weren’t his biggest fan, there would be something wrong, right? Ben first and foremost is an artist, which shows in his work. A gothic romantic at heart he is incredibly considered and patient. Traits that I wish I had more of. His short film Blood Pulls A Gun, which Alice also worked on as Co-Production and Costume Designer, has just been selected as a part of the SXSW Film Festival.

Miso, artist – We are lucky enough to have a piece of Stanislava work from Miso's ‘Everywhere I have been’ series. The dedication to her craft and the fragility of her art is something I am constantly in awe of. Aside from being incredibly talented, she is truly humble and has the most beautiful soul.

Karen Walker and Mikhail Gherman, fashion designer and creative director – As far as creative couples go, Karen and Mikhail are one in a million. They are incredibly inspiring and just super cool to work with. Their output is astounding and the brand they have built together is testament to the respect they have for each other.

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

With so much happening over the past five years the bar is continually being raised.
Building a brand, starting a family, and getting married (in that order) is no simple feat. Being able to see the brand go from strength to strength and gain momentum is always exciting. Every achievement is valid, big or small, as it’s the small stepping stones that build the mountain.

Benah current collection samples.  Photo - Phu Tang.
What would be your dream project?

I’m living my dream! The last five years have been quite big for me, so I’m excited to see what I can make happen in the next five.

Dream projects would be to create a perfume with Ds & Durga, collaborate with a denim brand to create denim/leather products, or work with an industrial designer in the conception of lifestyle products such as furniture and homewares.

What are you looking forward to?

Seeing ‘Benah for Karen Walker’ on the runway at Karen Walker’s NY Fashion week show next week, and see my husband’s short film screen at SXSW Festival in March


Your favourite Sydney neighbourhood and why?

The cliché that is it, I cannot go past Bondi. Love it or hate it, it's one in a million. It’s our backyard and having a child has made me appreciate Bondi's beauty even more.

Where do you shop in Sydney for the tools of your trade?

I’m always on the hunt for vintage inspiration. Mitchell Road Auction House is a main stay, I’ve been known to spend hours in there.

Where and what was the last great meal you ate in Sydney?

Ruby’s Dinner. It's a toss up between the Coconut Quinoa Bircher with Mango and Coconut sugar caramel or the Raw Breakfast Salad with Kale, avocado, almonds, and poached eggs.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Either at the Bondi Farmers Market having the ultimate Chai or at ‘The Shop’ on Curlewis Street with Mikey making the best coffee in Bondi, followed by a swim at Nielson Park.

Sydney’s best kept secret?

Now that would be telling wouldn’t it?

Brenda in the studio!  Photo - Phu Tang.

The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email