Welden: The Handcrafted Handbags That Won’t Cost You Multiple Paychecks
In an age of mass automation, there’s still something about handworked artifacts that machine-made products will never attain. It’s the attention to detail, the human interaction that gives an extra tug to a loose piece of thread or discerns the grain of leather for an almost seamless cut. And while labels like “artisan” and “handcrafted” are touted often to sell products, the desire for individualized, one-of-a-kind pieces, thoughtfully created with tactile expertise, is not to be played down. Some might argue it is the thinking behind the process, rather than the final product, that is so valuable. And that level of human concentration often comes at a hefty price tag.
With Welden, a small, relatively new handbag company based in Connecticut, the human craftsmanship is as much the story as its signature hexagonal weave. Its bags are created using a time-honored technique originating from a family leather-goods factory now based in China, where the pieces are still made by skilled artisans and designers. Yet despite the complexity and hands-on involvement, Welden bags are offered at a surprisingly approachable price. The whole range is available between $250 and $595—nothing to scoff at, but certainly well below the norm for a luxury handbag.
The mastermind behind the brand is Sandy Friesen, who started out in the handbag industry two decades ago in New York. She met Gary and Cissy Chui, the owners of the leather factory, about 10 years ago and the three began cultivating a business partnership that would eventually culminate in Welden. In 2016, a year after Welden launched, fellow handbag-industry veteran Cori Adams met Sandy through her daughter’s ballet class and joined as VP of sales and marketing. Spanning an ocean and two continents, the foursome essentially runs every aspect of the brand, underscoring how nimble and lean an operation Welden is.
Having stumbled upon the company’s unusually patterned bags, we recently sought out Sandy and Cori to find out more about Welden, its origins and its accessible pricing. Ahead, our interview with the women behind the brand.
Nordstrom: What prompted you to launch Welden? And how is it different from other handbag companies?
Sandy: I’ve been in handbags the last 20 years. I’ve worked for Coach. I helped launch Banana Republic Accessories. I worked for Kate Spade for five years, which I left to start a consulting company. I worked for Elizabeth and James. And what I found was a lot of bags started to look like each other. And when I decided to go out on my own, I wanted to create something that was different, that when you saw it you always knew that it was a Welden bag.
My background really is more on the manufacturing side. I’m kind of a factory nerd, and I just fell in love with this handcraft. And in a world that’s now quicker, better, faster—to slow down and watch this handwoven aspect of a bag coming to shape with somebody’s hands was just something that I always found so intriguing and beautiful. Because I love quality so much, I wanted to come up with something that was handwoven, that kept this craft alive. And people don’t think normally of the craft in Asia, but these artisans have been doing this for decades, and they’re so amazing at what they do. They each have a story. And so I wanted to keep that craft alive, and I wanted to make sure that I was using beautiful materials doing it. So our suedes are from Italy and our leather is American hide. And we just wanted to offer all of that at an affordable price point.
From left: Sandy Friesen and Cori Adams
Welden has been doing great in quite a few markets. How’d you two carry that off so quickly?
Cori: So my background is in luxury. I worked for Mulberry. I managed all their wholesales to North America for six years, so I was kind of in that world already with very high-quality leather and fabrications, and very high-end design.
When Sandy and I met—I kinda joke around—it’s like our love story; it was instantaneous. We got on so great! So we decided to partner because when Welden launched Sandy had gone into direct business—that was the initial business model. But because it’s such a saturated market, we asked what would make us penetrate [the market], and get more eyes on the brand, and so forth.
In the first market I ever did [for Welden], all my accounts that came in were all from my Mulberry days, and they automatically thought that the price point was $1,200 to $1,500, just knowing my background. And I said, “Oh, no, this bag is $395. This one is $595!” They were like, “There’s no way.” So that was really complimentary to hear right off the bat. I’d only been with Welden for about six months, and to hear that already from the people I had previously been working with was huge.
You’re partnered with a boutique leather factory in Asia. Can you tell us a little about that?
Sandy: Yeah, so Cissy Chui is the owner. It was her parents’ company. They started in Hong Kong in the 1960s and then they moved to China. And what they’re known for is this handwoven. They’re one of the only factories that really established this handwoven, and they have archives from the 1960s of just this craftsmanship, you know? And they like to take on the most difficult, challenging products out there. Cissy has this passion just to do things better, and everybody loves to work with them. She’s an amazing person, she pays it forward, and you’re just really drawn to her. She’s very worldly; she’s a cook and she speaks four languages. She just welcomes you in. And I just formed a connection with her over the last 15 years of doing handbags. So when I left Kate Spade, we had a friendship, and she wanted to do a brand in the U.S. She was like, “You run with it and we’ll help you.”
So together we came up with the name “Welden.” The Well is the [factory’s] parent company name, and I had just had my son Alden—so “Welden” kind of felt like a fit for them together.
In terms of the hexagon, the factory has these archives, and I went over to Asia and just played around with them for weeks. I knew it had to be handwoven and I had a hundred different ideas. And the one thing I kept coming back to was the hexagon. At first, it was small, and then I started blending different sizes. And then I kept making it larger and larger, and finally I saw it big and it felt modern, it felt fresh, and different. I really fell in love with it. And I loved the fact that there was this storytelling aspect of it. Sometimes we say Welden is woven storytelling. So there’s like a story behind it, which goes to the artisans who create it, which goes to people who are carrying it.
Is there special symbolism behind the hexagonal weave?
Sandy: A little bit. I was just drawn to it. But, really, if you look around, it’s everywhere. It’s all over the streets of New York, it’s on buildings, it’s on toys. It’s everywhere you look, the hexagon. There are so many things, and it felt like it was all around, and it’s, again, this idea of authenticity, simplicity, originality. And I just felt like it really embraced everything that I was trying to do. And again, it was those three strips of leather coming into one. It just kind of all connected.
Can you tell us a little about your bags—and the women wearing them?
Cori: We have a few different looks this summer. The DNA is the same [as past bags], but there’s a saddlebag which is a little bit more casual, so definitely for that woman who has a hands-free life. She’s exploring, she’s interested in the world, and so forth.
And then we have more structured bags, like the Saunter or the Wayfare, which are geared more towards a lady that is in the workforce. But I think the thing that we always say about the Welden DNA is that the woman who wears it, she understands craftsmanship, she understands standing out, she understands quality. And we think, too, that the woman who wears our bags also has an eye for art. She understands travel. She enjoys those things in her life.
What’s your secret to delivering high-end quality at an affordable price?
Sandy: It goes back to the factory. We’re partners with the factory, so we’re able to get it at a better price. But we’re also built lean, you know, and we plan to always be that way. Cori and I both work from home. We have the team in Asia that we work very well with, but we’re very lean in what we do. We love the grassroots approach. We’re very frugal, if you will, with our overhead to make sure that we can offer those prices, as well.
Cori: I think that’s a great question, because I think that’s the first reaction people have. They see the bag and they think it’s going to be this high price, and there is always those questions of, “How can it be [less]?” But we sacrifice so our customers don’t have to.
Shop: Welden Handbags