Smathers & Branson rule the roost in the needlepoint world, creating unique and stylish belts, hats, wallets, and other accessories that speak volumes about personal style. Founders Austin Branson and Peter Smathers, as well as their Director of Wholesale Christian Piper sat down for a chat:
What made you start Smathers & Branson?
In 2004, while roommates at Bowdoin College, we decided to start a company that offered needlepoint belts. We became intrigued with these unique accessories after our girlfriends made us needlepoint belts as gifts. After looking to buy finished belts, we realized that these products were impossible to find and prohibitively expensive. From the start our goal was to make the belts more available, attractive and affordable. We had always shared the entrepreneurial spirit and having discovered a concept for which we shared a passion, we started working on the idea that has become Smathers & Branson.
Our biggest challenge would be finding and training skilled artisans. With our options quickly running out, we decided to spend the fall in Vietnam. Meeting our stitchers face to face enabled us to perfect our product to meet the high standards we set. Without realizing it, we had laid the groundwork for a cottage industry that, within a few years, would employ and provide opportunities for over thousands of people. As our company continues to grow, we have the satisfaction that our artisan’s level of success grows as well.
We began testing the market in the spring of 2005, and quickly, the once treasured gift became the epicenter of a thriving business. The positive response to the needlepoint belts allowed us to expand to a full line of needlepoint accessories. In addition, we can create custom products with unique patterns for schools, clubs, and organizations as well as one of a kind Life Belts® and monogrammed products.
From the start our mission has been: “to offer the finest products with customer service to match.”
What type of person is a Smathers & Branson customer?
Its funny, probably over 50 percent of the sales we make are women buying for their men. Whether it is proud mothers buying for their graduates, girlfriends buying for their new boyfriend or wives buying for their husbands, these male recipients are clearly doing something right. Outside of that, I would describe our customers as active and classic. Our designs are meant to cater to the activities, schools, and clubs that our customers love most. While there are certainly different ends of the spectrum – the guy who would wear the Flamingo belt may not be caught dead wearing the Beer Cans belt (and vice versa), the common thread is that all of our customers have an appreciation for quality.
What do you say to someone that says: ‘Yeah, it’s awesome, but $165???’
We’ve definitely heard that before too. We are well aware that we cater to a niche market and that our products are not for everyone. We do our best to target our products, themes, and distribution to this niche. We’ve never thought of ourselves as salesmen but have seen our belts sell themselves if they are put in front of the right audience. By sticking to this strategy, we’ve had thousands of return customers who seem to understand the quality that goes into our hand stitched products and understand the price.
What is your favorite design?
That is a tough one as it seems to change monthly. We are constantly working up new designs and tweaking existing patterns. Some classics for us have been the Bonefish, Dark N Stormy, Beer Can and Jolly Roger belts. However, we have some new patterns set to launch in June that we really love.
What inspires your designs?
Our designs are inspired by the people, places, and activities that we love most. Whether it is golfing, boating, or fishing we try to have a belt out there for everyone. Over the past 8 years we have had the privilege of working with some great customers to cater to their design requests. Customer feedback is a huge part of the design process and many of the belts in our current collection came from our early customers.
Your custom designs seem to be doing well – especially on the golf course, with Kutcher wearing the Sea Island belt and Arnie wearing the Masters belt. Tell me about your custom designs.
Our golf business is the fastest growing part of our company. We have been fortunate and persistent enough to partner with some of the best golf clubs and tournaments in the country. Our designers have a knack for being able to translate club designs into needlepoint and luckily golf pros and club members have responded very well to our products. We have been surprised by how often we see PGA Tour Players wearing our belts.
With the introduction of needlepoint hats a few months back we are very excited to continue to watch our golf business grow. We have already partnered with some awesome clubs and we think the logoed needlepoint hats will be a big hit in the coming years.
Arnold Palmer "The King" sporting a Masters Needlepoint Belt
Matt Kutcher representing Sea Island with a Custom Needlepoint Belt
What is coming in the future from Smathers & Branson?
We have a lot in the works right now. In addition to continuing to maintain our high quality standards for our current products, we also have a team that is developing some very exciting new products. Hundreds of our retail stores have already received our new needlepoint cufflinks, tote bags and pillows and those products are set to hit our website sometime this summer. For now, the totes and pillows will be strictly collegiate patterns as that has proven to be a great outlet for us. We have some other products in the works as well, but we want to grow at a responsible rate to assure we can continue to offer the best quality, customer service and delivery to our customers as possible. We are excited to see what the future of S&B brings!
Lobster Roll or BBQ sandwich?
Tough question. Probably have to go with the lobster role. We went to Bowdoin College in Maine, so we have had some great Lobster Rolls in our day.
What album is playing on your iPod?
U2, Coldplay, Paul Simon, The Stones, The Dead, Mumford and Sons, LCD Soundsystem, and M83.
For more Smathers & Branson, visit Smathers & Branson Online.
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