Helena Silva traces her interest in fashion design to her days of making dresses for her Barbie dolls as a child.
“My mother was a seamstress, and even she was astonished at how I was able to sew such little sleeves,” said Silva, the founder of Bent and Bree, a fashion accessory company whose purses, backpacks and other products are made primarily of cork. “Later I designed my own clothes and my mother would make them for me. And people loved them!”
It was a prescient beginning. After a decade of working in marketing and design at a half dozen fashion companies in Europe and the United States, Silva is finding great success at her new venture. She can be seen selling her stylish wares at fairs and festivals around South County and throughout the region. She also has marketing deals with QVC, credit card and travel rewards programs, and numerous hotels seeking products to give their rooms an impression of sustainable elegance.
And it all starts with cork.
According to Silva, a Rhode Island native, most of the world’s cork comes from the bark of cork oak trees in Portugal, where she spent several years growing up and where some of her family still lives.
“All the trees are safeguarded by the government, and harvesting the cork actually promotes the life of the tree,” she said. “Every nine years you’re supposed to debark the trees, and it has to be done by skilled workers. It helps cork trees live to 150 years.”
She describes cork as an “amazing product” that is durable, sustainable, lightweight, water resistant, non-toxic, biodegradable and easy to clean. Those characteristics are exactly what she had in mind when she sought a unique material around which to design her products.
“I’ve always had a concern for animals and plants and the environment, and then having children contributed to my interest in sustainability,” Silva said. “It made me realize that I wanted to make the world a better place for them.”
Her most popular product is the first one she ever designed, even before she started her company. She calls it the Dixie Tote.
“It was designed with a specific need in mind,” Silva said. “I was looking for a diaper bag after giving birth to my second child, and everything I found was made with plastic or leather, materials that aren’t sustainable. When I made my own bag out of cork, I found that the older it got the nicer it looked.”
Her customers agree, finding that it has versatile uses and can be converted into a backpack or shoulder bag.
“It can be used as a diaper bag, a weekender, a business bag,” she said. “It’s designed in a clever way to make it really functional. It’s got pockets for water bottles, baby bottles, iPads, zipped pockets for credit cards. And it fits nicely under an airline seat.”
Since then, her company – named for her two children – has taken off. She has created dozens of other products, from handbags and wallets to jewelry and children’s booties. The design process for each involves detailed research, customer feedback, trend analysis and discussions with manufacturers, all of which are located in Portugal.
“I want our designs to be endless, not too trendy because we want them to be around for a long time,” she said. “We don’t do things that will be out of style quickly.”
The manufacturing process requires that she make frequent trips to Portugal to review production samples, discuss design elements, and ensure the quality meets her standards.
“I used to have to spend a lot of time at the factories because American consumers are much different from European customers, in terms of their need for aesthetics, functionality and quality,” Silva said. “Initially there were a lot of bags we didn’t approve – to them, they were perfect, but for us, they weren’t good enough. But now I get the consistency and quality I need.”
While the pandemic canceled many of the events where she showcases her designs, Silva said her business continues to thrive due to her hospitality and rewards program sales. And it has given her time to think about new product ideas and revisit products she used to feature, including household items like cork placements, wine chillers and trivet sets. This fall she shipped 350 ice buckets to a new hotel in Brooklyn, and other hotels have called about them as well.
“Women are still our biggest customers, but we’re now selling tons of jewelry and wallets to men as well,” she said. “I’ve been asked to make more products for men, like a male-type crossbody bag and maybe a briefcase. I need to do more research to investigate the right sizes and what men may use them for. But that’s on the horizon.”
Also on her radar is the possibility of opening retail stores, perhaps in Newport and South Florida, where a great deal of her online sales come from.
“It’s not the right time to launch anything in Florida, given the pandemic,” Silva said. “But it seems like everyone we talk to has a house in South Florida, so we’re thinking about it.”
It would be a big risk for a small company, but Silva is optimistic that her cork accessories will succeed in the broader marketplace.
“We’re not a known brand yet beyond New England, but we’re doing well because people are looking for vegan items, environmentally-friendly options, and they think cork is interesting. They like it because it matches everything.”
Those interested in learning more about Silva’s cork accessories can visit www.bentandbree.com.