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The Secret Behind the ‘Anti-It Bag’ Everyone is Carrying

The Bangkok-based designers behind Boyy, who grew a cult following for their minimalist aesthetic, are preparing for the next stage of growth, starting with a move to Milan.
Boyy's 'Karl 24' handbag | Photo: Beatrice Gutu (Instagram/@beatrice.gutu)
  • Kati Chitrakorn

BANGKOK, Thailand — A scroll through the feeds of Instagram can induce an uncanny sense of déjà vu. Countless street style images of editors, buyers and other fashion week insiders have recently featured a boxy leather bag with a distinctive minimalist aesthetic on their arms. The fact that the bag seems to be everywhere is no surprise — that's down to basic marketing tactics — but how the brand Boyy acquired its fandom definitely is.

Boyy’s hallmark is simplicity. Its streamlined bags, which start at $850 for a small "Fred" style to $9,950 for a crocodile "Karl 24" bag, are devoid of excess hardware, pockets, studs or bows, and are made of the highest-quality Italian leather, with interiors lined in complementary shades. The result is a range of classic bags that stand resolutely outside of the dizzying cycle of trends.

A strong presence on social media is key to getting any young label out to international consumers. But the Bangkok-based brand founders of Boyy, Jesse Dorsey and Wannasiri Kongman, were tapping into the power of street style long before Instagram became the platform of choice within the fashion industry.

A chance encounter with the French singer and actress Lou Doillon at a house party in New York’s Bowery neighbourhood triggered this. According to Dorsey, she was impressed by their designs and asked them to send it to her modelling agency in Paris. The designers sent over a bag, unsure of whether Doillon would receive it. “The next thing we knew, there was a paparazzi shot of her on the streets of New York wearing our bag, smoking a cigarette, and it couldn’t have been a cooler photo.”

There were other serendipitous moments, too, such as when American actress Chloë Sevigny wore a Boyy bag to a shoot with Paolo Roversi for Self Service magazine. "Word is that he wanted to shoot her as soon as she stepped into the studio. [It resulted in] a double page spread featuring our bag," said Dorsey. Another time, Leandra Medine of the style website Man Repeller posted one of Boyy's campaigns on her Instagram, captioning the image, 'I need this.'

“These kinds of moments really projected us,” said Dorsey, noting that most of these endorsements were organic and unplanned.

Boyy currently has five boutiques as well as 86 stockists worldwide, including Selfridges and Browns in London, Moda Operandi in the US and I.T. in Hong Kong. Direct retail accounts for a majority of the business (65 percent) followed by wholesale (30 percent) and online (5 percent). According to the designers, sales are projected to reach $22 million in 2018, having witnessed 150 percent sales growth over the past three years.

Dorsey and Kongman, who have thus far self-funded their label, are now gearing up for their next stage of growth, which includes moving their operations to Milan. Kongman said this made sense as it is where their materials are sourced, their designs are made and where the majority of their stockists — 35 across Italy — are present.

They have also hired Paul Parawat Varatip as their managing director to oversee operations, while they focus on expanding their offering, which now includes footwear and eyewear. In addition to their Italian distribution, four boutiques in Thailand and one in Copenhagen, Dorsey and Kongman are eyeing Hong Kong and the Middle East.

So, what have been the secrets to Boyy’s success?

Going against the mainstream has been one of their approaches. Dorsey, a former musician, and Kongman, an ex-buyer at Thailand's department-store chain Central, launched Boyy in 2006 as an alternative to the array of "It" bag options that were prevalent at that time, from the Chloé Paddington to the Marc Jacobs Stam. The designers observed that most of the styles were "super feminine" or "super blingy." "We liked things that were more masculine and with a rough edge, so when we started designing we had an idea that it would be like an 'anti-It bag,'" said Dorsey.

“I see potential in Boyy because it has international taste yet is functional with high quality,” said Duang Poshyanonda, editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar Thailand, who was also the campaign model for Boyy’s limited-edition line of vintage pyjamas, Motel Bed, which launched in August on Moda Operandi. “Trends come and go so fast, but Boyy has leveraged their design to be more clever and timeless.”

Not a lot of brands based in Thailand are international successes.

Support from the right people also helped to boost Boyy. Dorsey met Colette founder and creative director Sarah Andelman in the early days of their label "at the lobby of Soho House in New York," he recalled. "She didn't say much but after she looked [at the bags], she wrote on a piece of paper and gave it to me. I was like, 'what's that?' and she goes, 'that's my order.'" According to Dorsey, Andelman had placed an order for 30 pieces.

In 2007, the designers met Julie Gilhart, formerly senior vice president and fashion director at Barneys, who taught them not to sell themselves short. At that time, they had signed up with the Steven Alan showroom, although it resulted in disagreements around pricing. "There's a lot of pressure in showrooms to price downwards with the thinking you're going to sell more units," said Dorsey.

Gilhart’s advice, said Kongman, was that “our prices were too low” and that it should be above $1,000. “Meanwhile, the showroom was saying to us, ‘why don’t you make it a bit cheaper so we can sell more?’ That was the point we weren’t happy and we wanted out.”

Scaling back and focusing on key markets help put Boyy back on the right track. The duo left the showroom in 2011 and relocated from New York to Thailand. It had been a year since they opened their first retail store in the Thai department store Central Chidlom, which proved to be successful. So, the designers decided to shift their focus to Bangkok.

“Because Wannasiri is Thai, people really started to follow her and her success,” said Dorsey. “We have such a strong local industry,” agreed Kongman, acknowledging that her Thai roots have had significance influence on the brand. “We got a lot of coverage in Thai press, because not a lot of brands based in Thailand are international [successes].”

Soon after, the brand gradually began to flourish internationally. Hong Kong multi-brand retailer I.T. has been carrying Boyy since the Autumn/Winter 2015 season. According to Candy Lau, assistant merchandising manager at I.T., which stocks the brand exclusively in Hong Kong, “the bags went out of stock within two weeks of launching.”

In August 2018, Boyy teamed up with Browns in London to create six exclusive colourways of some of their signature styles, which were showcased at the retailer’s new retail concept, Browns East. “Since the first delivery, the brand continued to deliver strong and immediate sell-outs. We have seen almost double sales year-on-year,” said Ida Petersson, womenswear buying director at Browns.

Boyy also found success by both focusing on one key item, but also diversifying product at the right time (many brands tend to start putting together a plan to move beyond the “It” item, only after that item is already in decline). The label introduced eyewear in 2014 and footwear in 2015. "We have great ambitions for many, many things, but we've been honing in on individual designs," said Dorsey. "Right now, for shoes, we only have one style in three colours. When we launch something we want to make sure it's special enough to put out there."

“I think what we have done right is our vision. We take our product and branding seriously,” added Kongman.

To this day Boyy does not have a PR agency and has very limited advertising. Instead, its must-have status has been cemented by the industry’s leading tastemakers, from buyers like Net-a-Porter’s Lisa Aiken and MyTheresa’s Tiffany Hsu to Instagram stars such as Reese Blutstein and Vanessa Hong, all of whom have blasted street style images of themselves carrying a Boyy bag on their arms to their tens or hundreds of thousands of highly engaged followers.

“We have been able to do a lot so far with very little PR thanks to the blessing of social media, which can keep you afloat once you catch that wave,” Dorsey said.

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