For designer Be Inthavong, a handbag is more than fashion—it's personal. Inthavong, who was born in Laos and raised in Texas, descends from generations of women who made their living as silk weavers. In his New York apartment hangs a traditional sarong, which his grandmother wove at age 15. "It's a daily inspiration," he says. That inspiration is evident in his eponymous handbag line, which launched in 2010 and features a patent-pending textile made from tiny pieces of leather hand-woven together in a silk loom in Laos. It takes a month of painstaking work to create a single piece—like this platinum Bobo ($1,850)—but each sturdy, rich bag fuses a 500-year-old craft with modern American fashion. To accommodate his growing business and create further economic opportunity for women in Laos, Inthavong plans to build a new weaving mill there and invite tourists to learn about the culture and craft. "We can offer a historic piece of Laos," he says. "It's important for Laotian women to know their work is meaningful—socially and economically." beinthavong.com
A version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.