Austin Branson. Photo by Sean Scheidt
AUSTIN BRANSON MET PETER CARTER early in their freshman year at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Branson, a Bethesda native, played for the school’s lacrosse team, and Carter, who grew up in Maine, was friends with several upperclassmen on the team. The boys were close during their freshman and sophomore years, and decided to study abroad together in Florence, Italy, in the fall of 2002, their junior year.
Surrounded by the romance of Europe, Branson did what many young Americans had done before him: He fell in love. Her name was Maisie Lynch. She had grown up in Greenwich, Connecticut, and had come to Florence by way of Trinity College in Hartford (she became Branson’s wife in 2008). For Branson’s birthday that November, she presented him with a needlepoint belt. Hand-stitched with a pink elephant and martini motif, it was a new kind of accessory for the young government major. Enamored by the style, he threaded it through his belt loops several times a week. “I wore it because she made it, but also because it was so unique,” he says.
By coincidence, Carter’s girlfriend, who was also from the Northeast, made him a similar belt—this one with sailboats—around the same time. When the young men returned to Bowdoin for spring semester, the compliments started rolling in.
Where’d you get that?
“Find a nice girlfriend,” they’d joke. But as the inquiries became more frequent, Branson and Carter got to talking. “Getting your own business going was everyone’s dream,” Branson remembers. “And this was a great niche.”
Things got serious senior year. More interested in exploring their idea than the Bowdoin syllabus, Carter and Branson arranged a joint independent study with visiting art professor Anna Hepler and associate economics professor Gregory Paul DeCoster. “The hardest part was convincing the administration to let us do it,” Carter says. “In a lot of ways, that was our first sale.”
Carter (left) and Branson at a 2013 company Halloween party in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Smathers & Branson.
The study freed up time for the budding businessmen to focus on next steps. Lynch taught Branson how to needlepoint, and he practiced stitching on the bus ride home from lacrosse games. Hepler took a liking to Branson and Carter, despite the fact that they had no experience in visual arts. She guided them through multiple explorations of color, pattern and theme, and connected them with art students on campus. With their insight, the young men passed hours in the studio working through designs. The first: a Bowdoin polar bear drinking beer.
The economics portion of their study was devoted to building a business plan. They focused on consumer research, creating a meticulous breakdown of their potential target market—a group they identified as “traditional” men living on the East Coast. “We detailed the activities they liked, where they lived, the places they traveled, and where they shopped,” Carter says.
Though they took summer jobs immediately after graduation—Carter taught tennis, Branson was a caddy—this time there was a reason to work beyond earning beer money: Peter Carter and Austin Branson were going into business.
Celebrating in 2011 at a friend’s wedding in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where the groomsmen all wore custom-made Smathers & Branson belts. Photo courtesy of Smathers & Branson.
IN CERTAIN CIRCLES, the waist-cinchers consuming the attention of 22-year-olds Austin Branson and Peter Carter go by another moniker: The Breakup Belt.
Needlepoint is labor intensive, requiring many hours of tedious, row-by-row stitch work. Done by hand, and often by a young woman for her beau, a belt can take so long to make that a couple may no longer be together by the time the project is complete.
“That was the barrier for entry into the business,” Branson says. “You spend $300 or more on materials, and then it’s 40-plus hours of work. Our goal was to cut the price in half, and have no personal time involved.”
In September 2004, a few months after the young men had graduated, Carter moved into Branson’s childhood home in Bethesda’s Sumner neighborhood. Using Carter’s middle name, they created a limited liability company called Smathers & Branson and set up shop in the basement. They refined their needlepointing skills several days each week at The Point of It All, a shop in Friendship Heights.
Finishing up a photo shoot in 2013 in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Photo courtesy of Smathers & Branson.
At home, Branson’s mother, Patricia Branson, then an English teacher at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in D.C., kept them fed. Branson’s father, Bob, a real estate developer, served as a business mentor.
“Austin’s father is a very savvy businessman,” Carter says. “Each night at dinner, he’d ask us about our day, and we’d talk through all sorts of issues.”
Through the blind luck of connection (Carter’s college girlfriend’s aunt was in the textile business), they were introduced via email to a man named Quang, a potential manufacturing partner in Vietnam. Branson and Carter declined to provide the man’s last name.
“He was a raw, inexperienced gentleman who wanted to start a business,” Branson says. “He had no idea what needlepoint was, but he engaged with us and showed that he was interested.”