Mary Smallwood considers herself a solutions-based artist. Smallwood and her husband, Joe, the CEO of Naples-based building company BCB Homes, often entertain and hobnob at area events. But despite her best efforts, she couldn’t find a purse that was practical yet sophisticated enough to carry at a cocktail party. She wanted one that was hands-free, so “you can eat and drink with it, but it doesn’t whack you in the face,” she says with a laugh. So, five years ago, she created a prototype of a reimagined wristlet and wore it to a Halloween party. A friend eyed the sack—shaped like a Hershey’s Kiss— and immediately said, “You need to patent that.”
By designing a solution to a problem and building a brand around it, Smallwood launched her signature Nexus Handbag—and an eponymous collection, including handbags and nameplate necklaces. “Innovative materials and techniques are essential in custom home building, and these principles are just as prevalent in my accessories collection,” Smallwood explains.
Before her two now-teenage boys were born, Smallwood served as half of the design duo behind Smart Divas (a beaded jewelry line sold at Marissa Collections). When the boys came along, she stopped stringing beads on her kitchen table but kept her creativity flowing with painting and photography. At their home in Estuary at Grey Oaks, the kitchen office, where her kids once did their homework, now holds Smallwood’s embroidery machine. To the side of the office, the family’s converted garage acts as a boutique and as storage for beads and bags.
About two years ago, Smallwood started moving toward vegan materials, which she says is more of a transition than a dead stop since the original Nexus is still available in lamb leather. Her latest collection is crafted with eco-friendly Italian materials (which are made of recycled polyester from plastic bottles and GMO-free corn crops) that are biodegradable and PETA-approved. Faux python lines the handle of the hands-free Numinous clutch, and bags like the two-handled, Everglades-inspired Marjory Derive tote (named after conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas) feature embossed, synthetic crocodile.
Naples plays a starring role in Smallwood’s accessories since the city’s name is emblazoned on her organic cotton canvas bags and recycled silver and gold nameplate necklaces. Colors like cerulean Pier Blue nod to the Naples’ landmark, while camel-hued Wet Sand is inspired by the shade of the shore as the tide rolls out. “I don’t think I would appreciate Naples as I do now if I hadn’t moved somewhere else,” says the designer, who grew up in Old Naples and spent time in Palm Beach working in the spa industry and designing home gyms for clients.
As Smallwood designs her accessories collections, she’ll jot ideas down on a reMarkable paper tablet and divide themes into different tabs. She’ll upload images, like one of a piece of coral sitting on a shelf in her home, or a video of the shimmering sea to her mood board, a thread of photos and videos she shares via WhatsApp with her manufacturers in India. “I sketch, they sketch, and then I receive a 3D design back,” she explains. “My job is to try and give them an idea of what the water looks like down here or how a starfish moves.”
Embroidery is also done by fair trade manufacturers in Mumbai, where financial support aids with the education of the artisans’ children. Manufacturing can take up to a year by the time materials are sourced, prototypes are tested and the final product is ready. Smallwood is currently working with a Global Recycled Standard-certified silk-like material, partially made from reused plastic, for the Nexus 2.0. The first sample had too much backing—it was stiff and didn’t flow properly. Now, she plans to debut the second sample at The Shelter for Abused Women & Children’s Bags & Bow Ties event this month. She plans to do a small production run in the U.S. for efficiency’s sake, so the silk Nexus can be on the market by early summer.
Around that time, Smallwood also plans to launch her new coastal jewelry collection and home goods line of trays and jewelry boxes, which uses upcycled materials from the jewelry industry, including gold, silver and semi-precious stones. These designs incorporate abstract, artistic interpretations of items found in nature, like a seashell or starfish, or landmarks, including Naples Pier, which has been reimagined in art nouveau style for the rounded lid of a jewelry box. “It’s somewhere my family always went at sunset, so I took a portion of the pier and created a design that is linear and more modern,” Smallwood says.
When the designer notices a gap in the market, whether it be hands-free purses or stylish tennis bags (which is next on her list), she’s determined to design a fashionable, functional solution. Her shift toward sustainability began during the pandemic, as Smallwood started researching recycled and vegan materials that were up to the level of luxury and style synonymous with her brand. “I like to work with new materials constantly,” she says, adding that she’s looking at other vegan materials for handbags, such as leather-like pineapple waste.
A year of research for the vegan line had Smallwood reconsidering everything from packaging to manufacturing. She now works with polypropylene reusable shipping boxes (which can be reused about 20 times before being recycled) from Boox. “Moving toward sustainability takes time,” she says. “I would like, one day, to be 100% sustainable, but more than anything, I want to be transparent—that’s what is important to me.”