Handbag Designer Ann Howell Bullard

Ann Howell Bullard designs vibrant, handcrafted bags using leather and paint.
by Hampton Williams Hofer  | photography by SP Murray

Three years ago, Ann Howell Bullard used a simple sewing kit to transform a slip of painted canvas into a clutch handbag to take to a friend’s wedding. “Everyone was stopping me to say, ‘whoa, that’s so cool!’ and I was like ‘really?’ So I just kept doing more.” Since then, Bullard has made thousands of bags. Each of her unique creations, which she meticulously hand-paints and sews, is a functional piece of art. Her namesake line of bags, including everything from clutches to totes, has exploded in popularity with online customers, retailers, and buyers at trade shows from New York to Paris.

With no formal training in art or leather-working, Bullard has mastered her craft organically through trial and error. She still has that first canvas clutch, which fell apart after one use and taught her that there’s a reason people use leather. Early on in her bag-making, when her husband bet her $100 that she couldn’t finish a huge plate of pancakes and eggs by herself, Bullard proved him wrong and took her winnings down to the leather store to buy her first piece of white leather hide. She soon realized that due to the layers of paint on colored leather, her own painting would show up better on the undyed kind, which she has used ever since. Now, her bags are all made from natural, naked veg-tan cowhide. (It’s the highest quality leather: buttery smooth, and smells like a new car). Bullard paints the bags using a cross between acrylic paint and ink, which seeps down into the hide. 

“I first discovered Ann Howell’s bags on Instagram, and they immediately caught my eye,” says Mary Swanson, owner of Tulipano Boutique in Atlanta and Birmingham, who has now carried Bullard’s bags for a year in her ultra-hip stores. “Ann Howell’s pieces are all a work of art. There is nothing like them on the market.” Bullard, who majored in English and art history at UNC-Chapel Hill, believes in “sponge education”—seeing like an artist, garnering inspiration through brain stamps of all the things that move her. She’s drawn to the contrast of black and white, to pops of neon, glitter, and rustic cutouts. Her bags feature designs like banana leaves, lips, and stars. Take the Cherry Red Clutch, for example, which Bullard says was inspired by some mixture of Henri Matisse, Mick Jagger, and dusty old bookstores. Every bag has a background, a trail in Bullard’s curious and artistic mind, where she draws upon snapshots of things like wood textures and sun sparkles. The popular Jeweled Clutch was inspired in part by a jeweler’s storefront sign in Calcutta and in part by gothic Southern literature. 

In the front room of her home near Wade Avenue, Bullard’s workshop brims with sewing machines, scrap cutters, strips of leather, and acrylic paints. In just over three years, she has produced six collections of signature handbags. She used to work in the laundry room, but took over the formal living room, because it’s the biggest room in the house. There, she can produce 30-50 bags a week depending on the design complexity. She first cuts the leather (using patterns she created herself based on bags she likes), then paints it with whatever her current inspiration may be. She stitches the pieces together using a sewing machine strong enough to sew through plywood. To finish, the completely colored bags are sealed with a protective glaze that locks in the paint, and the bags with natural leather showing are left glaze-free so that the leather develops a patina.

When Bullard started working with natural leather, it reminded her of the bits of raw canvas left exposed in traditional impressionist paintings. She’s inspired by old record sleeves and antique heirlooms—reflections of stories from real life. Bullard is all about keeping things real: “I like to see the brushwork on the leather, the little imperfections, the hand of the artist. A lot of handbags are designed not to show you the very things that make them visually interesting.” On Bullard’s bags, the hand of the artist is clear in the variations, the layers, and idiosyncrasies. Over time, the rawhide softens and deepens in color, meaning the one-of-a-kind bag is ever-evolving.

Bullard never balked at the idea of painting on costly, quality leather: “I’ve always just painted on stuff, even as a kid: my dresser, my car, anything.” The oldest of six children, she was homeschooled during her childhood in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and so found ample time for creativity. Luckily, her parents were into it: “My mom kept it all. Everything I’ve painted,” Bullard says. She took a few summer art classes as a child, which she credits for channeling her creativity toward painting: “I had this teacher with an incredible garage studio and garden. It was like a dream,” Bullard says. Two decades later, that teacher’s daughter bought an Ann Howell Bullard bag, unaware of the connection. Bullard herself was drawn to teaching, and spent three years teaching elementary special education in rural Warren County, North Carolina, where she drew energy from the rustic, green landscape. She’s content to be in Raleigh now, where inspiration seeps from a vibrant community of creators and entrepreneurs. 

Bullard sells most of her bags from her own website, but she’s caught the eye of wholesale retailers, too. Raleigh’s Furbish Studio was one of the first to give her clutches a trial run as when she was starting. Before long, a buyer from Anthropologie emailed her out of the blue wanting to carry her line. Bullard’s growth in just three years is as remarkable as the pace at which she continues to move forward. She just returned from a trip to Paris for a trade show, where she explored art in all forms, notably the Impressionist paintings at the Musée d’Orsay, getting up close enough to see the brush strokes on Édouard Manet’s famous Luncheon on the Grass, after which Bullard named her latest collection. 

Naturally, she uses her own bags daily, and she’s still stopped by strangers for compliments like she was on that first night at her friend’s wedding. Bullard can’t help but have favorites, like the best-selling striped Black Keys Circle bag, and the Milagros Clutch, inspired by prayer charms and broken heart tattoos she’s seen. Her brand new collection features the Boom-Red Tote: “It’s like this crazy explosion,” Bullard says, “It’s super bright with jagged lines, inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s technique of exploding things so that everything is equal.” The hand-painted bag features a glitter interior, adjustable shoulder strap, and magnetic closure.

Building is underway for a new, larger workshop in Bullard’s backyard. Thus far, she’s done everything on her own—except for the few times that her husband, Kevin, and her little brother, an N.C. State undergrad, have helped her set the rivets on her sewing machine—but Bullard plans to expand and one day hire employees. She is always scanning the world around her for stimulation, saving snapshots on her website to create a mosaic that’s like a dip into her innovative brain. For this Raleigh artisan, the expanse of her creativity is endless. And it’s only up from here.