Barbara May of B.May Bags

It's in the Bag

Perched in Petoskey, designer Barbara May brings her passion for fashion to the masses with B.May Bags

Barbara May, creative director and president of B.May Bags out of Petoskey, was exposed to the arts from a young age. Growing up in Bloomfield Hills, Barbara attended Cranbrook Kingswood Schools, where art can be found throughout its sprawling campus, Eliel Saarinen-designed buildings and well-appointed art studios. At Kingswood, Barbara focused primarily on weaving; years later, she would purchase one of the school’s large studio looms to have in her home.

After graduating in 1976, Barbara pursued a Fine Arts degree in woven textiles at Boston University, studying mediums from furniture making and ceramics to jewelry and weaving.

“The faculty was sort of that first wave of craftspeople who were considered real artists and were represented in museums. It was a great experience.”

She stayed in Boston working as a weaver before attending film school and working in film production. Moving to New York City, she didn’t have enough space in an apartment for a floor loom, so she purchased a sewing machine to make high-end pillows. While she was finding success in the big city, she missed her family back home and made the decision to relocate to northern Michigan. Growing up, Barbara spent her summers at her parents’ cottage in Grand Traverse Bay.

“I was trying to be closer to family, and then I found out how much easier it is. The quality of life is so much better. I can have dogs and I can ride horses – I couldn't do any of that in New York City.”

While working at a shop in Harbor Springs, Barbara had a dream about her first bag. She woke up and made it – a pouch style that is similar to one she still makes today only much better, she says. She began making bags out of her basement, visiting the leather district back in New York for materials. When fashion icon and former Birmingham boutique owner Linda Dresner met Barbara in her shop and asked if she’d be interested in selling her bags at the boutique, Barbara was thrilled at the opportunity for exposure.


“I started selling bags through her and doing these trunk shows. I'd go down with 200 bags and by the time I finished doing these trunk shows, there'd be 50 people at the door before we even opened it. They were really successful, and the word got around. I finally thought, ‘I can't do this out of my basement anymore.’”

Barbara moved into a house on the highway and started a retail business out of her home, where she felt the love from locals who were eager to support her small business. Living and working closer to her retired parents also gave them the opportunity to reconnect and help; for example, her father built all of her worktables.

As demand for Barbara’s bags grew, so did her need for extra help. While she says she’s never been able to hire anyone who has any experience in making luxury handbags, she’s been able to hire people who have been trained and become skilled artisans. The first was a woman who moved to the Petoskey area after losing her job in a cut and sew shop in Detroit, providing materials for the automotive industry. “Her husband had seen the ad, and she came in and said, ‘Whatever you’ve got, I can do it.’”


Today as B.May Bags has grown to include a second shop in Birmingham, Barbara has brought on additional staff to help manage the business, work as salespeople and assist with bag production across both locations.

Barbara works with several companies to obtain the materials for her bags. One of the companies is a family originally from Argentina, who sold Barbara her first leather skin. She also sources leather from places in New York, Florida and the West Coast, in addition to importing exotic skins from Italy.


In 2023, Barbara presented at the Pitti Uomo menswear trade show in Italy, one of the largest in the world, thanks to her unisex BM.AC bag collaboration with designer Aki Choklat. The designers attended as part of a collective of Metro Detroit-area designers called Detroitissimi. The collective’s participation in Pitti Uomo was supported in part by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s International Trade team, providing the designers with unmatched exposure in the industry.

For designers looking to succeed in the industry without the hustle and cost of living on one of the coasts, Barbara has cracked the code. To meet with her agent or get resources in New York, she can be there by noon to get what she needs while still calling Petoskey home.

“I’ve lived in cities for so long, and there’s so much stimulation. All five senses, 24 hours a day. And it’s really great, but I didn’t realize until I got here that you need this to put it back out again. Once I got here, I became more creative. I can have a dog, and he comes to work with me. On my lunch break, I take him for a walk on the beach. That stuff is real. It makes sense, and it really makes a difference.”


As Barbara enjoys the respite and lifestyle of her northern Michigan home base, opening a shop in Birmingham – mere miles from her childhood home – has become a full circle moment.

“It’s exciting to have a shop in Birmingham. My shop in Birmingham is on the block where there used to be a church where my parents were married. And my dentist was down the street, and my grandmother lived a couple of blocks away. So, I love that.”

Barbara’s bags are sold at B.May Baglab in Petoskey and her B.May of Birmingham location.