We are so inspired by companies that are pushing boundaries and standing up for more ethical and sustainable business models. We got to have an in depth chat with one of our favorite shoe brands, Beyond Skin about their innovative company.
For anyone who doesn’t know, can you explain what Beyond Skin is? Beyond Skin is a British, indie, luxury, vegan footwear brand. Our uniqueness lies as much in our approach as it does in our design aesthetic of dynamic, vintage inspired styling. Our philosophy creates the opportunity for us to embrace an unusual use of fabrics, prints and weaves within our designs, which has become our signature style. Although fundamentally we are a cruelty-free brand, sustainability is equally at the core of our philosophy.
Starting out, it must have been extremely difficult to find somewhere in the UK where you could undertake the manufacturing of non-leather footwear. How did you go about getting everything started? Beyond Skin was created in 2001 because it seemed impossible to find quality footwear that was stylish and cruelty free. We were keen to make footwear as close to home as possible and eventually found some of the last footwear factories left in existence in the UK. It was an incredibly difficult journey and it took almost 2 years to find a suitable British manufacturer that would make non leather shoes. We started out making our first footwear samples in a small factory in E17 and just as we were about to start production it closed down. Slightly demoralised but eager to see our vision become a reality we eventually found another small factory on London’s Holloway Road and in 2003 we began trading handmade to order footwear from our flat in North London. Sadly this factory also met its’ demise so totally disheartened but not ready to quit, we finally found one of the last remaining factories in East London to take over our production. This little family run factory produced Beyond Skin for the next 4 years.
Looking back to the beginnings of the company, what was the demand like? At the beginning, we grew slowly but steadily. In retrospect if we could go back and do it all again we would do things differently but it has been an amazing journey, have learned a lot and met some incredible humans along the way.
Was this a market eagerly awaiting your arrival? We felt we were a little before our time, but actually it was probably due to not knowing how to reach the right consumers. We are now fortunate enough to have a really loyal customer base, who are thrilled that we exist – making ‘vegan’ fashionable & accessible. 6 years ago our shoes seemed to sell better online than at tradeshows where buyers were still baffled about the concept of vegan shoes & often not knowing what vegan was. The fashion industry now has embraced the concept with vegan being a familiar term with brands like Stella McCartney & Melissa shoes contributing to making ‘vegan’ cool.
Things really took off when Natalie Portman wore vegan shoes to numerous events. That must have been an overwhelming time as the company’s profile was raised incredible. Did you ever expect it to snowball like it did? We were aware from other brands that celeb endorsement could often play an important roll in brand building, however, it was still a real moment of elation & pride when Natalie Portman wore Beyond Skin to the Oscars and the Golden Globes. It gave us great exposure, put us on the map & got us noticed. Once you have a break through like that it makes the path a little easier as people are more willing to listen.
The shoes are now made in Spain – how did this shift come about and why did it became necessary to move it out of the UK? Making in England was very much ‘hands on’ and time consuming as the factory we worked with was small and everything was by hand. As awareness of our brand increased, more and more boutiques wanted to carry our range but frustratingly we were unable to offer the line to them wholesale due to the high cost of UK manufacturing. Also, our quantities had started to grow so the factory was finding it harder and harder to deliver. When we were introduced to a Spanish agent we felt moving our production to Spain was a natural progression for us to develop the brand & expand our audience. Our agent helped us to find some Spanish manufacturers to help build the brand although this still was not an easy feat as many factories often only work with leather. As sad as we were to move our production from England it was already becoming harder and harder to keep up with demand so we knew down the line our UK factory would not be able to sustain our growth. All of our shoes are now made in Alicante, Spain.
One of the most startling facts we came across on the Beyond Skin website was that each pair of leather shoes can be accountable for the use of over 1.4 million litres of water. How much more can be done to educate people on facts and figures like this? Non judgmental, non confrontational discussion is what we feel is needed over and over again. Most of us are aware that our planet cannot sustain our insatiable desire for disposable, irresponsible fashion. As we are spoiled by cheap prices from salubrious sources we drown ourselves deeper within this addictive cycle. The consumer needs to be reminded more and more of the impact of their choices and of their power as consumers. Over the past few years we have seen environmental issues move further and faster up the agenda as more and more people choose to adopt greener and more ethical lifestyles. Print & Social Media support, celebrity endorsement and word of mouth and peer pressure have all played a vital role and been paramount to this new sense of social responsibility but ultimately we feel it has been a gradual shift in awareness that has been the main contributor to the massive growth of ethical consumerism.
What are the most common misconceptions when people hear about the leather free shoes? In the beginning, finding high quality leather alternatives & other sustainable materials was one of our biggest challenges. This has since changed considerably and it is unbelievable how advanced this area now is. The most popular misconceptions of faux leather are that it is not breathable, not eco-friendly and is cheap. Nowadays most leather skins are super cheap as they are sourced from the developing world where regulations regarding leather production, effluent and environmental policies are virtually non existent. The technology of synthetics nowadays is super advanced and all our Italian made faux leather and suede’s cost considerably more than most skins and are of remarkable quality. There are now many companies experimenting with recycled PET plastic so it won’t be long before we are able to use recycled faux leather’s in our line. Currently each season a large core of our collections are produced in a sustainable faux suede alternative called Dinamica. This fabric breathable, expensive and made from 100% recycled PET plastic bottle tops and has the look and feel of real suede yet unlike its real suede counterpart, can get wet, be cleaned and does not watermark. Due to it’s incredible durability it is used in the auto-industry by both Jaguar and Mercedes Benz for their high-end interiors. Beyond Skin is the first footwear label to utilize this incredible, sustainable material, which could potentially, one day replace real suede.
What is the Beyond Skin target market? Is there a certain type of woman who buys a product like this? We do have a varied audience from vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians, eco fashionistas, animal lovers plus simply some shoe loving gals who simply like our styling & are not particularly driven by our ethos. We endeavor to target the fashionable, discerning style led lady, who has an understanding of their consumer choices and their impact on the world. However, we feel really lucky to have such a wide audience, as this provides us with a huge potential for market growth.
If someone asked what the general differences between a standard leather pair of shoes and a Beyond Skin pair, what would you say they are? Without analysis and apart from our signature aesthetic design there is no real difference which, to be honest, is exactly the way we like it. There are many brands that produce footwear from synthetics on the market but our materials are of high quality and have a luxury finish to the point that most people can barely tell the difference between real or faux. The soles look much like a real leather sole, and our lining is fully breathable & anti-bacterial, so there is no concern about breathability wearing our shoes. However, apart from our aesthetic what separates us from other brands is our approach and our philosophy. We are a boutique, lifestyle brand and we do our utmost to design with eco issues continually in mind and endeavor to make all our decisions as consciously as possible. Human rights, animal rights and the environment are subjects we feel extremely passionate about, yet quality and style is what will make us stay the distance. It is paramount that our shoes do not compromise their comfort or style in any way for us to forge ahead as a premium fashion footwear brand. Both us and other ethical businesses cannot survive on our ethical merits alone. Like any other business, we will have to continue to produce goods that are well designed, good quality and competitive within our market.
We would love you to design a Lee-Loy shoe – what would the process of creating a new shoe include? There are 36 components to a shoe, so there is quite a lot of set up work involved. We usually start by creating some sketches by hand then translate our finished design to a detailed working drawing. The next phase would be to produce the last (the mould/shape of the final shoe) and at the same time source an appropriate heel to fit the last. We then source the materials either from Spain or Italy. Next a footwear technician is given our spec sheet and the last and heel to create the first sample pattern for the upper, the sole and the insole patterns. This is then given to our manufacturer to make the first sample (prototype) always in size UK 4/EU 37. If all goes to plan and the pattern does not need any tweaks and is exactly how we want it (highly unlikely but fingers crossed) the lasts, upper pattern, sole and insole patterns are all graded into sizes and turned into knives. Then we are set to go!
What do you feel needs to happen next in the ethical fashion market? Although there is still a residual amount of stigma of what ‘being green’ or ‘vegan’ implies this is fast changing. There is a vast array of talented, pioneering new businesses exploiting this new market and talented new designers leaving University with a greater awareness of environmental issues. These are all contributing to breaking the stereotypes and expectations of what this earnest demographic usually looks like and proving fashion and ethics are not mutually exclusive. We are all aware that it is simply not sustainable to continue how we are consuming so change will be inevitable. We understand that LV are also using the same Dinamica faux suede that we use, and although maybe they do not present it to the media in the same way we do, this is a sign that the luxury consumer is willing to experiment with leather alternatives & sustainable materials. Another case of luxury brands embracing sustainability is Gucci uniting with Livia Firth’s Green Carpet Challenge (GCC) by designing a capsule range of sustainable bags made from leather sourced from non-deforestation cows. http://www.gucci.com/uk/worldofgucci/articles/green-carpet-challenge-handbag-collection This is all a sign of where the fashion market is heading, as where the large luxury companies lead we hope more will follow. We hope the next phase for ethical fashion will be the development of an International governing body to be able to regulate & advise the consumer about where the product is made, what it’s made from, and who made it. It is the same concept as the food industry and their detailed product labeling, which offers information on what is behind the label. We hope that the craze for throw-away fashion will start to decrease, and become replaced by the values of care, appreciation & value on excellent quality and long lasting products. For this to happen something will need to shift – we are already seeing the cost of cotton rising dramatically, which is affecting the end retail prices, this combined with a growing amount of media scandals regarding working conditions within high street textile factories must result in the consumer realizing the impact their spending habits has on the world. Ultimately long term we need to be encouraged to be more thoughtful on how we spend our money; from considering which brands we support to which supermarket we shop at as it all contributes to a vast supply chain that we are all essentially responsible for.