I started Sans Beast with the intention of creating a collection of vegan handbags + accessories, using no animal products as building blocks. I did this after I opened my eyes to the hidden elements of animal exploitation in the fashion industry + began a journey to discover alternatives to leather.
Farmed animals have next to no rights when it comes to their treatment. After most of my career had been spent working with animal based materials, I finally woke up. The plan was to inspire people to reconsider animal leather based on its enormous environmental damage + hidden cruelty - and I wanted to do this through the vehicle of fashion + compelling storytelling. That was nearly 4 years ago.
Sourcing materials was a huge first step in creating a vegan bag collection. If not leather handbags, then what?
I went to APLF (Asia Pacific Leather Fair) in HK in March 2017, walked the corridors of the non leather section of materials, with the plan to find a faux leather supplier that had environmental efficacy. I knew that chrome based animal leather (over 90% of the worlds fashion leather) didn't biodegrade, and I was quite sure that I wouldn't find a synthetic leather that biodegraded either, but the plan was to, at minimum, source a material that was responsibly made.
I sought a material that would be appealing commercially, offer quality, be accessibly priced, had a stock service (I knew we wouldn't meet minimums yet) + didn't use toxic levels of chemicals in the painted surface treatment. I found such a supplier, and proceeded to visit the factory that made the fabric, to see the entire process from beginning to end.
I have not shied away from saying we use a polyurethane coated fabric for our vegan bags. To my mind, it's pretty similar to using a coated or sprayed animal leather - which is most of it - with the obvious upside being no animal was slaughtered in the process. The PU I chose does not use toxic levels of chemicals + complies with strict environmental regulations (you can read more about these here).
It’s important to realise that polyurethane is also used on the surface of several biobased fabrics, to ensure they have the durability to deal with weather + general daily goings-on – a bag made from purely fruit or vegetable matter would disintegrate pretty rapidly!
For environmental + ethical reasons, I was comfortable with my choice of polyurethane – but our materials journey is ongoing + I continued to explore more alternatives to leather.
Since 2018 when we launched Series 1 of Sans Beast, we have been using fabrics from the same supplier. For Series 7, we introduced two new materials - recycled versions of their pebble or tumbled surface, and a silken surface faux leather.
They are water based, solvent free + a positive step forward for us, constituting 40% of our vegan bag collection. They have been received gratefully by our community, and we are working to introduce more tones + textures in recycled options.
We also launched our first cactus material handbag, the Francisco...but more on that below.
I’m sometimes asked why we haven’t transitioned totally to biobased materials, and why we still use PU as our vegan leather at all? [Side note - for those who follow us, you will know that we are not big fans of using the term 'vegan leather' – but it is a term that allows people to find us easily in the world of googling, and we certainly want to encourage more people into our Sans Beast community].
These are valid questions – and the answers are always complex. Timing, price, fabric minimums, shipping, durability, aesthetic + availability all come into play. I have written on this subject before - you can read our 'What is Vegan Leather' blog post here - and below I go through some of the various biobased, non leather options currently available commercially, and how they fit (or don’t) into our Sans Beast materials journey.
BoltThreads have been gamechangers in the material space. Their Mylo Unleather will, in time, disrupt the handbag + footwear market. For now however, the material is not available commercially; with access reserved for BoltThreads consortium partners - Stella McCartney, Adidas + Lululemon. No idea on pricing as it's all still in pre-scale prototyping space (check out the Adidas Stan Smith Mylo Unleather concept shoe here). Watch this space, it's exciting - albeit a material that will sit in the high premium / luxury level of the market.
Mango leather from FruitLeather in Rotterdam. We bought a piece of this material during the lockdowns of 2020. Smells lovely, has quite a rustic, outdoorsy aesthetic, which is not workable for our market (yet) and the presses to make the material are small, which limits the size of patterns. It's not a scaled business, so the pricing is also not viable for us as yet, but something we have on our development radar. No polyurethane is used for the Mango Leather, but the founders suggest a wax coating be applied to the products at end of manufacturing to support weather resistance.
Cork. A brilliant material; a tough aesthetic challenge for us at this stage. It remains on the cards.
Apple leather. Having reviewed cuttings of this fabric, I believe the process is similar to cactus leather, it appears to be the difference of using dried apple powder versus cactus powder. I cannot attest to this, it's just my view based on relative understanding of how 'leathers' are made.
Polyurethane is still used for the coating, but the research suggests a smaller quantity of PU is required when mixed with the apple material. The handfeel of the cactus was more appealing to us + I felt it would resonate with our customer, so that's the way we went.
Cactus leather alternative from Desserto Pelle in Mexico. Adrian Lopez Velarde + Marte Cazarez launched this innovative new material in October 2019. We bought a few metres soon after + sampled a couple of styles. The colour palette was limited to black, neutral, brick red + green, and there were a few textures available.
Desserto cactus leather alternative has a polyurethane coating and is organic, vegan, phthalate free + partially biodegradable. I visited the Desserto farm to meet Adrian + Marte in February 2020 to learn as much as I could.
I was excited about this material but couldn't viably shift our entire business to cactus due to colour availability + the lack of market testing. The fabric is made in Mexico; sending it to HK + then China added 40% cost to the per metre price, which I'd love to say matters nought, but as a small business owner, it matters! I know affordability + value matters to our community as well.
COVID delayed our launch of this material, however we've finally had an early read + can justify the cost of buying hundreds of metres + supporting the expansion of this material. Our Francisco cactus leather alternative handbag has been extremely well received, and we are looking forward to expanding our offering.
I anticipate this cactus derived material will become more + more important in our collection as we grow, and I'm thrilled to finally have it in motion.
All development takes time + money. We must be commercially viable – offering vegan friendly bags that have durability, quality + a design aesthetic that appeals to enough customers - to allow us to expand our horizons into new materials.
We continue to explore developments in this cruelty free space + I'm very comfortable being transparent with this process, as I'm confident with each season, we'll take a step forward - be it in biobased or recycled materials.
As always, thanks for being here. Questions, chats, discussions always welcome.