British accessories designer, Heidi Mottram, has established a reputation for creating beautifully designed bags and purses made from eco-sustainable leathers. In the accessories fashion business, it is not often that we hear of designers making an effort to find and use alternative materials with the goodness of the planet in mind. Mostly we hear of the bigger brands like Stella McCartney or Edun, but hardly ever of the smaller emerging designers.
Using Eco Leather is a giant step for a designer to make. In this fast-paced industry where choice is limitless and trends appear and disappear faster than the blink of an eye, to work with materials that are less available, with less choice in finish and colourways, and finding a manufacturer who understands how to use these leathers and is happy to work with them, is not an easy task.
In this interview, Utelier talks to Heidi about how she started and the challenges of working with eco leathers.
Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your company?
I am a fashion designer working in London creating luxury bags and purses in eco-exotic leathers. I graduated with a degree in textiles from Central St Martins. I have always been interested in textures, textiles and the use of sustainable leather products in the fashion design industry. But I have always felt strongly against harming animals purely for the sake of fashion. Over time, my understanding and love for alternative eco sustainable leather grew. I started to use these leathers and soon my brand became known to specialise in handbags and accessories made out of eco leathers that stand out from the crowd.
Did you start your label straight after college?
No, not at all. My first job was in fashion PR. But I didn’t really enjoy working in this part of the industry; I missed the creativity and so I left to set up my own business.
How did you find your leathers initially – from research to actually finding the suppliers?
Initially, I was unsure about the ethics of the leather. I did some research and came across eel skin leather, which is incredibly strong and light weight with a natural linear marking on the skin. Whilst researching I also came across a fish used in the leather industry called Hagfish, which was not endangered. I always check that all of the products that I use are CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) free. If an animal is endangered, it will be listed on CITES.
Further research into alternative animal skins led me to discover that animals like salmon, freshwater carp, wolf fish and poulard have skins which are eco-processed and available to use in the industry.
As part of my research, I googled companies, asked around and physically visited leather companies and manufacturers. It takes a lot of time and money but if you find the right companies, they are worth their weight in gold. I always make sure to visit the companies that I use. It helps to build a better relationship and increase my understanding of the manufacturing process. These in turn help in the design process.
Did you come across any restrictions when using these leathers?
HM: Yes, that is inevitable. All the skins do not come in a uniform size. The sizes vary between the various types of animals as well as between the size of each animal within the same type. This makes for a challenging design process.
For example, using fish and chicken leathers is very restrictive. The leathers are so small! All of the skins need to be joined together to create a panel from which a larger design can be made. When making smaller items from salmon leather, individual skins can be used but it requires planning to avoid too much wastage.
But these design challenges – as frustrating as they can be at times – are also what often makes my designs unique and different from everything else on the market.
How are these leathers processed compared to normal leather?
The skins are tanned similar to the way a cow hide is done, but using fewer chemicals. The salmon skins that we use, however are tanned using chrome-free methods which are better for the environment.
Where do you manufacture and why? Did you try to find UK manufacturers and what was your experience?
I try to manufacture as much as possible where the skins are sourced in an attempt to keep our carbon footprint to a minimum. Sadly the manufacturers in the UK don’t stock many of the leathers that we use. Finding a reliable and ethical manufacturer has been hard to come by. I learnt that modern tanneries use highly-toxic chemicals when tanning the leathers, which goes against my beliefs and what I am trying to achieve ultimately as a brand. Still, I have managed to find a company that provides chrome-free tanning. It is scary that there are so few companies willing to use eco-tanning methods. It seems that sadly it comes down to cost. Designers try to keep costs down as manufacturers continually squeeze companies for discounts. The public gets used to certain price brackets and is blissfully unaware of the environmental damage that most of the tanneries produce.
What are the biggest challenges you have experienced since launching your label?
For me as a designer, the biggest challenge has been and remains the educating of clients about alternative “by-product” leathers. Not everyone knows about eel, salmon, carp and chicken leathers. Some members of the public can be squeamish about the idea of eel skin, yet openly admit that they are not vegan or vegetarian and are happy to use a cow, pig or sheep to form their bags. Some customers are completely the opposite however and are keen to open their mind to other leathers and realise how beautiful they can be.
So what’s next for the Heidi Mottram brand?
We have a few new alternative leathers up our sleeves, so watch this space!
View Heidi Mottram’s Utelier Profile.