An interview with Helen Farr-Leander
This month’s interview is with Helen Farr-Leander, founder of Watson & Wolfe, a British men’s accessories brand that was launched in 2016. With the aim of encouraging more men to shop sustainably, Helen created a range of luxury wallets, card cases and travel document wallets in vegan leather.
Watson & Wolfe are an environmentally conscious brand that strives to challenge the luxury goods industry by providing a range of eco-friendly products that don’t require the use of animal-based components. You can read more about the materials used on their website. I caught up with Helen to find out more about her vegan journey and her views on the leather industry…
Q) What inspired you to turn vegan?
A) I was researching the leather industry. It was around six months into developing W&W when I felt my passion was waning, something didn’t feel right and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I thought that by looking into the industry I would find the solution. But instead, I saw pollution, over-consumption, unethical working practises and unimaginable cruelty. This led me to look closely at industrial farming and the impact it is having on the planet. Several fashion and food-based documentaries later and I couldn’t eat meat or dairy anymore.
Q) When you were researching the damaging effects of the leather industry, was their one fact in particular that made you decide to opt for vegan alternatives for Watson and Wolfe?
A) The impact on our planet. By 2025 the number of cows required to support the industry will exceed 430m. We are using animals who are the biggest contributor of green-house gasses to make fashion. The toxic pollution from tanning and preserving the animal skins contaminates groundwater and destroys ecosystems. It is crazy. Humans have advanced, and so have the materials we are developing. There is no need for us to use animal leather when we can use lower impact materials to get the same result.
Q) A lot of people still believe that cows leather represents luxury. What would you say to people who think that vegan leather isn’t as good quality as traditional leather?
A) That’s a great question. Luxury is defined as something that is inessential, desirable or expensive. Luxury is not a material, it encapsulates design, craftsmanship, quality of materials, respect for people and social responsibility. Would a leather wallet on a market stall produced in a sweatshop be perceived as Luxury, simply because it is made from animal leather?
Vegan leather is engineered but that doesn’t make it less desirable or less expensive. It depends entirely on how it is used, how it is crafted and how the final product looks as to whether it’s ‘Luxury’.
Luxury is being redefined. Soon, it will no longer promote waste, pollution, cruelty and high levels of CO2 in the supply chain, it will embrace sustainability, organic materials, recycling and the circular economy.
Q) The market of men’s luxury accessories is still fairly dominated by cows leather, do you think we will see a shift in trends as more people, men and women, turn to veganism?
A) The change will come not just from people shifting to veganism, but from our young people who are growing up in a more conscious world. It is already happening. Gen X and Z are buying into sustainable brands and socially responsible companies who are ethical and care about how they do business. Our collection is for anyone who wants to have an ethically made wallet, or someone who cares about pollution, the warming of our planet, or the use of animals for fashion.
Q) Recently, we’ve seen increasing criticism of vegan leather alternatives, mainly those that are plastic-based. Do you believe there are materials that are both cruelty-free and sustainable that can be used in mainstream fashion?
A) Innovation takes time but leaps are being made all the time. Our material is more than 50% bio plant material, which is 50% more environmentally friendly than your average vegan leather made wholly with petroleum. At the Future Fabrics Expo this year I saw lots of innovation. In the next couple of years, we will see many new mainstream materials, all of which will be cruelty free and sustainable and many making good use of a waste product of the food industry, like potatoes, oranges and grapes. We already have Apple leather, which is 50% plant material. Work needs to be done to increase this ratio or find a replacement for the petroleum element. It will happen.
Q) I love that you incorporate longevity into your designs, making your products timeless and unaffected by fast fashion trends. Do you think this slow fashion approach is better suited to men than women, as men are often content with one item for a longer period of time?
A) It’s a valid point, but I don’t agree. Women are leading the slow fashion movement. Women are more likely to shop in thrift stores, swap clothing with friends or repair something. Slow fashion has many facets and design is just one of them. Going forward we have more gender-neutral products planned, so we can sell the item to everyone. In fact, we already have female customers carrying our wallets and card cases and I use a coin wallet in brown. It’s much smaller and more compact because generally we carry fewer coins these days.
Q) Your commitment to fair working conditions is something that I think is important to many people today. What measures do you take to ensure that the people who make your products are paid a fair wage and work in safe conditions?
A) I have personally visited the factory we use in Turkey, worked closely with the owner and seen the factory and I have confirmation that they adhere to a fair-trade policy.
Q) Where do you see the vegan fashion industry in the next 5 years?
A) If it is anything like the vegan food movement, it could be unrecognisable. It is an extremely exciting time to be working in the vegan sector and I cannot wait to see how it evolves.
I will be talking more about Watson & Wolfe on the blog, so keep your eyes peeled for more!