Veganism extends beyond the food industry. Part of the culture and practice expands to consumer packaged goods, including the fashion industry. The VeganSociety reported that over 63,000 products from more than 2,500 companies are registered globally, including 25,000 cosmetics, toiletries, and 18,000 food and drink items. Vegan fashion brands are starting to encompass everything from shoes to underwear as consumers demand more sustainable products.
The debate over vegan leather is growing. The global leather goods market was valued at $419.5 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach around $720.8 billion by 2030. The search for vegan leather has increased by 69% year-on-year, according to global fashion search platform Lyst. Additionally, the demand for eco vegan leather has grown steadily; searches for leather saw a 3.5% decrease. As sustainability in the leather sector becomes top-of-mind for consumers, designers are strategizing how to maintain design quality, cost-effectiveness and authenticity with new material.
Denise Focil, founder of AS by DF, a contemporary ready-to-wear label, specializes in creating classic wardrobe staples designed to protect the planet’s future. She and her team launched a recycled leather collection, which utilizes leather scraps that would have otherwise been landfill waste, and the process uses 90% less water than traditional leather tanning. She’s now focused on shifting into the vegan leather space in the next few years. Focil became an official partner of the non-profit organization Ocean Conservancy, an organization dedicated to cleaning up the oceans. With a pledge to donate $10 of every sale, AS by DF has donated over $40,000 this year.
“I don’t own the proprietary information for recycled leather or other types of leather, but as a brand, who is an innovator and a pioneer in this space, we are speaking to a few different mills right now,” Focil states. ” The next evolution of leather being completely animal-free; made in a completely green process. So no emissions, no water used at all and made from all-natural materials. So 100% natural and biodegradable, but it still feels and looks just like leather. You cannot tell the difference.”
Focil studied fashion to become a designer. Straight out of college, she moved to Italy for the opportunity to design motorcycle jackets for Alpinestars. After three years, she decided to move back to Los Angeles. Working with the leather at Alpinestars for strictly motorcycle jackets ignited her drive to create a women’s wear label. In 2009, she launched her own advanced contemporary label.
“As an entrepreneur,” Focil points out, “you receive a lot of advice from a lot of people. In fashion, there’s a lot of criticism. You’re only as good as your last season. So you have to be strong and be able to think. One great piece of advice that I got a long, long time ago was that when you feel like you’ve hit rock bottom and want to give up, those are the moments when the next big opportunities are about to hit you. You can’t give up in those moments. That’s not the right time to retire from the race.”
During her time at Alpinestars, she and the owner fell in love and married. However, one of the most difficult conversations she had with him was that she wanted to start her own label. Her ambition to fight for what she wants and deserves has developed her as a leader. Additionally, bringing that drive into the workplace has helped her craft leaders on her team.
Ten years after its inception, AS by DF became 100% completely plastic-free in its packaging. It took her a year to figure out a new strategy, but Focil kept at it to stay true to her mission. In addition, she just released her first curves collection.
“We’re making thousands of garments per season,” she states. “Each garment is coming inside of a plastic poly bag. They’re all being literally used just to get to the retailer. Then the retailer throws them away in the trash. … I’m like, ‘I’m such a big part of the problem.’ Our landfills are overflowing. In my small part, I wanted to do the right thing. So I sought out a mission, ‘How do I eliminate all plastic from all my packaging? Down to the tape that we use on our boxes.’ Unless you’re actively looking for that, you don’t even realize it.”
As Focil continues to expand and evolve the AS by DF brand, she focuses on the following essential steps:
- Ask for advice. Create a small tribe of people you trust and trust their guidance.
- Prepare for uphill battles, especially if you are trying to innovate in an established market. Having that mindset will help you remain resilient.
- Side on the err of risk. Significant risks yield big rewards or lessons; both are invaluable to the success of a brand.
“We’re in the sustainable field, environmentally friendly,” Focil concludes. “We’re constantly fighting an uphill battle. I regularly hear, ‘No one’s doing that. It’s impossible. It’s so expensive.’ I know it doesn’t exist. Well, let’s invent it. Let’s work with our factories, let’s work with our mills, to create something. Let’s think of a solution… We’re innovating. And in that space, it takes so much resilience. So I always think, ‘If I give up, then my team is going to give up ten times faster.’ I have to be this person that you can’t wear down. Having that resilience has created an amazing team of men and women.”