Vegan Fashion Brand: Natalie Dean's "Beyond Skin"
Perhaps the hardest challenge in my vegan journey thus far has been adjusting and upgrading my wardrobe to an entirely ethical standard that is completely animal-free. All of my kicks – from sneakers to formal dress shoes are nearly all made up of leather. As my sense of fashion has evolved and matured over the years, I have gradually outgrown rocking sneakers all day every day and transitioned to a more age-appropriate look that consists of sandals, boat shoes, and loafers. At first, I thought that this whole vegan thing just related to food and then realized that it actually encompasses almost every aspect of a person's life that could potentially be harmful to animals and that’s when I made a conscious decision to start shopping more ethically. Upon increasing my knowledge of textiles I conducted a quick audit of my entire shoe collection (+ 30 or so pairs) and realized that even the ones I thought weren’t leather actually were – The grey suede Chelsea boots from country road, the brown nubuck deck shoes from Timberland and every single pair of Jordans (including the 11s – that shiny bit of plastic-like material that wraps around the lower part of the sneaker is patent leather: leather with a glossy varnished surface – unbelievable right!). What a rude awakening it was for someone who thought that he was righteously representing the vegan cause to the fullest! It turns out that both suede and nubuck are variants of leather as well so the challenge at hand now boils down to finding similarly cool shoes made by vegan friendly fashion brands!! Off the top of my head the first one that came to mind was Dr. Martens because I remember a homie of mine having a really cool pair and once mentioning to me that they were vegan friendly but in a world full of social occasions that require so many different dress codes and decorum I knew that Docs just weren’t going to be the only solution to my problem.
Introducing ‘Beyond Skin’ – A business that prides itself as the first British, vegan fashion brand specialising in footwear. Founded by Natalie Dean in 2001, Beyond Skin is an aspirational lifestyle brand founded on vegan principles which has since its inception been featured in glossies such as Vogue, Elle, and Marie Claire. The brand has been so successful that it has also amassed a growing celebrity following from the Likes of Anne Hathaway and Natalie Portman who’ve been seen on the red carpet matching their designer gowns with Beyond Skins. Aside from the fact that they are an ethical business guided by vegan principles another distinct point of differentiation that the company can boast is that their footwear is both luxurious and affordable – their collection varies from a wide range of formal evening shoes to everyday casual flats which are all made for the conscious modern woman of today. Unfortunately for me, they don’t have a men’s collection as yet, but it is in the pipeline for the not too distant future so there is some light at the end of this dark fashion tunnel after all.
Since its inception, the vegan fashion brand has been through a plethora of challenges and stormy seasons but has managed to ride out each one successfully and is now growing from strength to strength. From seemingly never-ending quests for finding a factory that could produce non-leather footwear to Kickstarter campaigns for funding new collections, Natalie has fought tirelessly to get the company where it is today and has built a brand that is tremendously helping to change the perception of sustainable fashion from kitsch to chic. Some of the textiles used to make Beyond Skin shoes include ‘Dinamica’ faux suede, an eco-friendly fabric made out of Polyethylene terephthalate plastics (plastic bottle tops) and a selection of recycled and non-recycled synthetic leathers made from cotton backed polyurethane that is sourced from Italy. Although founded on vegan principles which place compassion and environmental wellness at the forefront of their business they have positioned themselves as a fashion first brand in order to prove that stylish and luxurious alternatives are possible.
Natalie was kind enough to spare us a moment and share her journey with us:
A brief bio on previous training in fashion if any? And your personal journey and inspiration to becoming vegan and creating a vegan fashion brand?
Beyond Skin was created from a combination of frustration and vanity, a manifestation of my transition from longtime vegetarian to vegan. Beyond Skin was founded in 2001 after watching a harrowing documentary on the atrocities of the dairy industry, which was the final push I needed at the time to move towards a cruelty-free lifestyle. I then quickly discovered that there was simply no stylish, good quality, non-leather footwear available. Past attempts to combine fashion and ethics had generally resulted in one side of the equation being sacrificed, so I set out to prove that fashion and ethics need not be mutually exclusive.
At the time, I was a make-up artist for both the fashion and music industry, so the knowledge gained on how these industries use and promote fashion was instrumental in the early successes of the label, assisting with celebrity endorsement and media exposure.
Veganism encouraged me to become intensely aware that everything I did had a consequence. It was empowering to know that the choices I made both as a consumer and how I ran Beyond Skin could and did make a difference.
The ethos behind Beyond skin - (Some of the guiding principles and values you stand for regarding style, textiles, trends and the business of fashion as a whole)?
Being one of the first independent, luxury, vegan fashion brands specialising in footwaer, our uniqueness lies as much in our approach as it does in our aesthetic of dynamic, vintage-inspired design. We endeavor to be first and foremost a fashion brand that appeals to everyone, not just those solely driven by our ethical ethos. Although fundamentally we are cruelty-free, sustainability is equally at the core of our philosophy; producing and working in a manner that is non-exploitative to animals, humans and wherever possible the wider environment.
There are many vegan fashion brands that produce footwear from synthetics mainly from the Far East, but our Italian materials are of premium quality and have a luxury finish to the point that most people can barely tell the difference between real or faux. However, apart from our aesthetic, what truly makes us separate from many other brands is our approach. We do our utmost to design with eco issues continually in mind, striving to make all our decisions as consciously as possible. Human rights, animal rights, and the environment are high on our agenda and subjects we feel extremely passionate about.
Although we were a little before our time, we are now fortunate enough to have an incredibly loyal and fast-growing customer base. We are careful to not hammer home too hard the fact that we are a vegan brand, as we have found it can turn non-vegetarians off before they have even been introduced to the product. We prefer a softer approach introducing the design and aesthetic of the product first, and the ethical cruelty-free element later - an incentivized guilt-free purchase.
We have found it to be incredibly important to be open in our dialogue about why we do not use certain materials and educate people on the impact of their consumer choices, the how’s and the why’s. We are passionate about what we do and are transparent about what we can’t do due to the constraints of a smaller business, but hopefully, this way people witness the sincerity and conviction of our brand’s ethos.
It has always been paramount that our shoes do not compromise on comfort or style in any way in order to forge ahead as a competitive premium fashion footwear brand. We are profoundly aware that we and other ethical businesses cannot survive on our ethical merits alone. Like any other business, we have to continue to produce goods that are well designed, good quality and competitive and not place ourselves in a niche market.
Some of the significant struggles and trials you faced in starting beyond skin and how you overcame them?
Like most small businesses we have had our fair share of challenges, particularly in the early days. We were a little before our time, which made life slightly harder as we had to literally forge out a new market.
The most popular misconceptions of faux leather are that it is not breathable, not eco-friendly and cheap. In fact, contrary to popular belief many Italian-made faux leather and suedes cost considerably more than most leather skins. Nowadays most 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. It meant that back in the early days it was key to gain good relationships with the press to open and raise the issues around the conscious consumer and ethical fashion. We knew we had to challenge and contribute to breaking down the stereotypes around ethical fashion and what being vegan meant as most of them were very misleading. This helped us strike a balance between being an ethical vegan brand and being a luxury fashion brand.
In the beginning, finding high-quality leather alternatives and other sustainable materials was one of our biggest challenges. Nowadays due to the tremendous advances in sustainable materials, this is no longer an issue.
However, our largest challenge of all was finding suitable reliable manufacturers who could successfully create high-quality footwear in various non-leather materials. In the past, we have met countless factories that have been unable to work with us due to the fabrics we use.
From the beginning, we were always keen to make footwear as close to home as possible and originally manufactured in England. It was an incredibly difficult journey and it took almost two years to find a suitable British manufacturer that would make non-leather shoes to the quality we desired.
We had to move from our UK factories twice over the years as sadly both met their demise. With a determination to survive we found and finally outgrew our third UK manufacturer and eventually moved our production to Spain where our manufacturing remains today.
Any regrets or things you would do differently as a vegan fashion brand?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and although we have had our fair share of tough times it has ultimately been an amazing journey. I guess if I could start again with everything I know now I probably would have entered the men's footwear arena earlier, as we still get so many requests, but we have not yet found the right factory to work with.
I think that we did try to take Beyond Skin to the whole world too early, keenly attending a huge amount of International tradeshows. Although this was great fun and took us on many adventures as our margins were so tight it was not really helping us to grow our business vertically, it really did help us grow our brand and sparked lots of important contacts within the footwear industry. Now we are solely focused on direct sales through our website which is proving very successful for us all round; the demanding lifestyle of being on the road/air is not something that I miss I must admit ;)
Notable accomplishments that you are really proud of thus far?
It was a real moment of elation and pride when Natalie Portman wore Beyond Skin in V for Vendetta and then to both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. It gave us great exposure, put us on the map and got us noticed. Once you have a breakthrough like that it makes the path a little easier as people are more willing to listen and engage with your story.
Where do you see the future of vegan fashion brands and footwear headed?
We have been incredibly fortunate to have been around for over 16 years and during this time have seen green issues move further up the agenda as more people choose to adopt greener and more ethical lifestyles. Media support has been paramount to this new sense of social responsibility. I feel it has been one of the main contributors to this massive growth of ethical consumerism and have the media to thank for much of our own success.
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 can go hand in hand.
Most of us are already aware that it is simply not sustainable to continue consuming at the rate that we are, so change will be inevitable. We hope the next phase for ethical fashion will be the development of an enforced international governing body to be able to regulate and advise the consumer about where the product is manufactured, what it’s made from, and who made it. It would be 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 throwaway fashion will start to decrease, and become replaced by a slower fashion with values of care, appreciation, excellent quality and durability.
For this to happen something will need to shift – we have already seen the cost of cotton rising dramatically, which has affected the end retail prices. This combined with a growing amount of media scandals regarding working conditions within high street textile factories will hopefully result in the consumer realizing the impact their spending habits have 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.
Some of your favorite brands apart from your own who you think are doing a great job?
I personally wherever possible try to shop vintage and second hand, but I love and respect brands and designers such as Christopher Raeburn, Grown Designs (Eyewear) Patagonia, Huit Denim and Reformation.
Your absolute favorite pair of shoes of all time?
Archie B is a last (silhouette) that we created when we used to make here in England and we have reproduced in various patterns for a very long time
You’ve been in business now since 2001. What are the key lessons you’ve learned?
I would probably say adaptability, compromise and when things don’t go to plan to look for a positive and change course.
What are the main qualities required to be a successful and ethical entrepreneur? (What skills – personal and professional – do you need to have?)
Vision and determination, willingness to make compromises, ability to ask for help, know your own failings and foster good relationships with everyone you work with. You never know when you may need them!
What advice would you give to aspiring and to other business owners and entrepreneurs?
Trust your instincts, aim high, keep on learning and adapting to what is going on around you and enjoy the journey.