The ex-leather designer now raising the bar for luxury vegan accessories

Launched in 2016, Watson and Wolfe's mission is to design and make beautifully crafted, luxury vegan accessories that encourage more people to shop ethically and cruelty free. We spoke to founder Helen Farr-Leander.

What led you to start Watson & Wolfe? 

Originally, I was going to manufacture with animal leather. I spent 10 years at luxury brand Aspinal of London and had wanted to do something on my own after taking time out to raise a family. But, six months into the process I felt something was missing, so I stopped and began to look hard at the industry. After reading lots of articles and research and watching several documentaries, using leather was out of the question and I decided I could no longer eat or use animals like dispensable commodities anymore.

It was this that prompted me to transition to a plant-based diet and adopt a vegan lifestyle. I am not the person who can ignore cruelty, pollution and human suffering just to make money and be successful. I wanted to build a business that was considerate and that my children could be proud of too. Nobody should be profiteering on the back of environmental damage. So, we began again, looked for new materials and setting about working with a factory that could deliver a luxury finish with modern materials. 

How did you choose the name?  

My dog is called Watson and the name is inspired by him. He’s a small miniature dachshund, but like all domestic dogs he has evolved from wolves and he thinks he’s as scary as a wolf. We want to be involved in evolution too. The fashion industry cannot continue to pollute our water and devastate vast areas land to produce leather. We want to be part of changing perceptions, and encourage people to leave these processes and materials in the past and instead opt for more ethical and modern materials.

How would you describe your products, and what makes them different?  

Our debut collection is designed to look and feel like leather, the aim being that you can carry a wallet or card holder that looks and feels like something you are used to carrying. We try to find materials which have sustainable elements, such as recycled content, plant content and durability. We are not in the fast fashion business, so everything we make has been made to the highest standard in order to last.

What stereotypes exist in your industry and how are you breaking them?

Not only are men under-represented in sustainable and vegan fashion, but I believe that fashion should be made gender neutral too. We have begun to incorporate a gender fluid approach to design, for example our belts are sized for much smaller waists than a men’s belt normally would be, and our card holders, pouches and jewellery box are all gender neutral. We have more gender-neutral designs planned for the near future too.  

Can you tell us more about where, how and by who your products are made?  

We want to produce high quality vegan products which will last, so we work with small factories who can deliver that. We make sure our partners value their staff and have ethical working conditions. Currently we work with a small group of factories in Turkey and Portugal. Everything is handmade with traditional leather working techniques by experienced people.

Do you think movements like Fashion Revolution create enough pressure on big brands to change how they work – and what more should be done? 

Fashion Revolution are doing an incredible job, but they need to be supported by more brands, like ours, who are willing to challenge the status quo. Through our work we hope to educate people about the reality of the leather industry and the damage it causes, and show consumers that shopping vegan leather goods no longer means compromising on style or quality. We must all drive the revolution.

What’s your favourite product from your collection and why? 

My favourite item right now is our new vegan zipped card and key holder. I love how versatile it is. You can store cards, coins or keys or all three in one place. The key chain is also great for attaching the wallet to the inside of the backpack, handbag or to a belt loop for extra security, if you don’t want to use it for keys. It’s a really great value item and the perfect gift for Christmas.

How has the brand and industry evolved since you started?

The industry has really started to wake up to sustainability and to think about eco, vegan and cruelty free in its future planning. From big brands to supermarket branded fashion, we have new ranges emerging that are not only cruelty free but have sustainable elements too. It’s all highly encouraging. There are good and positive steps being taken and hopefully they will all sustain the momentum by also making their supply chains more ethical. 

What changes have you had to make since you started – and which ones were the hardest?

We have not had to change anything, but the hardest part has been finding materials which can deliver the same feel and durability as those which are derived from animals. It took 8 months longer to launch our belts because I didn’t want to compromise on how the belts were constructed. The traditional 3-piece construction ensures a belt lasts and wears well, but achieving the right flexibility was tough.

Biggest highs and lows? 

Highs – seeing our first product come to fruition and getting such positive feedback from the public and the press.

Lows – the amount of work, research undertaken and false starts to make a brand like this work, whilst managing the responsibilities of being a wife and mother of two small children. But it is all worth it!

What drives you, and where do you get your inspiration from?

I believe that everyone should have the option to buy classically designed accessories that are aligned with their health and ethical values and make them look and feel great. I get my inspiration from a variety of sources – from nature itself, from art, from the design world and from looking around me when I travel.

What other pioneering brands do you admire and why?

I admire those taking a stand for what they believe in and raising awareness rather than just profits.

One such example is Blue O’Connor from Kings Grooming. Not only has he created a vegan fragrance and grooming brand for guys, but he uses it as a platform to start conversations and raise awareness of men’s mental health and wellbeing. He is challenging the macho mantra that men need to just get on with it, and raises awareness around the terrifyingly high figures of male suicide. He has also set up Talk Clubs for people to have a forum to discuss their problems. He really is an inspiration.

The next big thing in your industry is ...

The next big thing, I hope, will be the introduction of more stringent legislation regarding manufacturing and the environment and more people taking a stand and becoming environmentally conscious and cruelty free. Also, I believe we will see a greater number of eco-friendly, low impact materials with imaginative use of sustainable ingredients and upcycling. There will be a lot for us all to play with.

If you were doing something other than this, what would it be? 

I would probably be consulting with brands who want to switch to eco-conscious design and manufacturing. I really believe brands have a responsibility to provide a greater level of transparency so consumers can make informed choices.

What’s next for Watson & Wolfe?

This year we have yet to launch a small range of cork wallets and next year we will introduce bags and long purse wallets. Our materials will continue to evolve too as we continue to seek more sustainable materials, plus we have some exciting partnerships to unveil too. Watch this space!

You can browse the Watson & Wolfe collection here

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