Timeless luxury didn't use to be a word that could be easily connected to vegan fashion – but today, brands have stepped up their offering with high-end ranges that will stand the test of time. Vegan handbag brands like Ashoka Paris are catering to a new consumer who is conscious of fashion's impact, sure - but is also unwilling to sacrifice style. Designed in Paris and crafted in Italy, Ashoka's bags are statements in their own right – when PETA sent Kate Middleton a birthday present, they chose one of Ashoka's designs in apple leather. Fit for royalty, this is a brand to keep an eye on.
By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert.
Ashoka Paris founder Gwenäelle Ferlicot hails from an entirely different background: "I worked for a French TV channel for twenty years, and even if I enjoyed it a lot, I was also aware that [at a certain point] I was no longer in phase with my values of respect for animal life in all its forms. It was really my wish to [move away from] exploiting animals that was at the origin of Ashoka Paris." Gwenäelle had a helping hand in the form of her entrepreneurially minded husband Frédéric, now also her associate. Frédéric is in fact the designer behind the brand's three first bag designs – Brigitte, Eclipse, and Madame.
"Six years ago, Frédéric and I were in Jah Jah, a vegan restaurant that we love in Paris," recalls Gwenäelle. "We were imagining what my life would be like if I left the audiovisual department [where I was working]." At first, their ideas were diverging . "I had the idea of a vegan concept store but Frédéric suggested that we create our own brand of leather goods."
At first, Ashoka was a mere side project. But things turned around. "A friend who used to work for big companies in the traditional leather goods industry agreed to assist us in our project," explains Gwenäelle. "He introduced us to the Thai factory where we made our first productions."
Transparency was important to the founders from the start. "We visited the factory several times to meet with our contacts and to see for ourselves the working conditions of the employees. Then Frédéric started to draw our first models and we submitted them to the Thai workshop who helped us to make them."
Since then, the couple has expanded its design range. "For the following ranges, we collaborated with an independent designer, David Mateo, for both bags and shoes. We have a lot of fun working and exchanging ideas to create unique designs." Together, the couple is propelling the brand to new heights yet today, and working in TV is but a memory: "In 2021, I left my job to be 100% dedicated to Ashoka."
When asked what has been the biggest challenge in her journey so far, Gwenäelle responds, "the challenge is still going!" She continues: "Leaving a stable, lucrative career to launch yourself into the unknown by committing to a cause and deciding to reinvent your life without any guarantee that it will work. Ashoka is still very small, and I have to work every day on issues that, five years ago, I didn't even know about, always move from one subject to another." What are some of the responsibilities her job entails? "Communication, customer relations, order follow-ups, retailers, banks, and the permanent research of new eco-responsible materials, such as AppleSkin or Mylo."
Innovative materials such Mylo, made from mushrooms; and Apple Skin, made from apple waste; have come to be at the forefront of Ashoka's business, and their ideal customer would know and love these materials: "Above all, we design for someone who is sensitive to animal life and who does not conceive of the exploitation of animals – but who nevertheless wants beautiful, quality bags with a unique design. Our customer doesn't want to compromise between aesthetics and eco-responsibility." But the brand is also on a mission to change perceptions. "We're also here to show all those who doubt that not wearing leather [means having to give up] quality and beautiful designs."
A very special collaboration close to Gwenäelle's heart was one with a renowned superstar: "In 2020, we created four bags at the request of Pamela Anderson. This collaboration was amazing and so exciting. We took a lot of pleasure during our meetings to imagine with her this collection of bags in Apple Skin – one of the reasons why Pamela came to us was because we were the first French brand to make bags in this bio-based material."
When asked about her typical day, Gwenäelle points out that her life is "not very original." Following the pandemic, the couple left central Paris for a small house and garden on the edges of the Marne river. "We needed to return to nature for ourselves and our animals, without being too far from Paris."
Gwenäelle's days are led by work – but first things first . "In the morning, I start work around 9:30 am after taking care of my two cats, Babylone and Tabatha.
Then I go to my office, which is at the bottom of the garden, allowing me to separate my professional activity from my living space. My daily activities, apart from production periods which require a permanent follow-up, [consist in] customer relations, follow-ups on orders, supplier relations, and communications work. Lunch is rarely before 2pm and it's often Frédéric, an accomplished vegan chef, who prepares it."
It's unpredictable when a working day might end. "It is not uncommon for me to end up with the computer in bed, surrounded by Tabatha and Babylone."
It does sound like a lot of work – but falling asleep after a day of doing what you love, surrounded by cats? We'll take that .
By Sascha Camilli
Sascha Camilli is a vegan fashion writer, speaker and activist. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, you can read our interview with her or listen to her podcast Catwalk Rebel. You can also follow her on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.
All images by Ashoka Paris
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