Overcoming Adversity to Reach Success: A Vegan Fashion Entrepreneur's Story
Skin. A small word with so many meanings: we want to feel happy in our own skin, but we're also often happy to wear others' skins – often without making that connection. The leather industry is built on customers' mental disconnect when it comes to the concepts of leather as a product and skin as someone's body part. Someone who made the connection in an unusual manner is Laura Way, founder of vegan watch brand Votch. Her realisation that leather is someone's skin was closely connected to facing hardships concerning her own skin.
By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert.
Seven years ago, Laura was struck down with topical steroid withdrawal – a condition that causes flaking and peeling skin, as well as painful, burning sensations. In Laura's case, this was caused by childhood eczema. “Since I was a baby, I had steroid creams prescribed to treat my eczema”, Laura explains. Not that they made much of a difference. “Despite these creams, my eczema was continuously bad.” Laura went on using the creams, until a turning point came: “I was a TV producer, away working in New York and I had forgotten to take my creams with me. My skin started peeling off, becoming red and raw.” Distressed, Laura spoke to a friend who had been through topical steroid withdrawal, realising that this was the condition she was affected by – and a diagnosis soon confirmed her fears. She was suffering from the iatrogenic condition caused by use of steroid creams.
Recovering from the condition was “hell, in a nutshell”, as Laura describes it. “My skin continued to flake and peel off for months on end, in flares that went on over years. I couldn't face going outside and lived in my bathtub for 21 hours per day. I wanted to scream – I felt like I was on fire constantly. The pain was like nothing I had ever experienced.”
It was during this trying time that Laura discovered veganism. “I spent a lot of my time in my bathtub watching documentaries, including those on animal welfare. I had always been passionate about animal rights – I discovered PETA exposé videos from my bedroom aged 12.” It was empathy for animals that encouraged Laura to take the step to a vegan lifestyle, but it turned out that this switch also improved her health. “I used epsom salts and bentonite clay, went vegan and ate healthily, and just waited until my body began to heal itself.” She is pleased to report that it worked: “seven years later, my skin is the best it's ever been in my life.”
But something else clicked for Laura during that time. “I knew that when I recovered and got better, I had to make a change: I no longer wanted to be a TV commercial producer. I wanted and needed to do something that I stood for. My illness taught me that life is short, and we have to use our time here to do something that we are passionate about.” She decided to launch a business – one that stemmed from the topic that had become so crucial to her: skin. “Skin had a whole new meaning to me. Having felt the pain of losing my own skin, I had vowed to never wear the skin of another being again. I couldn't imagine wearing any creature who had suffered, like I had.”
Laura's plan was to launch a vegan business, and unlike many of her peers who make shoes or handbags, her choice fell on the less common area of watch straps. “I returned to work – with the intention to make a change – and my watch strap suddenly broke. I searched for a vegan replacement, but struggled to find one. There were lots of vegan bag and shoe brands, but no one who made watches.” That's when the idea for Votch was born.
Running a start-up while dealing with a major health condition didn't come without its challenges. “I could be lying in bed with a major flare-up, and have lots of work piled on, as any start-up”, recalls Laura. “I'd be messaging customers while in a total state. I'd appear happy and fine from my emails, yet behind the scenes, I was feeling really sick.” The reality of running a business is, of course, that “there are no sick days. You just have to get on with it. That was incredibly challenging at times.”
But facing the challenges paid off: Laura's fledgling watch brand went on to be featured in VOGUE, Forbes, Cosmopolitan and Stylist, winning PETA awards and appearing on BBC hit show Dragons' Den. One of the articles stuck with Laura: “I was very touched and humbled to see my story and journey featured in Forbes. That felt like a really big deal to me – a total validation of my business and idea.” Votch was also included in a VOGUE round-up of 'best watches to buy'. “That was amazing!”, Laura remembers.
But her biggest success, according to the entrepreneur herself, is in customer satisfaction and being able to give back: to date, the brand's customers have helped Votch raise over £20,000 for charities such as Centre of Joy dog care in Uganda, BAWA animal welfare centre in Bali, and The Retreat Animal Rescue in Kent. For every order, the brand also plants a mangrove in Madagascar through the C Free initiative. After having battled adversity herself, Laura is keen to do what she can to help heal our planet, and do her part to help end suffering.
What is her advice to someone who is going through adversity and dreaming of starting a business? “Use whatever it is that you have been through as your reason to push you, going through any adversity will make you a stronger person and will equip you with the tools and armour you need to run a business. The lows will be low, there will be hard days and days where you wonder why you started this in the first place, but always focus on the wins, because with the lows, there will always be highs along the way too.”
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.
Cover image by pure by luce
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