For entrepreneurs, starting over is a daunting proposition because so much, from brand loyalty to cost, is at stake, but the climate crisis and a shift in ethical priorities are forcing creative business people to reflect on their brand ethos and operations. Toronto-based designer Ela Aldorsson recently relaunched her collection of bags – previously made in Italian leather – in vegan leather fabrications, and next spring she will introduce bags with linings made from 100-per-cent recycled plastic bottles. The new iteration of the Ela brand went live on eBay this fall and The Globe and Mail spoke to the designer about the reasoning behind and process of reimagining her brand.
What motivated you to create this collection?
I was starting to feel like, what am I doing from a home point of view, from a brand point of view – how am I going to leave [the world] for my kids? With the leather, we were flying it from Italy to our workshop, and that’s a huge footprint. It was becoming so wasteful in so many ways. Leather prices were also going up and I wasn’t really feeling comfortable with where the price point was for the bags. I thought, okay, there’s got to be a better way to do this, and just thinking about my own life – I have certain expenses, I have children now … I was thinking about the landscape of how my customer is living now. How is she spending her money? What does she need and what does she want?
What has the feedback been since the launch in September?
It’s been awesome. The consumer is really responding – I think the bags are really easy and attainable, and we’ve opened it up to so many more customers now. We can offer our brand experience and products to a lot more people and stores because our price point now starts at $42.
And that’s because of the nature of the materials, which are made where?
The suppliers are in Asia. That’s where a lot of it is being made and when we were sourcing we were trying to buy the materials already made – we don’t want to produce more. We want to use what exists and maybe there are even ways of recycling it somehow. I feel like now that brands are asking for these things, the suppliers are looking for ways to make interesting materials, like that leather made out of pineapple. There is stuff happening in terms of these new materials but some of it is still so expensive. But that’s really our goal as we scale, to reduce our footprint as much as we can.
What were the challenges in launching this collection in terms of educating customers? Were there any specific questions that kept coming up?
One was: What does vegan mean? We’re very transparent – it’s a man-made polyurethane. But it is better for the environment than something made from cows.
Because of the manufacturing process of polyurethane versus animal agriculture?
Yes, it’s man-made so there’s still a footprint on that, but we have to make it from something.
One thing that comes up a lot in conversations about sustainability is the notion of the amount of products that are out there. How are you addressing that with this collection?
All of my designs are very timeless and seasonless; they can be worn all year round. We are reaching more women because of the price point, but we are not overly producing. We really have to be conscious of that. It’s tricky when you’re growing a business, but as long as there’s a home for the product … it would be heartbreaking to think that it would be in a landfill after a season so we’re only focusing on what the customer needs in her wardrobe and you’re not going to see super trendy pieces. I’m hoping they’ll be used until the end, and my dream is that one day there will be a material out there that’s biodegradable – I would be all over that.
How much does being a sustainable brand matter over just being thought of as a great handbag line?
I think they both go hand in hand. We’re approaching year 10 as a brand, and I was ready to make that leap and do things in a new, smarter way.