This fashion designer is saving the planet by using recycled leather, gearing up for vegan materials

Veganism extends beyond the food industry. Part of the culture and practice extends to consumer packaged goods, including the fashion industry. The VeganSociety reported that more than 63,000 products from more than 2,500 companies are registered worldwide, including 25,000 cosmetics, toiletries and 18,000 food and beverages. Vegan fashion brands are beginning to encompass everything from shoes to underwear as consumers demand more sustainable products.

The vegan leather debate is gaining momentum. The global leather goods market was valued at $419.5 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach approximately $720.8 billion by 2030. Search for vegan leather increased 69% year-over-year , according to global fashion research platform Lyst. Additionally, the demand for eco-friendly vegan leather has been steadily growing; leather searches were down 3.5%. As sustainability in the leather industry becomes a priority for consumers, designers are developing strategies to maintain quality, cost-effectiveness and design authenticity with new materials.

Denise Focil, founder of AS by DF, a contemporary ready-to-wear brand, specializes in creating wardrobe staples designed to protect the future of the planet. She and her team have launched a collection of recycled leather, which uses leather scraps that would otherwise have been landfill waste, and the process uses 90% less water than traditional leather tanning. She is now focused on moving into the vegan leather space in the next few years. Focil has become an official partner of the non-profit association Ocean Conservancy, an organization dedicated to the depollution of the oceans. With a pledge to donate $10 from every sale, AS by DF has donated over $40,000 this year.

“I don’t own the proprietary information on recycled leather or other types of leather, but as a brand, which is an innovator and pioneer in this area, we are currently talking to a few different factories,” says Focil. “The next evolution of leather being completely animal-free; made in a completely green process. So no emissions, no water used at all and made from all-natural materials. So 100% natural and biodegradable, but it has still the feel and look of leather.You can’t tell the difference.

Focil studied fashion to become a designer. Right out of college, she moved to Italy for the opportunity to design motorcycle jackets for Alpinestars. After three years, she decided to return to Los Angeles. Working with leather at Alpinestars for strictly motorcycle jackets ignited his desire to create a womenswear brand. In 2009, she launched her own advanced contemporary label.

“As an entrepreneur,” Focil points out, “you get a lot of advice from a lot of people. In fashion, there is a lot of criticism. You are only as good as your last season. So you have to be strong and know how to think. A great piece of advice I received a long, long time ago was that when you feel like you’ve hit rock bottom and want to give up, those are the times when the next big opportunities are about to hit you. You can’t give up in those times. This is not the right time to give up the race.

While at Alpinestars, she and the owner fell in love and got married. However, one of the toughest conversations she had with him was that she wanted to start her own label. Her ambition to fight for what she wants and deserves has developed her as a leader. Plus, bringing that drive to work has helped her develop leaders in her team.

Ten years after its creation, AS by DF has become 100% completely plastic-free in its packaging. It took him a year to come up with a new strategy, but Focil persevered to stay true to his mission. In addition, she has just released her first curves collection.

“We make thousands of garments per season,” she says. “Each piece of clothing comes inside a plastic poly bag. They’re literally only used to get to the retailer. Then the retailer throws them in the trash…I’m like, ‘I’m such a big part of the problem”. Our landfills are overflowing. In my small part, I wanted to do the right thing. So I sought a mission, ‘How can I eliminate all the plastic from all my packaging? Down to the duct tape that we we use on our boxes.Unless you’re actively looking for this, you won’t even realize it.

As Focil continues to expand and evolve the AS by DF brand, it is focused on the following critical milestones:

  • Ask for advice. Create a small tribe of people you trust and trust their advice.
  • Prepare for some tough battles, especially if you’re trying to innovate in an established market. Having this mindset will help you stay resilient.
  • Side on risk error. Big risks yield big rewards or lessons; both are invaluable to a brand’s success.

“We are in the field of sustainable, environmentally friendly,” concludes Focil. “We are constantly fighting an uphill battle. I regularly hear: “Nobody does that. It’s impossible. It’s so expensive. I know it doesn’t exist. Well, let’s make it up. Let’s work with our factories, work with our mills, to create something. Let’s think about a solution… We innovate. And in that space, it takes so much resilience. So I always think, ‘If I give up, then my team will give up ten times faster.’ I have to be that person you can’t wear down. This resilience has created an incredible team of men and women.

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