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Sustainable Feature: Stella Soomlais Studio

I am so excited to share this post today. As many of you know, I spend a lot of time researching my topics. One of which is sustainability in the fashion industry. Sometimes, I manage to find a business that is doing some really cool things! When that happens, I always do my best to make contact and get the info so that I can share it with my awesome readers.  This is not a sponsored post. This is a feature post created because I found a company that is doing great things and I wanted to share it with you.

Not surprisingly, most of the businesses that are making change and doing good things, are small businesses. Those of you who have been long-time readers already know what I am about to say. As much as it may seem like corporations and marketers dictate to consumers what we would like to purchase, the truth of it is that we, the consumer, hold all of the decision making power. We hold the power of purchase.  A belief that I hold close to my heart is that of supporting small businesses.  Especially small businesses that given the chance, could become fore-runners in their field, like Estonia-based  Stella Soomlais studio, the business I have chosen to feature here today. I understand that these are big statements that I am making. But this is why I want to feature these efforts. Because all too often, we are not even aware of these businesses, the strides that they are making in sustainability and the options that are out there. Not only is Stella Soomlais a sustainable company, but all of their items are made-to-order in their studio, and they believe in pricing transparency!

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If you look closely at this, you will see that their profit percentage is actually less than their tax percentage.  I cannot complain about the pricing of a good when it is explained to me like this. Respect!

I have been very fortunate, in that I was able to speak directly to Stella about her company. She has been very generous with her time and information. I must admit that I have learned so much in the process of writing this feature and for that, I am very grateful!

This interview with Stella was one of the best interviews I’ve had in my several years of blogging.  She is just the type of person you want to be friends with. She is very friendly, confident in her ability, has a solid vision and answered every one of my questions as honestly and thoroughly as was just possible.  It was the type of conversation you leave feeling excited about. It was quite refreshing to speak to someone in this industry who is on the same page as myself. Stella loves natural materials such as wools, leather, etc. She appreciates the touch and feel of them, as well as the fact that these materials gain character as they age.

Why Leather crafting?  Stella studied leather design in University. While she was studying, she realized the sustainability issues. During her masters degree and the practical work, she learned more about the economics and environmental side of things. She understands how good of a material leather is and it is plentiful because as she says ‘As long as people eat meat, there will always be leather.’ (I love this quote because it simplifies the issue, as well as confirming that the leather used is a by-product of the meat industry and is not, as many people assume, the product for which any animal is killed.) The sustainability factor goes even further than making use of by-products, but also because leather is biodegradable so it goes back into the natural cycle. She says that ‘In a way, using leather is this circular economy’.

‘Consumers seem to want very shiny, non-marked leather that looks the same in 2 years as it did when they bought it. And what people don’t understand is that it is no longer biodegradable. The base is, but the cover is coated in a plastic-like material, so it isn’t. But of course, when you don’t know the differences in the leathers, how the leather is made, then you don’t know how to select the leather. That’s why she uses natural finish leathers. And that’s why one of her communication challenges is that when there are scars, its ok. Every leather is different. Leather changes in time and it’s cool.’

 

There is much discussion about animals being harmful for nature…the tanning process itself being harmful for nature. Which is true. But at the same time, it’s also important to compare the lifecycles of other items.  How long you can use the textiles, and how harmful those are to dispose of? This is actually something they are researching to understand the parallels between them.  This has its own challenges, as she uses water consumption as an example. I have myself never considered the after effects with water.  But she raises a good point in regards to water consumption. Water consumption is usually measured throughout the manufacturing process, but stops once the item is sold. One measure we do not take into account is the amount of water used in washing. Textile bags are usually washed quite often which uses a lot of water. And leather, well its leather, I have never washed a leather bag. So it’s not a black and white issue.  There are many unanswered questions in this regard. Stella continues to learn about sustainability by reading endless amounts of research and attending workshops. Varying and conflicting information makes this continuous research challenging.

Can you describe your creative process? Stella describes her creative process as ‘…an assignment in mathematics’.  She takes into account the function that people say they need, then the topography of the leather. The shape of leather is always unique so you can never truly tell what kind of material you will get from the producer. So there is a lot of taking account the shape, in what direction the leather stretches, how many bags you can get out of 1 leather, etc. All those things must be taken into account when you produce while designing. Her production is in-house so that means that she also must consider the level of the crafters. One crafter may not be able to produce the same as another. When the new crafters are learning and creating new bags, there is a risk of faulty items and she must reduce that risk with design. So these are things that must be included into the calculation of the designs. An important factor to take into consideration is to make the items with the possibility of repair. As expensive and long lasting items, Stella feels that she has a responsibility to make it possible to repair the items.  Many of the details wear out quicker than the bag. So, the zipper, handles and metal details need to be made in a way that they can be replaced. Also, in the design, she needs to consider how many items she can make from the leather and how to minimize as much as possible any material left-overs. For example, the blueprint can me made that if a large cut needs to made for an item then the smaller space remaining can be used for a key ring or something in order to avoid material waste.

Once all of these calculations have been made, the design begins to make itself clear. The size comes from the function. Then you need to consider the technology needed to make it and add the details – in a way that they can be repaired, and then finally you go over all the details again to make some changes like creating a better shape. Then you see ‘how does it look?’ and that’s the design. Usually when you add all these things, the look is already there.

She has the vision in her head alone and then she takes the details and works together with her assistants to make the prototypes. Then it is ready. But the design doesn’t end there, she says. Because they offer the aftercare for free within 1 year (after that it has a small fee), they get many bags back for the spa aftercare treatment and with that they can see clearly how people actually use the bags. They can see if they need to change some bits or make it easier to repair. They also get feedback from some clients. So actually, the bag is never ready. The habits of the customers change also so even their most popular bags they have done them in the 100’s, but they are still improving them. The workload is tons. It’s a constantly evolving process.

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Do your designs lean toward trend or classic?: Classic. Classic and function that is in balance with the circular economy and aesthetics. Function speaks to her more than anything else. Amazing because her designs are so beautiful. Take the  Go to the library backpack which has a clean look.

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People love the clean look. Which is possible due to the decision that nothing else is added there. Which would be more functional, but not the clean aesthetics and not possible to re-use the material. As a creator, she will not look at trends or the works of her colleagues in order to make sure that she is not even subconsciously influenced. She understands that we are so influenced on the daily by just seeing other people that she does not want to influence herself or her designs even further by following the other options available. I admire this and think I will borrow her theory in my own daily life.

What has been your biggest challenge?: ‘It has been difficult to achieve the things that we have achieved. Like running a marathon. You succeed in this area when you are durable and resistant because there are many daily challenges. In time, you learn not to take them so emotionally anymore which makes it easier to work towards your goals. And when you have the goals, and when you are working slowly towards that, then you achieve it.’  When she was applying at University, she had to write about her dream goals. Stella has not only achieved those goals, but surpassed them! Stella describes herself as a person who is never satisfied. She continually sets news goals for herself once she has achieved her former goals.  Hilariously, she realizes how annoying this habit can be for those around her. As an obstacle, she wants everything to be the best, now. She gets quickly excited about new ideas. Stella’s biggest obstacle seems to be that she makes so many plans for herself that she loses focus.

Zero waste goal: The technology is there for Stella to reach her goal to create zero material waste. She explained several of the options to me such as; adding adhesive to scraps and make it into new material to strengthen soft leather. This would require shipping the small amount of scraps to Slovakia. The shipping would make this a less sustainable option. Not to mention, the current adhesive used is not 100% natural. Option 2 would be to sell the scraps back to leather production to add to the tannery. Due to the varying chemical processes, it’s difficult if the leathers are not all with the same original tanning process. Another option is to go in with a local start-up to make a new material. This has already been tested, but the material is not proving durable at this time. So this requires continuing testing.

Currently, Stella Soomlais is sending their scraps to hobby classes so that children can use them. Many cool things have come out of there, she says. She does admit that some material waste does go in the bin, regardless of how hard they are working to prevent this. Fortunately, it is biodegradable.

Colour: I really wanted to know if there was a difference when working with or caring for coloured leather goods. I have an infatuation with their green leather items (I am happy to discover that Stella really likes the green leather also, as it ages beautifully) and was curious why it is rare to see green leather goods. Does it scar easily? Is it difficult to care for? Apparently, there is nothing different with it. Maybe it just has not been trendy. Maybe the big brands statistics show that it is not enough interest to put the money into the green leather items.

Stella told me that green is a well-loved colour among her clientele. It is vegetable tanned leather and vegetable tanned leather ages quite nicely so that it goes darker.  When they were testing their designs in Japan this past year, there was also the feedback from the people there that the vivid colours like the red and green were well liked. You should check out the Stella Soomlais IG feed if you have the time. Some of the custom order colour combinations are unbelievably gorgeous!

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This bag is already on my wish-list! I am loving their greens, and they have wine red and lemon yellowwhich are gorgeous!

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Leather care:  There are many things that customer can do to care for their leather items. Because Stella Soomlais offers after care service, they can see if customer has been really nice to the bag, because the bag looks really nice. Also when the bag has been thrown around or overstuffed and hasn’t had any cream, they can see that too. Example, when the bag is so stuffed that the zipper doesn’t easily close, in the long term that is a problem because it will eventually break the zipper. Also, leather is a bit stretchy, when you use items that have a very direct shape. So, if every day you have many books there, eventually the bag will start to take on a book shape. When putting things in the bag, there are some little tricks that you can do. For example the bookbag, when you pack your bag, consider the corners which need stuff also so that the shape will last longer. If it gets wet in the rain, do not dry it near heat. Vegetable tanned leather does not like water and heat so when you get water and heat together, it goes bad.  Marks from water drops will go away eventually.  Natural vegetable tanned leather also wants cream from time to time. The experts suggest you use it monthly, some say 2 times per annum. So lets say every few months you add cream and when you do add cream, then it’s good to have a little damp cloth to wipe the dust and dirt away before applying the cream, otherwise there is grit between the cream and the leather. Not all creams are good for all leathers. She recommends only natural creams. There’s really only one 100% natural cream in the world. But natural ones. Because many creams have this colour effect and water repellent which adds this coating which doesn’t really help the leather and some of them can dry the leather. Also the sprays – never put the spray directly on the leather without putting this natural cream with it, as the spray also dries the leather. If it’s stained, it’s always good to have a leather cleaning specialist that can help. Take it in as quickly as possible if it is stained. Some stains unfortunately don’t come out. In that case, with their bags it is then possible to add a pocket there or something in worst case scenario. In some cases they have done so that the bag was really clean and then there was something like a paint spot. They couldn’t get it out so then we put a pocket there and it looked really cool. But that’s not something that’s done as a first option. Its like the 2ndstage of one bag that you can put those things and then prolong the life. Never put the leather in wash machine. Certain leather types might survive it, but if you aren’t a specialist, then don’t experiment.

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If you have a vegetable tanned belt that gets a wine spot on it or something, do not use very hot water for cleaning it.  When  the leather comes in contact with water hotter than 70C then the leather shrinks.

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Beeswax is always good for leather. Almost always, but not for oil tanned leather. (So be sure to find out if your leather item is oil or vegetable tanned) When you put beeswax on oil tanned leather, the oil kind of pushes it away so it would be the same affect as if you put candle wax on it. You can get it out by putting it to refrigerator when it gets cold and then wipe it away. But it is not the same effect as when you use beeswax on vegetable tanned leather.

Renting bags to try before purchase. Has it increased sales?  They introduced this possibility when they launched the service. Stella says this is quite popular because it really helps to understand whether the function is the right thing. ‘Even if customers don’t use the rental service, they can still see that we are trying to understand whether the product is right for them. We would rather be sure if this is something that they really want. And its also with sustainability, an issue to buy one item in a longer period of time but buy something that you really love and then you also take better care of it and are more satisfied with it.’ That’s their logic behind it.  This idea originated with her Masters thesis where she wanted to launch a service that would be more like a subscription service where they would offer the bags, and then the customer could rent them and choose colours, and every 3 months a different bag would come. And then when the bag is in not good shape, that’s when they give it the 2ndlife. Clean it, cream it and make it into other products. The market was not ready for that at the time. But they will be doing a new testing for this again in 2020.

Why should people shop Stella Soomlais? ‘We are not going to disappear after the purchase. We offer the aftercare and will be there to support with care and advice. Of course, the initial decision comes with do you like the bag or not? If you do not like the design, then all our other efforts are not important. You should choose us because we do our best to work in a sustainable way. We really try to dig deep into supply chain and to rethink all those design decisions along the way when it comes to our production. And all of the circular economy possibilities. Old habits can be changed and we try to offer an alternative. ‘  This quote is a great way to wrap up this informative interview! I have to add to this that their worldwide shipping rates are incredibly reasonable. Yay! Throughout the process of learning about Stella Soomlais studio, they have gained me as a loyal customer. This is my first purchase and I cannot wait to receive it!

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This is my purchase, in green (of course!).  I think using them as a gift bag that can be used afterwards as a clutch, is a brilliant idea! As for my order however, the bag (Made by Stella’s own hands!) is the goody so I will be clutching-it from the time I open my post package!

Also, just for those who are interested but worry about shipping, Stella’s  EU and International shipping rates are beyond reasonable. (4-8 Euro!) Better rates than even domestic postage is sometimes. Really!

Thank you so much for reading and I hope you learned as much as I did!

-Mliae

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