As part of our founder interview series, we speak with Saskia Aelen about salmon leather's emergence in the ethical fashion space.
Normally fish skins are discarded, with only 1% being recycled. When did you realise there was an opportunity to harness this waste material for the fashion industry?
This material has existed for a loooong time. Several communities all over the world made leather out of their discarded fish skins. Obviously this was especially the case in regions close to the ocean or large waterways.
Due to the discovery of chrome in the tanning process, the tanning of cow hides and hides from other mammals became much cheaper and faster then is was before. This, in combination with the size of these hides and the rise in meat production meant the fish leather slowly disappeared from the global scene. Some smaller tanneries however, never stopped harnessing fish-skins from fisheries and just kept on doing what they had done for centuries, passing it on from generation to generation.. so I didn't invent it, but in my search for the perfect material for my ecological handbag brand, I discovered it and fell in love!
How does the tanning process differ in fish leather as compared to traditional hide leather?
Leather today is mostly made using chemical cocktails to tan the leather. The toxic wastewater harms the people working with it and is extremely polluting to the environment, impacting local communities on several levels. Unfortunately, these processes almost always take places in developing countries where there is little to no attention to these issues and the pollution goes unnoticed by the buyers of the final products.
Moreover, due to the global increased demand for leather it is no longer always the case that hides from meat production cows are used to make leather. More and more often, meat is a by-product from the leather industry instead of the other way around as many people think.
Fish leather is ONLY made from skins that are discarded by the fishing industry. These skins are available in large numbers today. Only, nothing happens with them, they just go to waste. And the tanning of fish-skins is a lot less harmful compared to those of mammal-hides. It does not have hair that needs to be removed, nor is it as thick or dark in color. All of this means that the tanning process does not require the toxins, water or dyes to obtain a result that is equally beautiful and strong.
We only collaborate with sustainably managed fish farmers in Northern Europe; this guarantees that our fish skins do not contribute to over-fishing or the fishing of endangered species etc.
Even though in a perfect world, maybe fish wouldn't have to be farmed but for now, the farming of fish produces a lot less carbon dioxides than for instance cows.
Also, our partner in tanning these fish skins operates entirely on renewable energy!
Is fish leather as durable and long-lasting as traditional leather? Does it develop the same character and patina?
Fish leather is super strong! Even though it is thinner than traditional cowhide leather, it is equally strong and durable. If you properly care for a leather product, it can last you several lifetimes. Fish leather can have different finishes, just like traditional leather. Depending on the finish it will wear with a patina. The fish leather in our first collection has a matte and untreated finish. This means that with using it, it gets naturally polished and will slowly develop a nice soft shine to it.
Ethical fashion is an extremely broad topic. How do you interpret the definition of ‘ethical fashion’?
I think one part of an item being ethical lies with the manufacturer; where and how does it source its materials and by whom and it which conditions was it produced. I think that aspect is quite clear to most people and I believe it's a good thing that customers demand more transparency on that level; so all of us can actually trust how ethical a brand claims to be.
But the life of a fashion item doesn't stop when it has been designed and made. Actually, its life really only starts 'for real' once someone has bought it. And as an ethical consumer, I believe you should also do your share. Buying ethical is one thing, treating your ethical wardrobe fairly is another. And with that I mean the amount of what you buy, how much you wear or use things, how much you launder them, how you treat and care for them, how you repair them and how you recycle them. Ethical fashion to me is about how you value and love an item. As a designer and manufacturer, but equally as an end-user.
Someone buying a cheap fast-fashion item but caring for it and mending it and wearing it until it's last breath can sometimes maybe be more ethical than someone who just buys and buys anything from respectable ethical brands without really appreciating it..
How does Ms. Bay embody your definition of ethical fashion?
We try to be sustainable or ethical in all cycles of the process of a product. We're not where we'd love to be just yet, but we're constantly improving ourselves and evolving. We learn a lot as we go and better practices are being adopted and incorporated constantly.
Now, we look at Ms. Bay from several aspects:
- DESIGN: we try to design with a long life-cycle in mind. This means that we make models with classy, timeless designs and colours that never go out of style. That's one of the reasons why our first collection is entirely in black.
- MATERIAL: For the same reason, we only use quality materials that will age well and last a long time. Moreover, we try to use as many materials that are already available instead of having material produced. Using waste is an excellent way of being more sustainable. Fish leather is for that reason our ultimate material as it is 100% waste that is now just untapped potential.
- PRODUCTION: We only work with factories that are certified fair-trade. We visit them on a regular basis to keep the bond strong and understand the issues they are facing when working on our collection. I see my manufacturers more as colleagues, we're really making Ms. Bay together. I also want to be sure that their working conditions are safe and fair. I very much believe in “Trade Not Aid”. If all of our production facilities of consumer goods we use in the West would be fair-trade, it would be a major change for global wealth. I'm not a specialist nor do I have exact numbers, but I imagine poverty and all connected problems would not exist as it does today.
- STORY: To make sure our fans understand our values and carry them forward when they use a Ms. Bay item; we try to tell our story. Brands today have the great possibility of directly communicating with their fans.
Do you think the fashion industry can play a positive role in the economic development of emerging economies?
ABSOLUTELY! As I just mentioned before, I'm a total believer of 'trade Not Aid”. I have lived and worked 4 years in Eastern Africa, involved in NGO's, Charity organisations and Fair Trade. I met lots of people with the best intentions who really did more harm then good without realizing it. It's a complex world and I'm sure there aren't easy solutions. If there were, we probably would've solved some major issues in Developing countries by now. But some simple things; like our 2nd hand fast fashion that is being sent off to Africa to help the people in need. When you 'donate' your clothes, you're only sustaining a system that is destructive to the local economy. Because our cheap donations can't compete with local manufactured goods. So they disappear together with the local style.
Instead of charity, we should all understand the power of 'dollar-voting'. Don't spend your money on companies that don't support the values you do.
How would you describe the aesthetic of Ms. Bay?
Classy and Timeless.
What is your favourite piece in the Ms. Bay collection, and what do you like to pair it with?
I love the Mini-Moon! I'm usually always only carrying a small bag with me as I don't need that much. I love how you could wear it for a fancy night out with a blazer and high heels but also worn cross-body on a short strap for a more casual look throughout the day.
If you had a career outside of fashion, what would you be doing?
I'd be a journalist!
How would you like to see Ms. Bay grow in the future?
We'll expand our collection with more styles and colours and I'm dreaming of a Mr. Bay collection too.
Currently we're also looking into possibilities of other waste-materials. So much is going on and many organisations and companies are developing new innovative materials that could help sort our waste-problem. It's really exciting and I'd love to be a part of that too!