Possessing a wealth of experience in the luxury industry, Helen Farr-Leander had originally intended to create a leather goods brand of her own. However, the research she undertook as she looked to set up her new business led to a series of dramatic changes of direction for her, both personally and in terms of the company she wanted to create. Here, she tells us what happened:
Tell us about your career prior to Watson & Wolfe…
I spent ten years in multi-channel retail operations for the luxury leather goods brand, Aspinal of London. I was employed in the early stages of the business and I was pivotal in its growth to a £10M major luxury brand. It gave me a unique understanding of business operations and I have great respect for the work it takes to create and drive a successful, luxury company. I then spent a further four years working in home interiors and men’s fashion.
What were your initial thoughts when you were looking to set up your own company?
Given my experience and background, it seemed the logical step for me to start a luxury leather accessories brand of my own, so I initially started research and development with that in mind, thinking of a luxury leather accessories brand aimed at men. A few months later, I felt that my mission was empty, so sitting up in bed, laptop on my knees, I typed in the search words ‘the leather industry’ and the world as I knew it changed forever.
What kinds of facts were you uncovering?
The more I researched, the more facts I uncovered about the reality of the leather industry - pollution, over-consumption, unethical working practices, and unimaginable animal cruelty.
Like many people, I believed leather was a byproduct of the meat industry but of course the reality is quite different. Demand is so high that the farming and treatment of cows, pigs and other animals is abhorrent and never humane. I had never witnessed this level of cruelty before or even knew it existed.
By 2025, the number of cows required to support the industry will exceed 430 million - we are using animals who are the biggest contributor of green-house gasses to make fashion. The toxic pollution from tanning and preserving the animal skins also contaminates groundwater and destroys ecosystems. It is crazy! Humans have advanced, and so have the materials we are developing, and there is no need for us to use animal leather when we can use lower impact materials to get the same result.
I learnt of horrific levels of toxic pollution, of child labour and the lethal effects on human health that exist because of leather production. This $100 billion industry is built on cruelty and environmental devastation. In the days that followed I watched documentaries like ‘The True Cost’ and I quickly realised that I had no idea where and how my clothes were made and the detrimental impact it was having on our planet. How did I not know any of this?
It was this that prompted me to transition to a plant-based diet and adopt a vegan lifestyle and to completely change direction in terms of the brand I now wanted to create.
How did these findings create a change of direction for you?
I am not a person who can ignore cruelty, pollution and human suffering. I wanted to build a business that was considerate and that my children could be proud of too. Nobody should be profiteering on the back of environmental damage and it was no longer possible for me to use leather in the collection. So, we began again, looking for new materials and set about working with a factory who could deliver a luxury finish with modern materials.
I also felt that male consumers were largely left out in terms of sustainable, ethical accessories so I decided that the initial focus should be on timeless and beautifully crafted men’s products, fabricated using the highest quality future materials. So the journey of creating Watson & Wolfe started from there.
How did switching to a vegan lifestyle affect you personally?
It is important to note that I knew only three other people who were vegan when I switched. It’s also important to know that for the previous four years I had either been pregnant or breastfeeding and it had taken its toll on my body. Every morning I would wake unable to stand properly, my ankles ached, my bones felt old and I had constant fatigue from sleepless nights. I could not shake the constant feeling of exhaustion.
Hand on my heart, within two weeks of switching to a plant-based diet, my aches and pains had disappeared. I had more energy, I felt more focused and I was less tired, despite having the same amount of sleep as before. It was quite literally a game-changer, because I had the energy to support my family and grow my business. If I could feel and live a better life every day with just these small changes, imagine how good life would feel if my business were making a positive difference too!
Why did you decide to call the company Watson & Wolfe?
I was inspired by the strength, endurance and adaptability of the wolf and by our family dog Watson. He’s a small miniature dachshund, but, like all domestic dogs, he has evolved from wolves and he thinks he’s as scary as a wolf too! I believe that much like the evolution of the wolf into a domesticated animal, our time has come to evolve. Fashion must evolve from a high polluting industry, contributing 10% of global man-made emissions, to one which is conscious and sustainable. Our home, Planet Earth, and our future existence is under threat, with climate change already a terrifying reality. We must all come together as a pack to effect and embrace change.
A lot of people still believe that cow leather represents luxury. What would you say to people who think that vegan leather isn’t as good quality as traditional leather?
Luxury is defined as something which is inessential, desirable or expensive. Luxury is not a material - it encapsulates design, craftsmanship, quality of materials, respect for people and social responsibility. Would a leather wallet on a market stall produced in a sweatshop be perceived as Luxury, simply because it is made from animal leather? Vegan leather is engineered but that doesn’t make it less desirable or less expensive. It depends entirely on how it is used, how it is crafted and how the final product looks as to whether it’s ‘Luxury’.
Luxury is being redefined. Soon, it will no longer promote waste, pollution, cruelty, and high levels of CO2 in the supply chain - it will embrace sustainability, organic materials, recycling and the circular economy.