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Vegan fashion: Q&A with mother-daughter brand HFS Collective

By Huw Hughes


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What do animal rights, fanny packs and female empowerment have in common? They’re all at the heart of HFS Collective’s vegan brand, of course. Founded in Los Angeles in 2012 by Debra Denniston and her daughter Rachel, HFS collective is an ethical and sustainable-driven brand that produces a selection of wallets and bags using solely vegan methods.

Also known as Hipsters for Sisters, the brand currently has stockists in California and New York, as well as ones further afield in Canada, Sweden, Norway and Germany. HFS collective offers a selection of wallets between 78-148 dollars and belt bags between 148-295 dollars, all of which are made at a small family-run factory just a few miles from the brand’s office in Los Angeles. What’s more, five percent of the brand’s earnings is donated to organisations that help empower women, protect animals and preserve the environment. Who says fashion can’t be circular?

Designed with the intention of liberating women through their hands-free bag designs, HFS has grown in popularity since its humble beginnings in 2012, and has been worn by the likes of actress Elizabeth Banks and supermodel and philanthropist Petra Nemcova. FashionUnited spoke to Debra - one half of the HFS Collective team - to ask about her experiences founding, building and sustaining a vegan fashion brand with her daughter, and the challenges they’ve faced along the way.

How was the HFS Collective brand born, and how has it developed since then?

The HFS Collective brand was originally born from an act of rebellion. I’ve always had a rebellious nature which was somewhat tamed by motherhood. In fact, motherhood played a huge role in the development of the brand. Many years ago, I was a ‘stay at home’ mom, and when my children were toddlers l used to take them out and about lugging a big old diaper bag containing all the necessities for a day out with toddlers. That’s when I started wearing a fanny pack.

Now it was all well and good until I became addicted to the liberation afforded to me by my fanny pack and I began wearing it all the time! I didn’t really care that my friends thought I was a bit peculiar, in fact, I rather enjoyed the notoriety, but when my kids began to relentlessly beseech me to leave the fanny pack in the car when I picked them up from school, I squelched my rebellious nature and did as they asked. I tucked it away in my closet and went back to wearing big, fashionable handbags again for the next ten years.

It wasn’t long after my youngest went off to college that I re-discovered my old fanny pack as I was cleaning out my closet. With no one around to judge me, I decided to take it out, dust it off and start wearing it again. One problem: as I strapped it on and looked in the mirror, I discovered that my daughters were right - it was hideous looking. Then I remembered that my addiction had not been to that ugly waist sack but to the freedom of navigating through life hands free. Right there and then I decided to reinvent the fanny pack and make something so gorgeous that even my daughters would wear it. My greatest satisfaction was the fact that both of my daughters not only approved, but joined me in creating our first designs.

What has the growth of veganism in the US been like and how do you think it will continue?

I don’t have any statistics on this, but it seems that veganism - as a food choice - is growing at a tremendous rate. Veganism as an apparel choice, on the other hand, will tend to lag behind that for several years for two reasons: firstly, many people become vegan for their health, rather than for the animals, so choosing vegan fashion doesn’t even occur to them. Secondly, even those who became vegan because of their compassion for animals often still wear leather. They just know that faux leather products don’t last as long as leather, unfortunately. Makes no sense to me, but I see it all the time on social media. Some will continue to wear leather, but only second hand. A third group refuses to wear any leather products, new or used.

So, from what I have seen, only about one-third of vegans never wear leather, but I think this will change over time as vegan faux-leather materials improve in both durability and style. Once we develop raw vegan materials that look as good as natural leather and wear just as well, there will be no reason to support the leather industry, whether first or second-hand. In addition, as people become more and more aware of the horrendous devastation the leather industry is causing to the planet, even people who are not vegans will begin to question the morals of supporting an industry that is so harmful to our planet.

How would you describe the ethos of HFS Collective?

The HFS Collective is a physical manifestation of the ethos of my daughters and myself. Unlike many other companies, we did not set out to find a business to make money with. At the start, I just wanted to create a wearable fanny pack. The fact that our bags are animal free and use only materials that are certified to be the most sustainable options currently available is a reflection of who we are as people and our personal values. Inherent in our job description is educating the public about the very real nature of climate change and how our choices all affect the planet - whether that means avoiding fast fashion and buy fewer, higher quality pieces, reducing meat consumption or buying sustainably certified products that are made by people being paid fair wages in safe and pleasant working conditions.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced creating a vegan brand?

The biggest challenge for us has been finding the right market mix for our products. Many vegans are used to paying next to nothing for fast fashion vegan products made in China from cheap materials such as PVC. Creating vegan products the right way, using sustainable materials and paying a living wage to people who cut and sew them, is expensive, it drives up costs. Many vegans’ number one concern is about animal welfare and they feel they cannot afford to pay more to insure fair working wages or sustainable materials.

What advice would you give a brand who might be looking into starting a vegan line, or collection, but is unsure where to start?

If someone is unsure where to start, I’d suggest looking for what you want and can’t seem to find. If you want it, someone else wants it too.

How difficult is it to create a brand that is completely vegan?

It is easy to create a 100 percent vegan brand - it’s not so easy to create a sustainable one. Sourcing fabrics that are sustainable - as well as beautiful and durable - has been our number one challenge. Some of the most popular vegan handbags are created using PVC as the outer material because that’s actually the material best able to mimic real leather, but PVC is toxic and these companies tend to bury the fact that they use this material by focusing on what they use for lining, etc.

Even Polyurethane - which is much better for the environment than PVC - is still made from fossil fuels and doesn’t biodegrade as fast as we would like them to. Even so, Polyurethane - although far from perfect - is still better for the environment than leather. We are always searching for more sustainable options to leather so in addition to our sustainably certified polyurethane (Oeko-tex Standard 100), we use cork, Pinatex, hemp and a “suede” made from recycled plastic bottles.

Have there been any challenges working as a mother-daughter team?

There is nothing simple about any mother-daughter relationship and working together every single day multiplies that challenge tenfold. Working with anyone all day everyday is not without its inherent land mines. It is so easy to take them, their work and their talents for granted. Learning to view and respect my ‘little girl’ objectively as a grown woman has been a great challenge for me. However, now that I’ve stopped trying to tie her shoelaces, I’m rewarded by being privy to her creative vision and the process she employs to achieve it, which is really the fuel that makes things run around here.

We love that, as mother and daughter, we have the perspective of two generations of women influencing our company - from our mission to our designs. The generation gap is a natural influence in our division of labor. Rachel handles all the technological stuff - such as our website and social media - and I handle the more traditional aspects - such as sourcing of materials and production. We both work on the design aspect equally. This balance in duties draws on our individual strengths and proclivities and seems to work pretty well.

If you had to chose one, what would be your favourite item from HFS Collective and why?

The best part of my job (besides working with my daughter) is having an entire wardrobe of belt bags to choose from on any given day. However, if I had to choose just one it would be the Moss Green Half Moon (which I wear pretty much all the time anyway). I love it because it is not the typical beige straw bag that you see everyone in right now - it has so much more personality. I always wear it as a belt bag although it comes as a cross body with the belt being an ‘add on’.

Where do you see HFS Collective in 5 years and 10 years from now?

I’d love to see us taking a larger share of the accessories market. How amazing would it be to have sustainable and responsibly produced bags in the hands of the masses? What an impact that might have on our planet and the way we use its resources! I also see us having more of a presence in Europe. Our bags are really well received over there and we’d love to have a way to make our bags more accessible overseas.

Photo credit: Kristine Lo, @kristine.lo / HSF Collective, Facebook

hfs collective
hipsters for sisters
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