Svala’s vegan handbags are innovating the luxury sector with new textiles and ethical manufacturing practices.
Helga Douglas always knew she wanted to work in fashion.
Growing up in Sydney, she immersed herself in fashion and media, interning with companies like Vogue and GQ. She studies business and art at university, working part-time for the PR firm behind luxury label Versace.
That’s when things started to change, Douglas says.
“While I was at university, I began learning more about the environmental effects of the fashion industry as well as the animal cruelty involved and became disillusioned with the industry,” Douglas tells Ethos. “I began searching for vegan, sustainable clothing and accessory brands but there were not many around that I could find or get excited about.” She says she knew she had to start her own line, but didn’t know where to begin.
Her career took her to Los Angeles, working for the film industry. It was here that she began to see sustainable fashion and jewelry labels popping up. “I began blogging about them in my spare time for the LA Examiner as I found them so inspiring. Interviewing other founders and learning more about the process of starting a business gave me the courage and push I needed to create my own,” she says.
That push drove her straight toward her ultimate goal: creating her own line. “The whole concept of Svala was to create a vegan, sustainable brand so it was part of the brand DNA from the very beginning.”
Svala in Icelandic means “swallow”. It’s a bird symbolic of love, loyalty, freedom, and hope, says Douglas, “everything that I wanted my brand to stand for.” Her mother is Icelandic, which gave the name even more meaning, she says.
Douglas says she wanted to create a line of bags and accessories that were classic, timeless and versatile. “As I found it hard to find vegan, sustainable bags that I liked, most of the styles are based on designs that I wanted for myself.” But she also found that they resonated with customers, too. She’s even taken inspiration from customer feedback. “Our Gemma convertible backpack purse and the Sara wallet purse are both based on requests from customers.”
When she started out several years ago, vegan fabrics were also just beginning to emerge. “I went to trade shows and searched around downtown but couldn’t find anything interesting,” she says. Then, her sister recommended a friend in Italy who was supplying luxury designers across Europe with vegan fabrics that were made sustainably in compliance with Europe’s stringent REACH standards. “I was completely sold,” she says.
Still, the search for high-quality vegan materials has not been easy. Unlike the boom in other industries like nondairy milk and vegan meat that are as realistic as their animal counterparts, quality, sustainable textiles—especially leather—have only recently surfaced.
“I think it has taken so long as previously there was not a lot of demand from consumers for leather alternatives,” says Douglas.
“With the rise of social media, viral content and all the available information on the internet at our fingertips, I think many people have become a lot more discerning about how their products are made and animal welfare issues. I think this has led to a lot of innovation and improvements in the vegan fabric space, an increase in brands creating cruelty-free products as well as increased demand from consumers for these products. Even though it has taken a really long time, I am surprised by how fast the change is happening now.”
Svala now uses two types of Italian vegan leather. “One is a high-tech fabric that resembles high-end exotic leather and the other fabric that we recently introduced is BioVeg–an innovative fabric made with recycled polyester from plastic bottles and bio polyols, obtained from non-food and GMO-free corn crops. BioVeg contains at least 75% biomass from renewable resources—one of the highest percentages available on the market.”
The brand also uses pineapple leather, marketed as Piñatex. Douglas says it’s a beautiful, durable, and sustainable leather. She loves the story behind it, too. “Piñatex fibers are the by-product of the pineapple harvest in the Philippines, which brings new income streams to subsistence farmers, allowing them to fully utilize their crops. No extra land, water, fertilizer or pesticides are required to produce the raw material and no pineapples are harmed,” she says.
Cork also makes an appearance across the label—an accidental discovery at a leather wholesaler in LA.
“I was really attracted to the beautiful, natural, distinctive look of it so decided to include it in the Svala line. The cork we use is velvety smooth, durable, biodegradable and very easy to work with and clean. It is also one of the most sustainable fabrics around, which I love,” Douglas says. “The harvesting of cork is done in a sustainable manner so that no tree is damaged during the process; the harvesting actually helps the tree absorb CO2 and so is good for the environment. Cork has become one of our most popular fabrics, especially the gold speckled cork we offer.”
Like a number of businesses, Covid took a toll on Svala with manufacturing lockdown periods. Everyone is still working remotely, and safety continues to be a priority. Douglas says she’s found comfort enjoying LA’s good weather, spending time outdoors with her puppy or friends, and taking care of herself with yoga, making music, and meditation.
She’s also excited about new products. She’s got new BioVeg-based bags in a range of colors and styles coming out soon. She’s also inspired by the shifting industry as mainstream brands like Ganni, Gucci, and Prada embrace vegan and sustainable materials.
“My hope is that the brands who decide to use vegan leather will make sure that they are also considering the environmental impacts of the fabric. Not all vegan leathers are created equally and some are terrible for the environment, like PVC.”
And for consumers, too, Douglas says the last 18 months have created space for us to become more conscious, more aware of our choices and their impact. One of her biggest recommendations is choosing wisely.
“I would suggest seeking out a timeless, classic style that you can use for a long time and selecting a fabric that is not only sustainable but durable also,” she says. “I love convertible styles that you can use in different ways, so you can buy less but make your pieces work better for you.”