To this day, the use of fur and animal skins in luxury fashion is a hotly debated topic: esteemed fashion houses like Chanel and Victoria Beckham have rejected the practice in recent years in response to an acceleration in global conscious consumerism. On the other end of the spectrum, some experts argue that boycotting said materials could have adverse effects on animal conservation efforts and indigenous communities. The resolution remains ever-elusive, but rising designers like Thalia Strates are now making a solid case for the trade with minimal social and environmental impact.
Hailing from South Africa – a country renowned for exporting bovine hides as well as more controversial skins like ostrich and crocodile – she launched her namesake luxury handbag label in 2013 using strictly byproducts from the meat industry and offcuts from local leather tanneries, namely cow leather along with hints of shearling and springbok fur.
As a former freelance stylist, the designer initially created evening bags out of self-necessity but quickly recognised the strong demand for her versatile yet timeless minimalist designs in luxurious finishes. “In the beginning, I wanted to make things that could be worn for many years, but I didn’t have the money to order large quantities of high-end fabrics from overseas,” the designer tells ORDRE. “So I pulled readily available materials from my surroundings to create something that, first and foremost, appealed to me, but that also didn’t exist in the local market yet.”
Fast forward six years and ethical material sourcing is now a cornerstone of her brand DNA, followed by a less-is-more ethos and slow production processes. She goes on to explain that the cow and springbok skins she uses are not only sustainably hand-selected but also unwasteful, as the animals are consumed in their entirety: “We use the horns, the skins and we eat the meat, so the whole of the animal is utilised. They don’t just exist for the sole purposes of feeding or clothing people, and that ticks all the boxes for my belief system.”
“I just pulled readily available materials from my surroundings to create things that didn’t exist in the local market yet.”
Strates suggests this understanding of sustainability is inherent, a way of thinking she learned from her Greek and German grandmothers. “I think both my grandparents instilled in me a sustainable mindset; they love to invest in pieces such as heirlooms and beautifully tailored clothing. They would always try and make the best of what they had and make them last.”
Yet despite her ongoing efforts, she is also mindful that her current practices are not 100 percent impact-free: “There are definitely times when I think leather is not the best for the environment because it’s supporting the meat industry, which is growing at such an alarming rate that farms are contributing to deforestation.”
She is quick to add, however, that she has “yet to come across alternative solutions that are completely responsible.” Thus she remains steadfast to a simple, small scale strategy, and minimising her carbon footprint with low production quantities and local sourcing. “I think slow, organic growth is where I’m leaving it. I’m comfortable with the way things are now,” she maintains.
Unsurprisingly, the designer is also careful about her retail partnerships, although she admits to previously being lured by influential retailers: “I used to dream of being on websites like Net-a-porter and Moda Operandi. That desire gets to you, and it comes from being competitive and seeing how instant fame erupts as soon as brands are on such platforms.”
“They don’t just exist for the sole purposes of feeding or clothing people and that ticks all the boxes for my belief system.”
“But big stores often go with the flavour of the moment, and you can be that flavour for a while and then all of a sudden it’s on to the next one, and I’m not pursuing that,” she continues. Currently stocked at specialty boutiques like AKJP Collective and Margot Molyneux in Cape Town, as well as Yoroppa Galerie in Paris, she’s sticking to establishments that resonate with her principles: “I really want to get involved with smaller boutiques that create experiences and tell a story. I want to work with people that I can interact with on a personal level.”
Looking to the future, Strates is open-minded about the ever-shifting sustainability landscape, adjusting and fine-tuning her designs and practices in ways she sees fit. “I’m always trying to educate myself and see what sits comfortably with me as a person and my ideologies,” she explains, adding that “for now I want to look at what consumers want and see whether or not it’s in line with what I want to put out.”
While the debate on the use of animal skins for fashion consumption may be far from reaching a verdict, Strates is setting a new precedent for sustainable luxury standards, bolstered by her commitments to transparency and ethical processes. “I’m trying to put out very genuine products and create a sense of accessibility – things that people can relate to on a human level,” the designer reflects, adding, “I’m still learning and trying to figure things out. I want to experiment and have fun with [the brand], but at the same time do something meaningful.”