Ethical fashion is no longer a small niche reserved for a couple of specialised brands: these days, sustainability is one of the main topics in the fashion conversation, with more companies than ever overhauling their practices to respond to the ongoing climate crisis. Up-and-coming fashion designers and fashion university students are also more interested in ethical fashion – but what does it actually take to create and run a sustainable fashion company? We had a cup of tea with A Perfect Jane founder Suzanne Harper to find out more about her journey – and advice for anyone who wishes to follow in her footsteps.
Like many sustainable fashion entrepreneurs, Suzanne's background is different from her current path: before founding the vegan shoe company, she worked as a manager for a Dutch agency which employed painters and carpenters. It was her first dog, Jane, who inspired Suzanne to go vegetarian 17 years ago, when she saw the similarities between her beloved companion and the millions of animals killed for their flesh every year. But nixing meat was just the beginning: “I still consumed dairy products, as I thought animals weren't killed for dairy.”
This is a belief that many people mistakenly hold – but aside from separating newborn calves from their mothers, the dairy industry also causes the male calves to be killed (often to be turned into veal) as they do not produce milk. Dairy cows themselves are killed when their bodies are no longer useful to the industry. When learning this information, Suzanne parted ways with dairy and went vegan. “I never looked back – it's been 15 years of a vegan lifestyle for me now.”
After transitioning to a fully plant-based diet, next came fashion. “My whole life, I've been a fashion addict,” recalls Suzanne. “When I went vegan, in the beginning it was about diet only. But later, as I started to veganise my wardrobe, I found it very hard to find trendy vegan boots that were breathable and high in quality.” At the same time, Suzanne was feeling her job no longer contributed to her dreams. “I never thought of starting my own brand until I felt stuck in my job as a manager. I had a great career, but I was not happy. In the end, I decided to start working on my mindset and the idea of starting my own vegan shoe brand was born. This way I could combine my passion for fashion with my love for animals.”
The choice fell on shoes out of sheer necessity: “When veganising my wardrobe, boots were the most difficult thing to find. There were enough vegan sneakers on the market – but I was working in an office job and wasn't allowed to wear sneakers to work. So I was inspired to make boots that could be worn to the office as well as to a party or a festival. I wanted to make really trendy boots that were breathable and made from high-quality materials. They also had to be so comfortable that you wouldn't need to change into sneakers to dance the night away!” Suzanne named her brand after her inspiration: “My dog Jane, who inspired me to go vegan in the first place.”
Material choice was important to the newly created label. “I didn't want my boots to be made of plastic, or look like plastic. After a lot of searching and testing, I came across apple leather and have been working with this material since.”
The uppers of an A Perfect Jane boot are made from apple leather, while the insoles are crafted from cork, which adds breathability. Suzanne realises that vegan alternatives still have a way to go when it comes to reaching sustainability goals. “Of course, this is also not 100% sustainable – but it is made from apple waste which we are re-using, and on top of that, no animals are killed to make the boots. Luckily, the development of more sustainable materials is moving fast, but it's not always suitable for making boots. To make them long-lasting, the material needs to be strong.”
As any budding label, A Perfect Jane has had its challenges. The biggest one was simply creating a name for itself as a new brand. “This takes a lot of time,” reminds Suzanne. “Building a brand takes marketing – which is synonymous with spending a lot of money. And as a start-up, budgets are limited.” One unexpected marketing cost that Suzanne has come across is marketing for the digital era: “Working with influencers, I find that the rates can be outrageous. As a small company, you can hardly work with influencers on a regular basis.”
Production is also a cost – and Suzanne pays for it in advance, which is a big investment. But the brand works around it: “We launch limited-edition styles that are timeless, and we work with pre-orders, instead of two big collections every year like everyone else does.” This approach further adds to the brand's sustainability credentials.
Suzanne's advice to anyone who dreams of creating their own ethical fashion brand is stark and realistic, yet refreshingly inspiring: “Stick to your values and dreams. Starting an ethical fashion brand is definitely not the easy way forward in a time where fast-fashion companies still dominate. I have had so many people, tell me that I should think broader and make leather shoes as well, to increase revenue. Of course I will never do that, as I started the brand from an ethical vegan perspective. So my advice would be to only listen to your own heart, no matter what.”