Caroline Francis is an entrepreneur on a mission: to make sure that every handbag you see on the street is a vegan one. As the founder of VOKE, the luxury vegan handbag shop we’re all obsessed with, Caroline has made it her aim to bring cruelty-free style to those of us who are still drooling over the fashion industry’s most notable status symbols – the It bags. And Caroline is on the right side of history – the vegan leather market is booming, with reports predicting it will be worth $85 billion by 2025. “I started VOKE after feeling frustrated by the fragmented process I had to go through every time I was trying to find high-quality, sustainable vegan products,” Caroline tells Vilda. “Each purchase was preceded by a time-consuming process of cross-referencing my own research with advice from fashion bloggers, vegan bloggers, eco-bloggers, and so on. Then I would dig into the materials pages of the brand I was considering and struggle to determine what I wanted to buy was actually made from.”
Today, the boutique carries brands like Alexandra K, JW Pei and Angela + Roi, and shoes have recently been introduced to the range, premiering brands like Will’s Vegan Shoes and Rafa. Unlike some of her predecessors, Caroline knew that what was going to make her boutique a success was attention to style. “Design has been a really critical element. I wanted people to come to VOKE and fall in love with the products not because they’re vegan, but because they are beautiful pieces that are well-made. The ethics are so incredibly important to me, but I also strongly believe that being a successful vegan brand means offering products that don’t require a customer to sacrifice on behalf of their ethics. I think this is the same mentality that companies like Impossible Foods and Oatly have—and it’s that ability to create a zero-sacrifice product that ultimately gives a vegan brand (or any brand that’s trying to change a behaviour) staying power. Have your cake and eat it too!”
Like many of us, Caroline is excited about the innovations that are making headlines for vegan fashion. “There are two innovations that have really caught my attention. The first is plant-based leather—and in particular, plant-based leather that is created from food byproducts. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, a staggering 45% of fruits and vegetables are often not even harvested or simply discarded due to their appearance. Ironically, this food waste presents one of the most promising solutions to the fashion industry’s ethical and environmental woes. Plant-based fabrics derived from food waste could mean not just lower impact textiles, but net-positive textiles. Put simply, textiles that take waste out of the system.” Fruit leather innovators Le Qara were one of the winner of this year’s H&M Global Change Award, showing that when it comes to fashion, fruit is the future.
Other favourites of Caroline’s are favourites of ours as well: “Apple leather and pineapple leather (Pinatex) are two examples that are increasingly utilised by sustainable and ethical brands. I really love the look and feel of Pinatex for shoes—especially boots and sneakers—and for watches and belts. It has a rough and slightly weathered texture that gives a piece a vintage appeal. Apple leather, on the other hand, is smooth, rich, and supple. It’s absolutely beautiful for handbags. I haven’t kept many pieces of inventory for myself, but one piece I had to have was the Alexandra K 1.6 in Apple Leather. Pretty soon, I also expect to see brands start using Mylo, a mushroom-based leather created by Bolt Threads. Stella McCartney produced a limited edition iconic Falabella bag in Mylo material—the bag was displayed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum this past summer.”
When it comes to choosing the perfect bag for your wardrobe and life, Caroline’s advice is to tailor the accessory choice to your lifestyle. “For me, there are three staple bags that I think every wardrobe needs. First, is your go-to work bag. It’s a bag that needs to be able to accommodate a laptop, plus have enough pockets for organising things. It should be neutral enough to complement any outfit and professional enough that you could feel great with it by your side in a meeting or interview with just about anyone. In my wardrobe, that’s the 1.6 Maxi Tote by Alexandra K in Black Apple Leather—another favourite of mine is the Demi in Black by LaBante London. The second is your everyday run-around-town bag. This is the bag I can bring on a coffee date, to the supermarket, or out to a casual dinner. It’s the bag that’s probably hung up right by your front door because you use it so often. Mine is the Romane by Levi Jones—another favorite is The Clelia in Nude by Samara. The third is a beautiful eye-catcher for a special event. I like something structured and architectural—something a bit unique, but still neutral enough that I can use it frequently. My favourites are The Fiona in Black Croc by JW PEI and The Eloise in Black by Angela Roi. From there, I like to have a couple of statement bags in my wardrobe. I like these bags to feel colorful and different. My three favorites are The Grace Crossbody in Navy and Red, The Cher Mini in Pink, and The Fiona in Mustard. For one reason or another, I find I wear these most often with florals and patterns—perhaps because usually those are the days when I feel like dressing up!”
What to look for when shopping for an investment piece? “My advice is to invest in your staples over your statements. Invest in the piece you know you will turn to all the time when you’re heading out the door. Do not—please—spend your entire paycheck on some super unique piece for that one-time charity gala you got invited to. Because we all love to choose the pieces that are so ‘different’ and so ‘un-me’ for big events (it makes us feel special!)—and then more often than not they end up sitting in our closets forever after. Instead, find beautifully designed, perfect-to-the-last-detail basics that will make you feel polished and prepared for the every day moments. And do your homework! Read product reviews. Read blogger reviews. Ask questions from whoever you’re buying it from. It’s of course ok to take a risk on something (as long as you can return it), but it’s always helpful to hear what others have to say about it before taking the leap. Also, look for product pictures with someone wearing the piece so you can see if you like the way it hangs all together with an outfit.”
How does the VOKE founder advise her customers to care for their new bags?
“When it comes to care, vegan leather isn’t actually not all that different to animal leather. When storing, keep your bag in a dustbag to product it from dirt, dust, and dust mites. If you notice the bag is dirty, usually a damp cloth to wipe it down and a dry cloth to absorb any excess liquid (microfiber cloths are my favourite). I also like to use a lint brush from time to time to grab crumbs and dust from inside my bags. Keep the bag out of direct sunlight for extended periods of time. I also try to make sure I’m never in the rain for too long, even though the bags I own and the bags VOKE carries are all resistant to water. And if I do get caught, I’ll wipe the bag down after the fact. Also, when storing, make sure the bag doesn’t get crushed. But above all of that, purchase a high-quality vegan leather to begin with. Research the brand and the material before you buy something. If you’re willing to invest in an item made from a high-quality vegan leather and manufactured by a brand with deep expertise, your bag will have a much longer lifespan!”
Lastly, what are Caroline’s hopes for fashion’s future? Like many of us, she is excited about biofabrication. “Clothing fiber consists of polymers, or molecules that repeat over and over again. In the case of cotton, the molecule is cellulose. For leather, it’s collagen. And for silk, it’s fibroin. The idea behind biofabrication is that if you could create and isolate that molecule—let’s say collagen—then, in theory, you could replicate it in a way that would ultimately result in the same polymers that come together to form leather. You could even slightly modify the molecule to make the material take on certain qualities, like a particular color, strength, or even the ability to glow-in-the-dark. This is exactly what the company ZOA (brainchild of Modern Meadow founder, Andras Forgacs) is working on. The product—which has received a flood of funding from some of Silicon Valley’s leading investment funds, as well the Hong Kong billionaire, Li Ka Shing—has already been created, but has yet to be fully commercialised. I’m waiting with bated breath!”
So are we, Caroline. In the meantime, we should all check out the bag (and now shoe) selection at VOKE.
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All photos courtesy of VOKE.