In conversation with Felesha Papa-Adams, founder of Bristol-based eco footwear brand

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By Billy Stockwell, First Year Zoology

Billy Stockwell interviews founder of 'Collection and Co.' Felesha Papa Adams, discovering how it is indeed possible to be both ethically mindful and stylish, and how slow fashion can indeed suit a student budget.

Despite the cliche, the phrase ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ spearheaded the green movement back in the 60s, coined by Friends of the Earth founder, David Brower. Even though this notion has since grown from grassroots beginnings to a global concept, it is still sparsely applied beyond a canvas tote or reusable coffee cup purchase. We’re often so focused on fixing the bigger picture with even bigger solutions that we lose sight of the drastic ecological impact of buying clothes. With Bristol being the first British city to be named European Green Capital, my search for a sustainable retailer was unsurprisingly rather short-lived. Within a few days I was sat across from the infectiously ardent Felesha Papa-Adams - founder of Collection & Co - with my oat latte in hand, ready to explore the emerging world of so-called ‘green consumerism’.

What is Collection & Co.?

Collection & Co. is a vegan, sustainable footwear brand. We started off designing ethical footwear aimed at teenagers, made from a leather alternative. Since then, we’ve moved onto better materials, such as recycled plastics and pineapple leaves. So we’re not just vegan - sustainability is also a core part of our brand.

So Collection & Co. was set up in 2016 - what gave you the idea to set up an environmentally conscious brand?

I was working in the London fashion industry, and quickly realised that every single product was unethical, with many being made from snake skins and other exotic animal skins. I was working for multiple brands, and I soon discovered that these products aren’t a by-product of the meat industry, but an entity in themselves. It’s a completely separate industry!

Alongside this, I was trying to find an alternative for myself. There really wasn’t much out there. So that’s when I decided to design my own footwear collection - literally only 6 pairs at the beginning - which I later launched online with a great response from the public.

What was the greatest hurdle you had to overcome in the early days of Collection & Co.?

The whole design process can take up to 8 months. That’s just for one design alone. And it’s even longer now, because we’re still growing, and we want to make sure that each collection is better than the previous one. But you definitely get a thrill out of it. When you’ve put so much time into something, it’s great to see the finished product.

How many collections do you have a year?

We’re a slow fashion brand, so we don’t create too many collections, but we always have Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. We also have smaller collections in between, because so many regular customers, who don’t necessarily want to shop at H&M or Zara, want to continue shopping with us throughout the year. We like to keep the excitement going with the brand.

Do you think slow fashion is realistic and/or achievable for a student budget?

So achievable. This is slow fashion, so you can take your time doing it. The key thing is to appreciate what you’re buying, take time in doing so, think about the materials and how it’s going to be made. For me, even though I run a business, this isn’t about money. It’s more about mindset than money; it’s definitely possible for students, and young designers, to become a supporter of slow fashion.

For someone that is new to ethical shopping, where is the best place to start?

I think there’s so many great platforms online, but I know things can be expensive. Even I don’t solely shop at ethical stores, because things can range from £100 to £500, but I think charity shops, vintage shops and eBay are great places to start. You can find some great pieces. Equally, think about what you need before you buy. I’m not perfect, sometimes I will go to a fast fashion brand to get the occasional item, but I never haul. I think that is a very selfish thing. The key message is: buy what you need.

As a Bristol based company, how do you go about sourcing your materials?

Most of our materials are sourced within the UK. Some fabric however, like the pineapple material - known as Pinatex - is made in the Philippines, but even then the supply chain is very transparent.

Currently our shoes are ethically made in Greece, in a family-run factory, and we’re in the process of exploring options to produce them even closer to home. We’re not perfect but we’re constantly evolving. And Bristol is a fantastic place for us to experiment; it has a span of cultures, open-mindedness and the vegan community is growing, so we really feel at home here.

What do you think is the fabric of the future?

Since 2016 we’ve used a whole range of materials - recycled plastics, pineapple leaves and even hemp - to make our products. But we’re constantly searching for new things. Currently we’re looking into mushroom leather and materials made of fruit, like orange peels, so it’s literally vegan. But you can eat it obviously!

Real leather is biodegradable, but synthetic leather isn’t. Surely that’s equally as bad, if not worse, for the environment?

We always use synthetic leather made out of recycled plastics - they’re breathable, durable and water resistant just like the real thing. People tend to forget that with a leather shoe you still have to remove the upper from the sole before it can biodegrade or be recycled. So, real leather isn’t really any better.

Which other people or collectives do you admire? Does one particular person inspire you?

In the beginning we were purely looking into the vegan side of the industry, so I was really interested in Stella McCartney’s work. I think she’s great, and she’s not an A lister who is going round with a big fur jacket to display her wealth. She’s a great inspiration, along with her family. They’re forward thinking. They did it before everyone else, before the vegan movement began.

In an age of faster and faster consumerism, how do you stay optimistic?

In my eyes, a lot of people are catching onto the slow fashion movement. I don’t even think it’s a fad like some people say, people do actually want to help. We are still in a world of mass production, but people are starting to recognise that you don’t have to support it if you don’t want to. I love fashion, and looking at different designs, but I don’t necessarily buy the items. When the demand drops, so will the supply.

Craig Bennet, chief of Friends of the Earth, described the green movement as a ‘white, middle-class ghetto', do you agree with this statement?

I don’t agree. Regardless of the background you’ve come from, everyone should be trying their best to make a difference. I’ve travelled to many places, and met so many people doing their upmost to have a positive impact. So no, I don’t agree. I think it’s partly a defence system, because when people don’t follow or agree with a movement, they want to blame a particular group. Everyone is trying to make a difference, and it’s definitely not just one group.

For someone wanting to break into the arena of ethical fashion as a career, what would be your advice?

Think about it as making a difference, not a business. For a career, it can be slow and frustrating, but that is the point, it’s slow fashion. Things take a long time to perfect but that’s the beauty of it. You need to source your materials right. You need to conduct quality control checks around the factories. It’s 100% the way forward, and it’s so rewarding. It’s quality not quantity. I get so excited when I come into work, because for me it doesn’t feel like work at all, and that’s the best feeling.

Collection & Co. is still relatively young, how are you looking to build upon the brand?

The most exciting part is looking into more sustainable materials. This past winter we made a collection with zero-waste materials, using the off-cuts to make phone and laptop cases, with all proceeds going to charity. This summer we’re going to be recycling old fishing nets, and making them into bags. And a kids-wear brand is in the pipeline as well. We’re always growing, but we still have the same conscious mindset.

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As I finished the last few lukewarm sips of my latte, and thanked Felesha for her time, my mind began racing with yet more questions. This topic is definitely something to be revisited. But until then, get yourself down to Broadmead and splash your loan on some pineapple sneakers.

Featured Image: Collection and Co / Instagram


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