Ray Fontaine interviewing Crystalyn Brennan
All of the products we consume make an impact on the environment. We cannot fight the nature of consumption and our exponentially growing population. How, where, and with what materials things are made determine just how much of an impact a product's lifecycle can create.
Clever Tech Digest sat down to chat with Crystalyn Brennan, a pioneer in both vegan leather and zero waste up-cycled leather accessories. Her company, Crystalyn Kae Accessories, fights to reduce the huge amount of material waste in the fashion industry by preventing discarded textiles and vintage items from ending up in landfills. Brennan explains in detail mindful and innovative ways to keep our planet clean without sacrificing style.
You design and manufacture both Vegan and Recycled leather bags. Which came first in your business model and why did you add the other? Was sewing bags a lifelong passion?
My brand is called Crystalyn Kae Accessories. I want to make timeless designs you would pass down in your family or steal from your grandmother’s closet. That longevity is a part of sustainability. You don’t want something to end up in a landfill.
I grew up helping my dad restore 1960s era muscle cars that needed to have body work, but they also needed upholstery. So, he put me to work on a lot of the upholstery as well. That’s where everything started: finding something old and making something new out of it.
I started out in 2001 in Seattle making lots of journals and skirts out of pillowcases and doing a lot of reinventing of thrifted vintage things into new items. I was at a market selling my crafty jewelry and handmade items, when a guy came up to me and said, “I have a whole warehouse of deadstock vintage. Clearly, you are making stuff with it. Why don't you come check it out?”
At the warehouse, amongst glittery screen printed t shirts from the 70s, leather jackets and embroidered patches, there were piles of leftover pant legs that had already been chopped off from the waistband. It was this thick wool plaid, like the 70s golf pants my grandfather used to wear. It was thick and sturdy and outrageous.
So I made a few bags from the wool plaid and they sold quickly. My Mom, two interns, and I made a few hundred more plaid hobos. I started selling them wholesale door to door around Seattle, then San Francisco, then in New York. I actually got stores! No one was making purses out of old pants; that's what stood out.
A lot of people liked the design of the bag but asked, “Would you ever do this in leather?”. At the time I was vegetarian, and living in Seattle where leather doesn’t hold up well with the rain. I remembered working with naugahyde and other upholstery fabrics with my dad, and wondered “What’s out there now?!”
I started looking around in the automotive and interior design industry because the materials they use are thicker than many fashion industry fabrics. They really have to hold up over time. It took about 18 months to find a material I really liked. It looked like leather, but was actually mostly canvas with a thin sheen over the top of it, just like patent leather. The material really took off!
I bought the domain name, Vegan Handbags, because I knew there was a need and appreciation for rain-proof bags, particularly in the Northwest. That domain name gained me instant exposure. It wasn’t long before, I got a call from InStyle magazine. They were interested in featuring my bags in an article about where to find stylish vegan bags. This was around 2003, when Stella McCartney was the only major fashion designer producing vegan leather handbags. They mentioned me and Stella Mccartney side by side in the magazine. Suddenly, I was the vegan handbag queen in the Pacific Northwest. I quickly sold out of the Metier Tote style they had featured. My biggest regret was just not being prepared for the kind of demand it would create.
You started Crystalyn Kae in 2001 after a full career in fashion and merchandising. For young designers just starting out, what skills and equipment do you believe are must have assets to launch your own line?
Do as much as you can to get your business off the ground before leaving your company.
Think about what you really want to do with your business and your creativity and about what you can do to set yourself apart.
Don’t expect to be rich or even turn a profit for the first few years. However much money as you think you need, double or triple it. It takes a while to get momentum going, particularly now because the marketplace is so crowded and noisy. Anyone can put up a website and be a “designer”.
Last, build a community of people you respect. The ability to bounce ideas off of someone and get encouragement is priceless. Since I’ve joined the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator community, I've been more prolific than I have in my entire career by having so much positive energy to work around.
So how did you bridge the gap to upcycled leather?
Fast forward 10+ years to 2016: it was my first year as a Venture Fellow at the Brooklyn Fashion Design Accelerator - which is a hub for sustainable design. Through my connections at the BF+DA, I was approached by Jessica Schrieber, who was doing this top-secret TV project with a bunch of leather scraps. She was a contestant on Project Runway Fashion Startup, (a mashup of project runway and shark tank), and her investors had asked “How is anyone going to make use of these scraps?”
I was very intrigued, The materials I was using in my business were amazing, but after so many years of the same thing, I had begun to feel creatively limited. So I became the show pony to showcase that something luxurious and useful could be made from scrap leather.
It was a Friday, She needed three bags made from scratch by that Monday. So I said, “Bring the scraps over.” I made a backpack, a pleated clutch and some small leather wallets. The pieces turned out beautiful!
FabScrap, Schrieber’s startup, has thrived, grown, and is now moving operations into the Brooklyn Navy Yards! The quality is exceptional Italian gorgeous materials & leather. The nerd in me, who loves the thrill of the hunt, gets excited about how these patterns and textures were developed just for these lines, but never got put in production. No one is ever going to see or have this. Its so special.
Crystalyn Kae makes innovative material choices that seem to come from two different motivations: environmental conservation and animal compassion.
How can upcycling change the environmental impact of the fashion industry?
I feel best about upcycling materials, rescuing something that was overlooked. It's a cool way to find unique items. It can actually be more expensive because I am dealing with such odd-shaped pieces which require extra labor. I can’t just stack a bunch of pieces on top of each other and cut it all out at once.
I use an old technology, but its an innovative way of producing. I have dies made, which are like huge custom metal cookie cutters, to individually cut out materials. That's the most efficient way to make use of the material because I can cut them out so closely together and minimize waste. I design patterns so they all fit and interlock with each other. Then, I have almost zero waste. Ha! Zero waste, of zero waste materials!
What is the environmental impact of manufacturing the vegan bags?
I have a hard time with people who say that buying a vegan bag is going to save the planet, because at the end of the day: buying fake leather bags is bad for the planet. Most are synthetic and fall apart within a year. My vegan bags are exceptionally durable and will hold up for a long time. You can buy a vegan handbag at Target, but they are not going to last and are made under questionable labor conditions. I really respect the vegan lifestyle, and I want to be able to offer something to them.
If we really want to make an environmental impact, we should just stop eating meat. If people stopped eating animals there would be no leather to be tanning or making bags with. But in the meantime, I enjoy making something special out of this precious resource.
There’s a trade off. At the end of the day, I don’t think there is a perfect material but I do want to offer a stronger balance in my business between upcycled materials and vegan materials.
Tell me more about why you chose to keep your products made in the US.
I still work with one of my original manufacturers in Seattle and now 7 or 8 manufacturers in the Garment District of Manhattan, New York. I still do some light production in house. I usually make the first 10-15 bags myself: all the samples. And then once I get wholesale orders, I know how many I should make, and I will make a batch with my favorite guy Singh, here in the city. I’m very hands on with production, running back and forth between Midtown and Brooklyn a few times a week. I don’t want to mass produce junk from China. There are so many fabrics and details I want to keep track of. If I sent my designs to China, I would send them a drawing, but they would choose the fabrics, the threads, and the buttons. That doesn’t sound fun! That sounds horrible to me.
What are your thoughts on e-textiles and smart fabrics? Do you foresee using them in Crystalyn Kae Accessories?
Being surrounded by e-textiles in the BFDA space has sparked my curiosity.
At first, I thought they had nothing to do with me, but the technology that we carry in our bags made me think about it even more. I’ve had to redesign the pockets in The Metier Tote about five times over the years because the size of cell phones changed. The technology that we carry like iPhones, iPads, and laptops influence my designs.
At first, I thought that putting electronic and computing components in a bag sounded gimmicky, but I asked myself,“What if i used a fabric in my bags designs that used kinetic energy to recharge your phone from your own walking motion? What if there was a way to weave circuits into the fabric so that when you open your bag, a light turns on, and you can see?
However, technology changes so fast that if I were to integrate something like that into a style and then it became obsolete, I would have to reconfigure how the components are sewn in and do the design all over again. If the right person or the right idea came along, I’d be willing to experiment.
Sustainability is an important part of Crystalyn Kae's character. What are some brands whose ethics and sustainability inspire you; who are your fashion sustainability heroes?
Claire McCardell, no longer living, is super classic. She came of age during the depression and WWII when designers couldn't get as many fabrics. She was at the beginning of women’s sportswear, she had to be creative. She wore flats, and eliminated materials in her design to use less leather. She kind of invented the Capezio flats. Her sportswear bared the midriff to use less fabric. She would hunt in textile mills and find random fabrics that didn’t apply to fashion and use them in her clothing , and her designs were functional. If you want to talk about sustainability, she was ahead of her time.
Another sustainable company is Fab Scrap. Here’s what FabScrap does: Companies order huge amounts of swatches and samples every season to design their lines. Eventually they have to axe out a bunch of styles from the line, and a lot of the fabrics and leathers they planned to use never go into production. FabScrap collects and sorts these rare and beautiful materials and offers them for sale to designers, like me. What’s cool about FabScrap and my up-cycled leather products is that we’re rescuing something that is beautiful, instead of wasting the leather which was an actual living thing that had to breathe and grow to create those materials.
Also,Tara St James of Study New York. Her up-cycling is very inventive: She uses shirt sleeves to make part of a dress or recycled cotton from Guatemala. She collaborates with artisans around the world. St. James blends different ways to be sustainable, which makes her distinctive aesthetic. What I admire most is she is not only making a difference in sustainable design, but she is also teaching the next generation of sustainable fashion designers.
What question do you wish I had asked you?
How do we find a way to bridge technology and fashion? There are probably a lot of no-brainer things developing in technology for which the fashion industry isn’t recognizing the potential.