05 August 2011

Interview with Laura Collins of cruelty-free vegan bag maker Pansy Maiden

“I am a no-nonsense, no-frills, no-heels type-of-lady. On a day-to-day basis, I usually wear jeans and a t-shirt with flats. I wear very little make-up and a brush and an elastic band is all I need when it comes to my hair. That having been said, there are days where I like to let my stylish flag fly,” says Laura Collins owner of the fashion forward cruelty-free Vegan bag company Pansy Maiden.

Collins created her whimsical line of bags to reflect her own personal values and beliefs that everything is intertwined and that the way we interact with animals and the environment does matter.

Recently Lora was kind enough to take some time out of her busy day to answer a few questions for This Dish is Veg.

Can you tell me a little about yourself, such as your background?
I design and construct sustainable, vegan bags of many different styles—everything from clutches to large weekenders and backpacks—in my home studio seven miles north of Boston, MA. Pansy Maiden began as a hobby, a night-time cure for a creatively-vacant day-time job. Through sheer tenacity, I taught myself to sew and then to build patterns. As it turned out, based on my friend's and co-worker's positive feedback, I seemed to have a natural aptitude for designing and hand-building bags. The thought of a career filled with creative passion and self-direction really fueled me to learn all I could about design and building a brand. Fortunately, all this research unlocked an affinity for entrepreneurship I would have never guessed was there. Three years have now passed, and I'm happy to say with each passing year, my business has grown.

What inspired you to create your company?
I was really inspired by the handmade/indie design movement that has been going on over the past decade. I discovered Etsy.com a year or so before launching Pansy Maiden. (For all those who don't know, Etsy is an e-commerce site where independent designers and makers sell their wares.) I was really impressed by the talent of many of the artists there. Not only was I impressed by their creative talent but also by their display of courage. It takes a lot of courage to actually live the life you dreamt of when you were young. It was after seeing the talent displayed on Etsy that I asked myself, "Are you living the life you wanted to live when you were a kid?" When the answer was "No," I knew I had to take the steps necessary to be true to myself.

What inspired your company’s name?
I love this question. When I table at indie markets, often times I see someone stop and read my sign. The next thing that happens is they will either stand there with a perplexed look on their face or they will say, "Are you Pansy?" The rest of the conversation will go something like this:
Me: My grandmother was Pansy.
Visitor: Your grandmother's name was Pansy?!
Me: Yep. And her maiden name was Maiden.
Visitor: Pansy Maiden?!? Great name.
Me: Isn't it!

Unfortunately, I was very young when my grandmother passed away so I didn't get to know her as well as I wish I had but my father told me so many enchanting stories about her as I grew up. She was a strong woman, a caretaker, as sweet as could be. And she played the harmonica. I now own the harmonica she would play, and it's one of my most cherished possessions. And what a name!

How would you say your bags reflect your personality?
I am a no-nonsense, no-frills, no-heels type-of-lady. On a day-to-day basis, I usually wear jeans and a t-shirt with flats. I wear very little make-up and a brush and an elastic band is all I need when it comes to my hair. That having been said, there are days where I like to let my stylish flag fly. I might wear a cute vintage dress with some sweet wedges. Either way, my look is always based on a minimalist aesthetic. So whether I'm feeling college-girl casual or boho-dressy, any of my bags are going to match that aesthetic.

Are you Vegan or Vegetarian?
I now consider myself a vegan. I was a vegetarian for nine years before transitioning to vegan. I'd say it took a good year-and-a-half for me to transition. Cheese and cream, as most might guess, is really hard to give up. Especially while on trips home to Indiana. Casein, a protein found in dairy products, actually has addictive, opioid effect. So, it's actually addictive.

What inspired you to go Vegan or Vegetarian?
My transition to vegetarianism took a really long time. I began with forgoing meat-on-the-bone in my childhood then moved on to also exclude all red meat when I was in high school. It was at the age of 22 that I took my last bite of any meat. On my way home from a snow-shoeing/camping trip in Northern Michigan on a cold, cold weekend in February 2000, my friends and I stopped at McDonalds for dinner. I ordered chicken McNuggets and french fries. As I ate my plate of fried-badness, I thought about how that chicken became a nugget. That was enough to toss me over the edge. No more meat of any kind. Eight years later, while working on my business plan for Pansy Maiden, I knew I didn't want to handle animal hides. Thoughts of handling animal skins, of pushing them through my sewing machine, disgusted me. I knew I wanted to make and market my bags as vegan bags. It was by researching how to make sure my bags were 100% vegan that I learned more about the vegan movement. About why people refrained from dairy. I had not even thought about the environmental impact of dairy farms. Or about the medical research that shows that humans can be negatively affected by drinking the milk of another species. And furthermore, I had never thought about the plight of cows and goats on factory farms that are hooked up to machines which "feed" on their milk supply for hours a day, every day. After taking into consideration the impact of dairy farming on animals, on the environment, and our bodies, I just felt that living a vegan lifestyle is the most socially responsible thing I can do.

How hard is it for you to obtain your materials for your bags?
The hardest part is finding distributors who will work with companies as small as mine. Many distributors only want to work with companies who will buy 1,000 yards of the same fabric in the same color at one time. I am in no way ordering 1,000 yards at one time. So that limits where I can purchase fabric. And since my orders tend to be pretty small, I pay more per yard than the giant corporations who can order 1,000 yards at one time which affects my bottom line. And of course, the cost of organic fabrics is higher than non-organic. Hopefully, as the demand for organics grows, the prices will come down a bit.

Can you tell me about the fabrics you use, what drew you to them in particular?
When I first started, I used only 100% cotton canvas and twill. I began with this fabric because it is durable and machine washable which matched up well with my mission of providing casual-yet-stylish vegan bags for no-nonsense women. Canvas and twill are also really easy to work with which is terrific for someone who is fairly new to sewing. I then branched out to vegan suede. I felt that my customers where looking for something a little dressier and I was ready to add different, more lux fabrics to my repertoire. I was extra happy when I finally found a distributor who sold vegan suede made from recycled plastic bottles and I was then ecstatic once I found out they would work with me. Around the same time, I also found a distributor of high-quality, PVC-free vegan leather who would work with small companies. It was actually a difficult decision whether or not to work with these faux-animal skin fabrics. Both my faux suede and my faux leather is the highest quality, most eco-friendly faux-animal-skin fabrics on the market and thus, they feel and look like real animal skin. This can be controversial in the vegan world because vegans do not want to appear to support the killing of animals. And unless someone asks them about their faux-vegan bag, it appears as if they are carrying a leather bag. In the end, I decided that these faux-leather fabrics can act as an introduction to the vegan world, much like faux-meat food products. Maybe one of my faux-leather bags will be purchased by someone who always carries a leather bag, And my bag will prove to them them they can have the high-fashion look of leather without having to sacrifice a living being. That thought really pleases me.

What inspired you to create your current line?
My most current collection, Darling Utility, was greatly inspired by the early career of Coco Chanel after having watched the movie Coco Avant Chanel. I first saw this movie last year at a rather definitive moment in my professional life. I was on a flight from Boston to San Francisco where my bags were going to be hanging from the arms of models sashing down the runway of San Francisco's first ever Vegan Fashion Show. At that time, it was as if I had all these puzzle pieces for a new collection floating around in my head and, after watching this movie, all the pieces came together to form a cohesive picture. At the risk of sounding trite, it was sort of magical. Vintage + modern minimalism + feminine + functional = Darling Utility.

Do any of the pieces in your collection tell a story?
I'd like to think that every one of my bag tells a little story. The most tangible story, though, would probably be my Lady Day bag. When I first started designing, I'd name each of my designs after either a song sung by a woman or an inspirational lady singer whom I admired. Usually when I am working on new designs or writing for my blog, I can't listen to anything. No music, no podcasts, nothing. I'm so easily distracted. But for some reason, Billie Holiday is the one music-maker I can have playing in the background while I'm trying to concentrate on work. Her music puts me at ease. It's something I cannot explain. As a gift of thanks, I named my Lady Day bag in her honor. "The orange ruffle represents the gardenia she wore in her hair.

What draws you to sustainable fashion?
Owning and being the sole-employee of a design business is such a personal thing. It's impossible to separate my personal life from my professional one. In affect, my business is a refection of myself and my personal values. In this age of youtube, twitter, and the 24-hour-a-day news cycles, it's easier than ever for people to learn of the damage done by corporations operating in socially irresponsible ways. We see what happens when businesses are allowed to worry more about increasing their revenues by 300% rather than worry themselves about the harm they are doing to the Earth we all borrow from future generations. And when we let people harm our Earth, in turn, that affects our health. When I first started to develop my brand, I knew that I did not want to be part of that problem. Sustainable fashion was the only choice I gave myself. It's always about social responsibility with me.

Is there anything about the current fashion industry that turns your stomach?
There seems to be a resurgence of fur on the runways. From Prada to Dior to Helen Yarmak to Fendi. I can't think of anything more disgusting. What I find to be even more disappointing is when young labels perpetuate the killing-is-fashionable mantra. When I saw that the Olsen Twin's label, The Row, debuted their first collection of bags and the most talked about piece was their $39,000 bag made of crocodile skin, I was very disappointed (although not surprised since they often utilize fur in their designs). Sometimes it feels like the younger generation is ahead of the times, united to do the right thing. And then I hear something like that and it reminds me that we still have a ways to go. The fact that people are still willing to pay thousands of dollars for a bag made from the skin of an animal that is heading towards extinction seems really messed up and archaic to me.

Are there any fashion trends for bags or in general that you wish would come back or just say gone
It seems to be that the fanny pack is making a comeback but under the guise of "hip bags." I really like the utility of a hip bag but, having lived through the 1990's, I am finding it difficult to take them seriously. I do get asked about hip bags often enough to consider designing one but it's taking me a long time to figure out what a Pansy Maiden hip bag might look like.

How has your sense of style evolved over the years?
In college, I was very much into the 1970's look. I wore a lot of super-flared jeans, vintage t's, and Chuck Taylors. I was also into vintage dresses and coats that screamed, "This is vintage!" Now I'm really into the Stella McCartney minimalist, tailored look although I have yet to buy any of her pieces. (I'm saving up my pennies!) This is not to say that I have totally given up bell bottoms and T's. Maybe you could say that I have "refined" my hippie style to suit the confidence I have found in my early 30's. I think when I was younger, like many people, I felt like I needed to dress to stand out and show off my unique personality. Like, "look, I'm so interesting and creative, see how I'm wearing crazy clothes and super chunky jewelry and I have a white streak in my hair?!" Now I view my outfits as neutral palettes to off-set, say, an interesting piece of jewelry. And I use my voice and actions to carry the weight of my identity. Individual style does say a lot about who a person is but now I understand that style doesn't need to scream. For me anyway.

What is one thing you think surprises most people when they meet you in person?
Gosh, this is a really hard one. All I can come up with is that maybe many people have a certain idea of how someone who calls themselves a "vegan" will act or look. I hope that I make people feel at ease so they are not worried that I'm judging them or worried that I will immediately begin to harangue them because they are wearing leather shoes. I am always happy to talk to anyone who has questions about veganism. I cannot count the number of times I have been asked, "What makes your bags vegan?" I always use that question as an opportunity to show that veganism is a positive thing. It's about love--love of our Earth, love of our animals, and love of our health (and the health of those whom we love), it's not about judging. This is why I'm especially happy that my bags appeal to vegans and non-vegans alike. If one of my bags can act as an introduction to veganism and/or environmentalism, how cool is that?!

Who inspires you or are your role models?
People who have decided to take life by the reins and guide themselves rather than let themselves be guided.

What is one thing you wish people would recycle more?
I think we still need to work on the basics: Cardboard and plastic. Once we get that down, maybe we could move to composting. It makes me a tad bit angry when I see trash cans filled with cardboard. Some cities still do not even pick up recycling of any kind. If it's a question of funding, I wish certain cities would begin charging for trash pick-up. I used to live in a town that would only pick up your trash if you stuck a $1 sticker to each bag. They would pick up recycling for free. A simple program like would get people more excited to recycle.

What’s in store for the future?
1. A larger studio. 2. A few new styles 3. A couple new fabrics. I know...I'm so secretive ;)

Jodi Truglio | email
Jodi is a strict vegan and animal rights advocate that grew up in up-state New York. She holds a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. In her spare time Jodi enjoys doing yoga and pilates.

Photo credit: Pansy Maiden