When Natalie Dean started her transition from vegetarian to vegan lifestyle a little more than a decade ago, she faced one major wardrobe challenge. "I could not find any [stylish cruelty-free] footwear on the market," she said.
She decided to take matters into her own hands. Natalie had no experience in the footwear industry, but she knew someone who did. "I asked my friend, Heather Whittle [who, at the time, was designing footwear for a bespoke label in Bristol, England], 'How do I make shoes?' She gave me a quick lowdown: 'Don't do it.'"
But they did. Natalie and Heather launched their UK-based women's label Beyond Skin in 2001. Since then, the brand, focusing on chic, playful women's styles ranging from heels to sandals, has won plenty of accolades from the fashion world, including an Ethical Award from Drapers this year. It's also garnered an impressive list of celebrity fans including Natalie Portman, Sheryl Crow and Emily Deschanel. Last year the founders mounted a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than £21,000 (that's around $37,000!) to expand into a diffusion line.
Aside from its swoon-worthy foot-candy, we also admire Beyond Skin for its pluck. As a pioneer in the vegan shoe world, the brand hasn't always had it easy. Big challenges have included finding factory partners that have the special machinery and expertise required to work with synthetic vegan leathers, as well as building awareness and acceptance of the cruelty-free lifestyle in the fashion world.
Both women are pet-parents (Natalie has two dogs, Heather has a cat, and the team also fostered some adorable lambs a few summers ago) and dedicated animal advocates. "It's at the heart of what we do," Heather said. "It's important to get across that [fashion] can be cool and cruelty-free."
She was quick to point out, though, that Beyond Skin is also about inclusiveness. "We position ourselves as a fashion brand, and we happen to be vegan. We have a nonjudgmental approach -- you don't have to be vegan or vegetarian to wear it."
In addition to their cruelty-free mission, the designers strive for a more sustainable production process, including using faux suede made from recycled plastic, as well as PU instead of its more toxic cousin PVC. While PU is far from a perfect solution, Dean and Whittle like to point out that the material is less toxic overall than traditionally treated leather.
Beyond Skin has some big plans in the works for the next few seasons -- including a larger style selection. "We're scaling up," Natalie said, noting that several new accessories, a men's line and an expanded diffusion label are on the horizon. "It feels like a natural progression."
The duo also wants to open Beyond Skin boutiques in London and New York. "It's about time," Heather said.
Right now we're loving the label's classic-silhouette sandals in nudes and pastels -- both big trends for summer, according to Heather -- and we can't wait until this sleek cutout bootie from Alice Lambert-Gorwyn, winner of a recent design contest organized by PETA and Beyond Skin, hits the site this fall. "It's going to be gorgeous," Natalie said.
We believe it.