Accessories Fashion

Inside Jill Milan, Luxury Vegan Bag Maker

By Chere Di Boscio

Once, there was a myth that vegan bags were the ugly stepsisters of their leather counterparts, offering a choice of smelly plasticky purses or rough hemp tote bags. But then designers like Stella McCartney and Jill Fraser of Jill Milan went and blew that myth out of the water completely. Today, vegan bags are amongst some of the most covetable prestige handbags in the world. The irony is, they are so design-led, many who own one aren’t even aware they’re vegan, or fully understand what a ‘luxury vegan bag’ is.

This is no surprise to Jill Fraser, the founder of Jill Milan bags, who entered the bag market with the notion that a well designed, artisanally produced handbag made of fully eco-friendly materials could compete with the likes of the big players like YSL, Prada and Gucci. And you know what? She was right.  Today, her bags are a red carpet favourite with A-listers, socialites and CEOs, and her brand has become so popular, she’s branched out into vegan clothing and accessories, too.

Here, she shares a bit about how her love of animals translated into a thriving luxury business.

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Why did you choose to create a vegan bag range?

I became vegetarian (and later vegan) while I was getting my M.A. at Oxford. A friend of mine took me to see a film about animal welfare and I knew we really needed to change the way we viewed animals. I have a background in luxury marketing and thought I could develop a company that didn’t use animal products.

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What are some of the challenges when making vegan bags?

There are many challenges in making vegan, sweatshop-free, and eco-friendly handbags. We manufacture at Italian ateliers that specialize in luxury handbags only.

However, there is a learning curve in using non-leather materials since these fabrics tend to be less stiff than leathers. I once watched a bucket bag go flat as a pancake at our Italian studio. We ran into the owner’s office, sat down, and he was saying, “Think, think, think. What can we use to stiffen this bag?” (We solved the problem but did have about half an hour of sheer panic.)

Our designers all have luxury backgrounds–they have worked for companies such as Prada and Judith Leiber. They, too, have to learn to work with non-leathers.

Regarding materials, we try very hard to use fabrics that are both vegan and eco-friendly. For instance, our coat collection uses all eco-friendly fabrics and we are using these in our spring and fall ’16 handbag collections. We are using materials from Brentano’s green collection and from the French fabric house, Elitis. Because these companies supply the home decor industry, their materials are extremely durable, heavy, and not easily damaged.

The problem is that these fabrics are also very expensive, ranging from $50 – $130 per yard at wholesale. You combine this with Italian labour and hardware costs and the bags are not cheap to make.

The vegan customer, though, is frequently used to buying bags that are made in countries where labour costs are often under 50 cents an hour. In Italy, the hourly cost is closer to $35 and it takes many, many hours to make a handbag.

Customers often don’t realize how high the cost of making a bag in a First World Country is.

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In which other ways do you support animals (besides not killing them for your fashion?)

I’ve worked on many animal welfare issues, including rehoming thoroughbreds, carriage horse issues, and pet adoption. I was on the board of CEASE Boston in the 1990s and was an assistant producer for a movie about shelter animals in L.A. in the 2000s.

Before I started my company, I was active in organizations that rescue horses. One of these, Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue, rescues thoroughbreds that are at risk of being sent to slaughter in Mexico. The organization is run by a team of volunteers and the founder, Caroline Betts, is an economics professor from USC.

Jill Milan itself has donated tens of thousands of dollars to animal welfare groups.

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Tell us about some of your proudest moments so far in your career?
Jill: I don’t have any proud moments. My work isn’t about me.

Which 3 types of bag do you think all women need in their wardrobes?
Jill: I think they need a clutch for evening, some kind of a satchel for day, and a large bag for travel. I think they should buy the best quality bag available and hang onto it for a very long time.

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Your bags have been seen on the red carpet often. Do you think celebs are making a political statement as well as a fashion statement when they choose a vegan bag?
I think some are and some are not. There is an odd idea that we “give” celebrities handbags. With a very few exceptions, this is absolutely not true. Like other manufacturers, we just lend bags to actors and musicians for major events. They are returned immediately after the event.

In most cases, celebrities want bags that complement their dresses. We strive to be one of the best clutch companies in the world. It’s not enough to be the best vegan company.

Anne Hathaway, Kerry Washington, Jennifer Lawrence, Eva Longoria, Hailee Steinfeld, Carrie Underwood, and Miranda Lambert have all carried our bags many times but in most cases these stars also carry leather bags.  As I said, I think it’s crucial to be the best fashion option for a celebrity or for any consumer, not the best “vegan” option.

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Which high profile people making a difference do you find most inspiring?

I love that Bill Gates is funding Hampton Creek and Beyond Meat. I think it’s really important to create products that are good enough and have enough marketing dollars behind them to reach a mainstream audience. Sam Simon helped so many great causes before his death, too. I also like that James and Suzy Amis Cameron have publicly made a commitment to veganism.

What’s next for Jill Milan?

Jill: We are always experimenting with new materials. Our spring line was designed by a leading celebrity stylist and we will announce that soon.

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