After suffering from a traumatic skin condition, Laura Stageman made a promise to herself that she would never wear the skin of another living being again. It was this goal that inspired her to create her vegan leather watch brand, Votch. We caught up with her (and her adorable pup Rolo!) in East London to talk about all things entrepreneurship, living a vegan lifestyle and her tips for being a more mindful shopper.
Hey Laura! Tell us a bit about your career before entrepreneurship.
Before VOTCH, I worked as a commercial TV producer in London. Once a script had been signed off, I was responsible for managing the whole process of bringing the production to life, until it ended up on the TV screen. It was a job I fell into in my early twenties; I was lured in by the travel and culture of these glossy advertising agencies. The lustre soon wore off though, and I became determined to shape a new career path for myself, involving something that gave back to the world in some way.
So, where did the inspiration behind VOTCH come from?
Three years ago, I was struck down with a condition called Topical Steroid Withdrawal, a condition caused by multiple years of steroid use for eczema. My husband’s friend told him that if I want to get rid of it, the best thing I could do would be to cut out the creams. Within four weeks of doing so, my skin started to literally fall off my body. It was horrific; I laid in a bathtub for twenty hours a day just to try and alleviate the pain. This went on for months.
During this time, in an attempt to help with healing I adopted a vegan diet in an attempt to clear up my diet and lifestyle. Through research I learnt a lot about the horrors of the leather industry, and as someone who had felt the pain and suffering of losing my own skin, I just couldn’t wear the skin of another living being again.
When I finally got better and one of my watch straps happened to break, I searched high and low for a replacement, quality vegan-friendly timepiece and couldn’t find anything. So, the idea for Votch was born!
For those wondering, what exactly is vegan leather?
It’s a faux leather that imitates real leather. In our classic collection, we use a mix of high grade PU and a cotton knitted microfibre mix, and in our new collection we use a blend of TPE, cotton and polyester. Our watches contain recycled and renewable content, and are free from PVC, plasticisers, phthalates, antimicrobial chemicals, PFC, bromine and heavy metals. They are also REACH and ROHS approved.
Why do you advocate steering clear of leather goods?
To me, leather goods are a result of suffering. There are now so many incredible alternatives on the market, with brands ‘green’ credentials rising rapidly as demand increases. Soon, I think there will be no need to wear the skin of another animal anymore for fashion purposes.
“There are now so many incredible alternatives on the market, with brands ‘green’ credentials rising rapidly as demand increases.”
What should other aspiring ethical brands be looking out for when producing their goods?
I’m a huge advocate for transparency in everything you do. It’s really important to meet the factories that you work with, build relationships with them and to make sure working conditions are on par to the standard you would set for yourself.
Congrats on your recent one year anniversary! How are you reflecting on this milestone?
Thank you! It’s definitely been an epic year, and I’ve been humbled by our growing customer base who are spreading the cruelty-free message by sporting one of our Votches. We’re planning on introducing a couple of new ranges next year, as well as branching out into accessories at some point too. Votch this space!
What’s been the biggest entrepreneurial lesson you’ve learnt so far?
To not be too hard on yourself, and to learn to say no. Like many of us, I’m so guilty of mentally beating myself up all the time and telling myself I could do more. Eventually, the sleepless nights became too much. Now, I’m slowly learning to tell myself that what I’m achieving is enough and to be proud of where the brand has got to within a year. Learning to say no is also a powerful tool. I spend so much time replying to admin emails that come in, but really aren’t helping to grow the business. Understanding how to manage your priorities becomes key.
What inspires you most?
Seeing all the vegan food business pop up in London. I have two friends who set up the vegan burger company, the Vurger Co. They have just turned one too and they spend almost every waking minute making these incredible plant-based burgers; one weekend they made 2000 from their home kitchen where they operate. Their work ethic and dedication to promoting a vegan lifestyle is so inspirational.
Everyone is talking about the documentary What the Health right now which advocates going meat-free. Did you find it hard to make the diet and lifestyle switch, and what advice would you give to others who are thinking of doing the same?
It’s been the greatest switch I’ve ever made and I found it surprisingly easy. I think the best thing you can do is not to focus on what you can’t eat, but what you can eat. There are so many delicious foods out there that a lot of the time people don’t even realise are vegan. From delicious curries to vegan ice creams, there’s nothing we go without. Get yourself a good vegan cookbook too – it’s a great way to start experimenting with new ingredients.
How do you take steps in your life to live more consciously?
I try to consume little and often, and when I need to make a purchase, I buy quality that will last. Living in the city, I take public transport most of the time, try to limit my waste and recycle as much as possible.
“I try to consume little and often, and when I need to make a purchase, I buy quality that will last.”
Finally, what would your tips be for others who want to #shopmeaningfully?
Support stores that are transparent and honest about their production line. A company that puts people and the environment above profit is one to look out for and often they will be proud of this and will display information on their sites happily.
Susannah believes better design can help create a brighter future. A former magazine editor, she now runs ZERRIN and works at the intersection of consumers, brands and sustainability advocacy.