Today I interviewed Stella Soomlais, an Estonian accessories designer. Stella’s area expertise is leather, and she will be giving me insight into her unique brand. Interviewing and editing by Margit Potsepp
Could you talk about your background as a designer?
I started to make custom made orders when I was at university on the first course, so in that sense I had practise with materials since 2004. Along the way I went to do masters, after graduating I went to this institution to start a company, and then I took a business course. I began my company in 2011, and slowly from custom made orders, I went to ready-made items. I rebranded in 2015, and then in 2017 I opened a shop, so it’s been a logical and an organic growth. I didn’t know that this is what I wanted to do as a child or a teenager. Initially, I wanted to be an interior designer. I heard about leather design, so I took an exam and understood that this is for me.
Where did you study?
I studied at the Tartu Art College. Along the way I went to a university in Lahti, Finland. After graduating in 2008, I went to do masters in the Estonian Art Academy, and then I also spent time in the Aalto University in Finland. In 2010, I graduated and got my MA degree. Along the way I had some trainings about leather technology, entrepreneurship, and sustainability.
When I took my exams to get into Tartu Art College, I had to take assignments and I didn’t know anything about materials. But along the way I fell in love with leather, as I started to learn more about it and realised how vast the industry is.
What has been your favourite product to design?
First one is the backpack and the other one is the Capital of Plenty clutch, we deliberately wanted to make and design something like this clutch, we made it as multifunctional as possible. That has been a success, people liked it. It is comfortable to use. The backpack is also very popular.
I don’t work as a standard fashion designer; I don’t make mood boards. I work in a mathematical way. I get feedback from the clients, and this is my inspiration. We offer this aftercare service; the customer can bring their bags back and then we can understand what’s working with the details and what’s not. Customers themselves can indicate where the problem is or what they liked. We also browse what the market wants. Everyday life gives me inspiration.
Could you talk to us about the concept of renting bags and accessories?
I came up with the idea in 2010 when I was doing my masters, I didn’t want to write a regular thesis about a bag collection, so I researched service design and the PAY-PER-USE system. And then I understood this could be the future. I design my bags in a way in which I repair them along the way and when no one wants them, I just reuse the material. The initial idea for my master’s thesis was, I would not make bags for people to buy them, but just to rent them. In 2010, renting bags has become a thing in the world, but not in Estonia. I launched this idea in 2017 when I opened my shop. I offer this renting service with two goals, so that people could test the bags before buying them, so they are comfortable with the decision. The second one being is that some people won’t need a bag after attending one party. These seemed like a good deal for me and the customers.
What measures do you take to be sustainable?
When it comes to products, we choose material and the companies that we work with and make sure they are ethical, and then we control the production side. The transportation issue comes into question, there is no point ordering leather from Asia when I can get it from Europe. Then when it comes to production, we produce in house, which means control over the quality and also that the workers get a fair wage. We also offer this aftercare service, the first time it’s free. We want to be there for the people who bought the items, as it’s important for them to understand that if something happens to the bag, they are not alone.
Is everything made in Estonia?
We buy the leather from Sweden, Italy and Spain.
Who is your target audience?
People who care about the environment and who want local made items. We sell to people who are in their 20s, but also who are in their 50s. Statistically, our main clients are women, financially well off and in their 30s.
What are your future plans?
I have a lot of plans; some may be controversial as well. There is one thing for sure, the company is going to change, I am not sure in which direction, we are still discussing it. Also, to improve and to constantly develop.
Would you ever consider working with vegan leather?
Yeah, that’s actually the plan in 2020. I haven’t found a good alternative to leather because some alternatives have problems, of course leather has problems too. I want to find an alternative that will fit the bigger picture, making sure it lasts and that it’s going to be biodegradable. As long as people consume the animal, there is always going to be leather, so it’s kind of wise to take the material and make the most use out of it.