Steele & Borough: leaving leather behind for a kinder future

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Steele & Borough makes bags, but special ones that carry an extra heavy load in the form of industry-changing ethical considerations and sustainability ambitions.

To look at, Steele & Borough bags have a distinctly high fashion finish with clean, simple lines and elegant contrasting trims that you’d be forgiven for assuming are crafted from fine Italian leather. It’s only when you start to take a closer look at the company itself and the ethical fortitude of the founders that a different picture begins to emerge.

Catherine Nilson, co-founder of Steele & Borough, paints a vivid picture. With a background in designer fashion, having worked for both Christian Lacroix and Hugo Boss, her astute sensitivities to outdated modes of conceptualisation are refreshing and energising. Moreover, they add weight to her reasoning for creating without leather: “When you think about the fact that leather products are made from someone else’s skin, it feels strange to use something made of leather.” A macabre overview maybe, but one that is key to fostering understanding about quality vegan alternatives to fashion staples.

Nilson notes: “Regarding the use of leather in the fashion industry, we feel there is a similarity to the fable of the emperor’s new clothes, in that companies brag about using the ‘finest calf leather’ in their products, but all we see is a baby who lost its life. It’s not impressive or glamorous. Once you open your eyes to this, it’s difficult to go back.”

There is also a sustainability factor at play here, as Nilson is quick to point out. Though there is still work to be done in terms of making vegan leather alternatives more environmentally responsible, they still fare far better than traditional materials. “If you compare an animal leather bag in our price range to our bags, they are very harmful to the environment since they use toxic materials to prepare the hides,” she comments.

Making an impact

A great business model, founded on knowledge and experience of a competitive marketplace and with laudable ethics added in for good measure, should mean smooth sailing, but Nilson remains realistic about the future and grateful for the opportunities already offered. She muses: “For us, it is an ongoing process. We remain excited about finding new ways of balancing classic designs with new vegan materials, while remaining high-end, but still affordable. It’s an interesting mix of priorities, but it makes for the most fulfilling results.”

However tough it might be to blend so many seemingly at-odds considerations, Steele & Borough is overcoming every obstacle, and with the requisite amount of grace to be recognised as an ethical alternative to household designer names. Nilson reveals: “Three months after we started the company, one of Sweden’s biggest retailers placed an order with us. Our bags were being sold alongside Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, as well as many more.”

It’s not just online that the bags are impressing either. Away from the glare of flattering studio lighting and professional photography, the Steele & Borough bags are shocking discerning consumers, for all the right reasons: “When we exhibited at Pitti Uomo in Milan last year, one attendee thought that the price of our bag was €500 and not €150. We knew then that we had proved a high fashion bag does not have to be made of leather or cost a fortune to be exclusive, covetable and chic.”

Don’t assume that it has all been simple for the company though, as Nilson reveals that there have been significant difficulties along the way. 2016 saw an influx of bag designs reaching the market and increasing competition significantly, while 2017 saw a stockist go out of business, threatening to leave Steele & Borough out of pocket. Finally, just last year, an unnamed fashion brand showed interest in investing in the company and, upon receiving information about construction and materials, launched its own bags.

All of these incidents served as a stark reminder of the cutthroat nature of the fashion industry, but also reminded Nilson why she wanted to do something different. Today, Steele & Borough is successful and is carving its own niche, thanks to an unerring commitment to quality, timeless design and compassionate materials. It goes to show that big marketing budgets and ruthless practices are no match for talent and transparency.steele and borough

Style without sacrifice

Talking more about the importance of offering a cruelty-free alternative to traditional high fashion bag materials, Nilson really started to impart some food for thought. Considering whether it is important for the fashion industry to be more ethical and to set an example, given the enormity of the global platform it enjoys, she says: “This industry is not ethical at all, especially in terms of the environment. It would be better to buy secondhand or nothing at all, but then economies would suffer and jobs would be lost, so a middle ground has to be found.”

She continues: “We want to show that there is a better option than leather and to change the preconceptions that people have about it being the best material for high-end bags.”

Most interesting is the approach the company is taking in regards to supply and demand. Seeking to support current consumer trends and then subverting them through the production of superior products, both ethically and quality-wise, Nilson alludes to a Trojan Horse technique that seeks to change the way we shop forever, saying: “We feel we have to start with someone wanting our products because they look good. Consumer motivations tend to start from a superficial point and then move towards a desire to do good. Our mission is to change people’s dated preconceptions about leather and encourage a more considered way of purchasing.”

Remember the name

Clearly no strangers to successful marketing techniques, we wanted to know more about the company name. Sounding strong and somehow inclusive all at once, it resonates with high-end consumers and ethical buyers alike, but what is the story behind it? “We thought about how some of the brands making luxury bags started as saddle makers in the 19th century and from there, we knew we wanted something that sounded traditional and a bit British,” explains Nilson. “Borough also refers to the small part of a town where Niklas [her business partner] and I grew up, just a few blocks from each other, on an island near Stockholm.”

She adds: “We already had sample bags made when we asked an art director friend to come up with a name and our brand has grown organically from there. We wanted it this way, since the core of our company is our products, not a trendy name.”

There’s a genuine sense of Nilson and Niklas in every facet of their company, as well as a connection to the community. Asking various local artists to suggest logo designs, the simple hexagon was a clear winner, and though it might not be complicated, it is clever. Impossible to forget, strong like the brand name and multifaceted, just like the company itself, it is a perfect visual representation of everything Steele & Borough stands for.

vegan fashionA change for good

Hot on the heels of the announcement that Hermes is opening Australia’s largest crocodile farm, specifically to cultivate skins for its handbags, talking to Nilson reinstates a little faith in humanity. There are individuals using their business savvy and market experience to drive positive change and if supported, they could help secure total consumer shifts, as Nilson highlighted: “We believe that the way people thought about fur 20 years ago will be the same for leather in the future. Tesla has stopped using animal leather in its cars, so things are definitely changing.”

Consider me convinced, because I’d rather sport a Steele & Borough bag than a Birkin any day.

Nilson and Niklas have partnered with The Vegan Review to supply bags for our 2020 festive giveaway, so be sure to sign up to our newsletter to be in with a chance of winning.

Amy Buxton
Amy Buxton
Amy is a committed ethical vegan, raising a next generation compassionate human with her husband and their beloved dog, Boo. A freelance writer with a background in PR, she decided to use the COVID lockdown period to refocus her client base and has come to The Vegan Review as a senior writer and editor, before moving into her external content director role. "What we should be doing is working at the job of life itself" is Amy's mantra, courtesy of Tom from The Good Life.