© 2022

Ethical, Aesthetic Leather Accessories: With Harper The Label

Interview, Words MARYAM ARSHAD


Claire Harper is the founder of Harper the Label, an accessories brand centred around ethically-sourced leather, innovative design and collaborative efforts. In an industry heavily led by greenwashing and a lack of transparency, Harper the Label stands out. We spoke to Harper about the label’s approach and how ethics and high standards are abided by – all whilst designing and curating a collection that is visually compelling. Harper sheds light on the reality behind ”vegan leather”, seeing opportunities and putting meaning behind the creative process. From weaving poetry into design to finding inspiration from a variety of mediums, the collection speaks for itself. Harper the Label is refreshing and inspiring. Harper hopes to add to the Core Collection, experiment with materials and design, and collaborate extensively. The label is undoubtedly amongst those setting a higher standard for brands that are finding the crucial balance between aesthetic and ethics.

You founded Harper the Label in 2019, a label centred around sustainability, conscious design and inclusivity. Can you summarise the label for us?

CH Harper the Label was born from my desire to bring transparency to leather, which has historically been a very opaque and hidden industry. I knew that the vast majority of leather products were made using a toxic, harmful process called chrome tanning, and I couldn’t find a leather bag that appealed to both my sense of right and wrong and my design sensibility. So I decided to set out to make that bag myself!

You mention the really interesting nuance, where your own poetry is intertwined into each design. Was this a detailed element of the design process?

CH The idea came to me while I was walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York a few years ago. I stumbled upon a chainmail shirt that would have been worn into battle in the Middle East, its steel rings woven by an artisan’s hand with links of steel and brass to spell out the Prayer to Ali. The metal fabric protected the body in battle; the prayer protected the soul. I began to think about language as a shelter, used in protective rites as old as the words themselves. Words are significant in many cultures, from gris-gris amulets in the African voodoo tradition, to Fulu magical symbols in Chinese Daoism. In my own life, poetry has been both protective and instructive. Harper’s Core Collection features my own poems: small missives of hope written into the folds of leather, too delicate to be seen by others and meant just for the bag’s wearer.

At the balance between aesthetic and ethics, Harper the Label has strong green standards. Can you tell us about your material selection and process?

CH Most leather has been chrome tanned, meaning that it is cured with chemicals like chromium and arsenic which have been definitively linked to a host of both human and environmental health issues. My label only uses leather that is certified chrome-free and cured with the tannins from organic matter like seed pods, bark, and leaves.

When working to higher standards and through enforcing them, have you found that there is a trade off between ease and ethics?

CH This is the most heartbreaking part of working in the sustainability field. At the moment, sustainable brands get cast as “elitist,” because the cost of producing a piece that is traceable and ethical is still much more expensive than a conventional product. It takes much more conscious thought and decision making to produce ethically, but to me it is worth it. For example, digging into the certifications that my factory holds, or making sure than the tanneries I source from have documentation for what they say they produce takes plenty of time and effort. On the other hand, I wouldn’t feel right putting a product into the world without considering the circular implications of my work.

Have you come across barriers when designing and working as a Woman?

CH I prefer to think about opportunities, rather than barriers. The world of leather work is split into two main groups: older men who follow a more established, historical idea of what leather products should look like, and a subset of luxury designers based in Europe. I have hit plenty of dead-ends trying to figure out answers to my design questions, but I try not to think about what other people think about my work. I don’t fall into either of those two groups, and I actually think that this gives me an edge that no one else has. I’m thinking outside the limitations of what leather has been and can be, and hopefully that aesthetic resonates.

How do you connect with purposeful and conscious design?

CH I don’t set out to do purposeful or conscious design: I believe that this comes from the other considerations of designing a piece, like its utility and its appearance. I design pieces that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and that for me fill a void that I’ve run into. Hopefully this means that the pieces are significant and necessary in some small way.

Greenwashing, especially within fashion and design, is abundant. How do you ensure that you stand by your ethos and high standards?

CH A big part of my design journey has been wrestling with this question of how to add value in an industry that is so focused on virtue signaling, rather than taking action and standing for real change. For me, greenwashing boils down to saying that a company is being sustainable without showing the metrics behind that effort. I’ve defined my ethos with five main principles – clean leather, fair manufacturing, carbon offsetting, sustainable packaging, and inclusive hiring practices – and I do my best to explain how I’m doing what I say I am. There will always be room for improvement, whether its in sustainable materials or making sure that the conversation about beauty is inclusive, and all I can do is my best to explain how I’ve arrived at my choices.

Something that drives me crazy in fashion at the moment is the marketing of vegan leather options. This is purely marketing, because all the vegan options at the moment are made in various percentages of polyurethane (PU) or poly vinyl chloride (PVC), which is plastic. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, and given what we know about plastic in the waste stream and how it affects human and environmental health, this is hardly a better option than the certified leather I’m working with. Branding these options as “vegan” is only one step above wishful thinking!

You cultivate and collaborate with women and non-binary entrepreneurs. Is this exclusive, and why was this important?

CH I don’t exclusively work with women and non-binary creatives, but I am naturally drawn to working with people who might otherwise be marginalized by the fashion industry. I believe that it is incredibly important to share my access to resources and knowledge, especially because it can be so hard to break into fashion. I strongly believe in paying people what they are worth, and intend to showcase a variety of bodies, colors, genders, and abilities as my brand grows.

Do you draw inspiration from any art or work in particular for your label?

CH I absolutely draw on art of all kinds to inspire my label. I frequently go to museums or follow new artists, whether they’re painters or sculptors or textile artists. No creative idea comes exclusively from my own bubble – it’s the interaction with other ideas that prompts me to think about new designs. Sometimes I’ll take inspiration from a sleeve, or a vase, or a drawing. I’m always looking at lines and shapes and colors!

One of the most inspiring parts of launching Harper the Label has been connecting with so many women-led companies that are trying to do exactly what I’m doing in a variety of different materials. There are small brands redefining metalwork, skincare, and knitwear all over the world, and I love reaching out to these women to connect and share the journey. By and large, all of these women have been generous with their knowledge, their time, and their resources, and it’s my dream to pay that generosity forward to the next generation of mission-driven entrepreneurs. I really do believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, and I’m so grateful to be part of a class of brands that support each other.

Drawing on your interest in ‘Bio-leather’, how crucial do you think bio-materials are in sustainable design? Do you intend to branch out into experimenting with bio-materials for your label?

CH This idea of vegan leather was one of the most intriguing when I started research for Harper the Label. It’s an exciting time to be in leather, because we’re at the beginning of a wave of new materials that are starting to come to market which are vegan but capture the texture and significance of leather. There are plenty of ideas out there – I have samples of cactus leather, apple leather, pineapple leather, wine waste leather, and mushroom leather, to name a few. Unfortunately the technology isn’t quite there yet with these alternative leathers, because they still use plastic as a binding agent for the organic material. Knowing what we do about microplastics in the ocean, how plastics affect human health, and that it doesn’t break down, I can’t ethically stand behind these bio leathers just yet. I do think we’re going to get there, and my long-term goal is to offer my entire Core Collection in both the low-impact, chrome-free cow leather and a plastic-free, vegan leather. This choice is important: I believe that we all should be able to make our own decisions about what leather meets our standards, because what is right for me might not be right for you. At the end of the day, I want to provide information and the best options possible so that the customer can make an informed decision for themselves.

What hopes and ideas do you have for Harper the Label, as you continue to grow?

CH As I grow the brand, I intend to continue adding to the Core Collection in an intentional and thoughtful way. I also plan to offer limited-edition product collaborations with other brands, artists, and designers. I have a few potential product collaborations in the works, and I have some ideas for new pieces for the main line rolling around in my brain. In particular, I’d like to start designing and casting my own hardware, like belt buckles, from recycled metals. I’m also experimenting with using natural materials to paint on leather, which is something I’ve never seen anyone else do!

Harper the Label is an ethical, sustainable leather accessories brand, with a Core Collection that radiates with a simplicity and fluidity. The founder Claire Harper is a designer, weaving mediums, experiences and organic forms of nature to design for a sustainable, impactful and creative future.


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