If long since forgotten, hopelessly out-of-style leather jackets have a hero, it’s certain to be Shannon South, the San Francisco-based designer behind ReMade USA, whose leather handbags made from cast-off jackets have given fans of eco-friendly fashion a solution to their incurable leather obsessions. Since launching in 2009, South’s line of one-of-a-kind handbags has been featured everywhere from Style.com to Fast Company and landed at Barneys New York stores around the country. This week, ReMade USA has the distinction of being one of 10 eco-friendly labels chosen for a coveted spot in the Designers & Agents Green Room during the New York marketplace’s spring show of over 1,000 companies.
We caught up with South, 37, recently to chat about her design process, her transition to eco-friendly fashion, thrift store style and her tips for greening our own shopping habits.
Tell us about your design process. How do you decide what kind of bag to make from each jacket?
Every bag has to be designed based on the details of the jacket. It’s not the most automated system…Certain jackets work better for certain styles. If I find a big 80’s style jacket with big pockets…then I say, okay this will work great for the Powell bag. It’s basically a rectangular bag that, when it’s hanging, forms a hobo shape and has big pockets.
How many hours does it take, on average, to create one bag?
It can take, from start to finish, from two hours up to like six hours. The more large pieces of leather I have to work with, it’s a lot less work. Most of the work is involved in piecing it together. I like the large men’s jackets because they’re very boxy. A small, fitted women’s jacket is a lot of work, because I completely disassemble it, and I lay it out flat and I stitch the pieces together. The more fitted the jacket is, the smaller the pieces are.
Where do you find the leather jackets you use?
When I first stared, I was going around to thrift stores around San Francisco, but it became way too much work. There’s so much stuff that’s donated to Salvation Army and Goodwill. Way more stuff is donated to them than they actually sell. Then they sell it to other companies that sort everything and sell it in bulk. It can be kind of hit or miss. Sometimes I’ll get a shipment and I’ll get great ones, and sometimes they’ll be really worn.
You’ve said before that the jackets have a history. How so?
A lot of my custom orders are people sending me jackets. It’s really amazing. People send me the history of the jacket, and they tell me why it’s important to them. I’ve had one woman who sent me her brother’s jacket from when he was in his 30’s when she was in her 60’s and he had passed away. She was so happy about being able to use this memory that she had. I think the history and the emotional value is what’s most exciting to me.
How did you land on the idea of making bags from leather jackets?
I’ve been making bags for a long time. When I first started, I was making bags from remnant vinyl material from the sixties. I would find these really cool, close-out vintage vinyls and make these funky bags. Those materials were in a really limited supply, and then I started working with a factory in China, and I streamlined my designs. I was mainly making these PVC laptop bags [under the label Supreme Love Story]. They were cute, but I didn’t really have any connection to them anymore. I like working on the actual product myself.
I started thinking about how everything is so throw-away, and I did some research and found out that PVC is one of the worst materials, just the amount of energy and chemicals that were going into making these bags. And I didn’t like being detached from the actual project. I couldn’t find any materials that I liked that were not damaging in some way environmentally. I’ve been a vegetarian for quite a while, so I didn’t really feel right about using new leather.
How do you dress day-to-day?
I’m pretty casual minimalist, a lot of black, which can be dressed up or down, with a mix of vintage. I throw some 80’s in when I’m going out. When I moved here two years ago, I vowed never to wear fleece in public unless I was out doing some kind of sport activity.
Do you have any tips for how we can all be more eco-friendly shoppers?
I think that the most eco-friendly you can get is shopping in thrift stores. Not everyone likes to do that. Try and get more creative with the things you have already. Even buying organic things is still consuming, and it still takes a lot of energy to produce organic and recycled things.
Buy high-quality, not fast fashion, things that are not super trendy and will last a long time. Avoid fast fashion. Almost everything I’ve ever bought at H&M looks terrible after a couple washings. I avoid buying things just because they are a good deal. I love thrift stores and curated consignment shops mixed with basics. I try to only buy things I love and that I know I will wear until it has holes in it. I try to buy American when I can, but that is really difficult, though I believe we need to support small U.S. manufacturers.
Find new uses for things. I recently accidentally shrunk my boyfriend’s sweater, and I’m planning on making a stuffed animal from it.
Do you have a favorite local thrift store?
One of my favorites, I like Community Thrift. They have 50 percent off days every other Monday, so that’s a good deal.
What prompted your move from New York to San Francisco?
I guess I just wanted to kind of slow down. One of my best friends lived here. I was not thinking about this business when I moved here. San Francisco has been a major influence on starting this line of bags. I think the fact that people here are so much more dedicated to trying to be more careful about the way that they treat the earth, it definitely was something I noticed and became more aware of myself.
Like what you see? Send South a leather jacket to turn into a new bag, and you’ll save $20 on your order. And this week, a sale on clutches in underway in the ReMade USA online shop.
Photography courtesy of ReMade USA
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