The handbag brand Lies Mertens launches for the first time a design in vegan leather: a slingback bag called db. We took a look in the designer’s studio and discovered how her love of biodynamic wine is woven into the new creation in different ways.
Lies Mertens studied graphic design and management. An evening training in leather processing completed the list, and her hobby eventually became her main occupation in 2017. Simplicity and functionality are the core values of her label, which can now count on a large number of loyal fans.
The designer’s studio in Antwerp is a wonderful oasis of natural daylight and greenery. Her cat Mustache feels like a king and drinks greedily and contentedly from the tap in the studio while we are taken in tow by the designer.
As with her designs, Lies Mertens swears by her materials for innovations that can stand the test of time, rather than rapidly fading trends. ‘In recent years, we have been looking for a vegetable variant for leather that meets all quality requirements,’ she explains. ‘When a vegan alternative becomes a hype, people often think it’s sustainable. That is not necessarily the case. We discovered that many vegan leathers are made entirely of plastic. After a year, they are often already worn and they get a white haze. At the end of the life of such an item, you are left with a non-recyclable waste product, made of plastic. I would like to avoid that, because plastic is certainly no better for the environment than leather. ‘
In any case, animal leather is not immediately being overtaken in Lies Merten’s collections. “As long as meat is eaten and we can therefore buy leather, which is a by-product of the meat industry, animal leather will also remain a high-quality and sustainable option,” says the handbag designer. “We work according to the principle of the short chain, to minimize the ecological impact as much as possible. Our German and Italian partners work directly with local slaughterhouses and work with water treatment plants and alternative energy sources. The material then goes to Portuguese and Italian production workshops. ‘
The leather that the handbag brand works with has a silver or gold certification from the Leathering Working Group (LWG). ‘We have since learned that asking questions is at least as important as paying attention to the right certificates. It is not the case that an Italian tannery automatically works with Italian cows. There are more tanneries than slaughterhouses in Italy, so hides are also sourced from New Zealand and Bolivia. If you want to guarantee that your materials have traveled a short distance, you must insist on it. ‘
Priced (s) if
‘Because we do not want to stimulate livestock farming with our brand, we focus on full-grain European leather and we are looking for high quality vegan alternatives.’
To find these alternatives, Lies Mertens researched during trade shows and online and requested samples. Two years ago, she started making vegan prototypes. ‘There are now some vegan leather alternatives based on plant-based ingredients. For example, you have made leather from pineapple or apple leftovers. The winning material for this launch is the Italian company VEGEA, which makes quality leather from grape waste from wine production. I’m a big wine fan, and this project grew into an ode to VEGEA’s equipment and the wine sector itself. ‘
During the research phase, Lies consulted his friend Laurens de Meyer. ‘He wrote’ Does there still need to be meat? ‘ and dives with great interest and joy in the processes of sustainable innovation. His knowledge of sustainability is extremely useful when I can no longer see the forest for the trees. He told me that VEGEA’s material can act as a kind of ‘CO2 vault’ because the sludge from wine production is recycled instead of incinerated *. The leftover seeds, skins and twigs are transformed organically into vegan leather. In this way, a circular process is created in which a waste material is transformed into a raw material. ‘
The designer has a strict set of requirements for vegetable leather. “It should not feel like plastic, should not tear, be flexible enough to work with, age beautifully and last a long time.” She tested her own sample intensively for six months. ‘I always test new materials because I want to see how they develop when you wear them. VEGEA does not feel cold on the skin and comes close to genuine leather in terms of appearance and feel. I took the bag with me to many parties and it still looks great. ‘
A bottle of wine in your pocket
db’s design process was an adventure with a lot of trial and error due to the organic form. Lies explains how she went about it: ‘First I took pieces of leather from my studio and sewed them together in the shape I had in mind. As you can see, my first attempt was like a bellows, ”she laughs. ‘We then made paper versions to perfect the design. Only when that was true was the first prototype in VEGEA. ‘
As befits a Lies Mertens design, all the details are carefully thought out. ‘I attach great importance to carrying comfort and have added a fin to the lights so that the bag stays in place when you carry it over your shoulder.’ The bag is the perfect means of transport for a bottle of wine, as the shape is inspired by this. ‘No more shards because you got a little too lost on the way to party with your bottle of wine in a cotton shoulder bag,’ Lies blinks.
What’s in a name?
For the names of her handbags, the designer inevitably gets mustard from people who inspire her. The name db is therefore an ode to the producers of the wine bottle, which served as a model for the dimensions and shape of the vegan slingback. ‘Daniel and Bianka Schmitt are German winemakers who produce biodynamic natural wine with great passion. I really admire their way of working and would like to focus on the winemaker couple by naming my design after them. ‘
The db will be launched in limited edition on 10 June. However, the vegan adventure is not over yet. ‘Next January there will be a full vegan line,’ the designer reveals. ‘We have found a Belgian production partner who is very transparent in his working method, so we are extremely enthusiastic.’ It sounds like something to call for. Cheers!
– The company name refers to the vegetable origin (Veg) and Mother Earth (Gea).
– VEGEA was founded in Milan.
– The founders have a background in chemistry.
– We drink about 26 billion liters of wine every year, which generates 7 billion kilos of waste. VEGEA converts this waste into vegetable leather.
– Manufacturing process: the residual waste is dried first. An oil is extracted from the cores, which forms a polymer and is comparable to a type of resin. The rest of the seeds, peels and twigs are steamed and then ground to a high-fiber powder. The powder is mixed with the grape seed polymer. This mixture is poured on a substrate such as cotton. When dry, you get vegetable leather. During the mixing process, pigment can be added to obtain a color.
– Plants absorb CO2 during their life cycle and convert it together with water into sugars. They release oxygen in the process (thank nature!). When we burn off plant remains, the CO2 is released back into the air. During the VEGEA production process, however, CO2 remains in the leather. For example, your handbag is a kind of safe made of CO2 *. This principle is called sequestration.
– The VEGEA production process requires less water than animal leather.
The db bag will be available from June 10 in limited edition, online and in store. The price is 380 euros and a bottle of wine from Bianka and Daniel is served with the first 10 copies sold.