The term “vegan leather” gets thrown around a lot these days as fast fashion brands try to jump on the eco-bandwagon by hocking their cheap plastic wears as sustainably- and ethically-minded. But Rae Nicoletti’s brand HOZEN is different. And the best part is, it doesn’t look even remotely crunchy.
What makes your brand different from other “sustainable” accessory brands?
Sustainability is a broad term and open to interpretation. What this concept means to me is use of recycled/innovative tech materials, minimizing production waste, and fostering fair working conditions. As such we use a lot of recycled PET (plastic bottles) for thread, zippers, and bag linings. The bags of my first collection are made with a biopolyoil (grain-based) “leather” and the second are made with Piñatex, which is made from pineapple husks. We use a vegan adhesive and all of our packaging is made from post-consumer recycled paper. Our latest initiative is offsetting our carbon footprint. We have gone ahead and made our website carbon neutral and have pre-paid carbon credits for all shipping.
Where are your bags actually made?
All our bags are made in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. We have partnered with a husband and wife duo who opened their own factory around the same time that we launched. Their contribution to HOZEN is immeasurable. They are more than just the production team. You can really see their passion and attention to detail in every piece.
What is your professional background?
I studied finance and economics in college in Fairfield, CT. Because of our proximity to NYC, I was fortunate to have a number of banking internships in the City. Over winter break of my senior year, I decided to send my resume to some fashion houses. I quickly heard back from Kate Spade and got an internship in domestic sales. By graduation, in June of 2004, I was offered the receptionist position and I accepted. I worked on their creative team in various roles for six years. Having grown up in CT and spending a significant amount of time in NYC I was ready to experience the west coast, so I moved to San Francisco in June of 2010 and worked as an in-house prop stylist at Restoration Hardware for five years before branching off on my own to focus on interior decorating.
What made you decide to launch your own accessory brand?
I have a passion for personal fashion. I may not always be dressed to impress, but I am very aware of how I am presenting myself to the world. For this reason I like to consider all the elements in my wardrobe. I am crazy for accessories and it seemed to me that the industry was lacking an eco-friendly, cruelty-free option in handbags that was at a level of quality that I would be proud to wear. I also prefer to support small, obscure brands, so thought I would give it a shot.
How did you learn the craft of handbag design and construction?
While in San Francisco I was lucky to work for such an influential interiors brand, but still felt a lack of creative expression, so on the weekends I would take workshops such as weaving and ceramics. I have a friend who lives in Napa and when I would visit her we would go to Hide House, which is a leather warehouse, and buy scraps. We had no idea how to sew, but played around with making bags and pouches. I really wanted to learn a proper technique. As it turned out, there is a French woman who made bags for Hermès and opened up a school in my neighborhood. I spent a year of Saturdays studying hand leather work and handbag construction at Amblard Leather Atelier.
Ten percent of the proceeds from the sale of your bags goes to Mercy for Animals. How did you choose that charity and why?
It made sense to me to contribute to a farm animal charity as the very animals we are sparing are cows. Still, there are tons of incredible organizations to consider. Early on, as I was building the instagram page for HOZEN, Milo Runkle of Mercy For Animals commented on a photo and that sealed the deal.
You’re a vegan. What came first, your veganism or your environmentalism?
I’ve been concerned with the environment to some degree since childhood. I remember picking up litter in the parks and being a stickler about recycling. But until more recently, when educating myself on the food and fashion industries, I got a truer sense of the toll our lifestyles take on the planet. I went vegan in March of 2015 as a stand against animal cruelty but prior to that was vegetarian for health reasons. There are many reasons to be vegan, including conserving natural resources.
What else do you do to reduce your carbon footprint in your personal life?
I’ve been cooking at home a lot more these days, I buy from the local farmers market as often as possible, I drive an electric car, and I’m working on creating a backyard sanctuary for the birds and the bees to thrive.
Are you a thrifter? Any tips?
I go through phases of shopping. At times, I can’t get enough of vintage, but other times I am super inspired by the many makers around me who have the same sustainability goals and create totally rad pieces. I think the overarching trend for me over the past few years is that less is more, so I only indulge in the clothes and accessories that I’m truly obsessed with.
What is something you feel most consumers get wrong about sustainability?
One area of concern is the idea that natural materials are best. Non-organic cotton, for example, uses tons of water and is sprayed with pesticides that go into our land, air, and water. A good substitute here would be hemp which enriches the soil, does not need much water, and grows quickly. There is a lot for all of us consumers to learn but fortunately more eco raw materials are being introduced all the time. And, of course, there’s always thrifting!