Elizabeth Olsen, creator of the cutting-edge cruelty-free shoe company Olsenhaus, is not afraid to step into unfamiliar territory. Blazing trails with her sustainably produced vegan shoes, the Fashion Institute of Technology alum has pioneered the use of such foreign-to-footwear fabrics as Ultrasuede, an animal-free material commonly featured in car interiors and furniture. Vegan for the past four years and vegetarian since high school, Olsen finds motivation for her innovative designs in her strong commitment to compassion.
Q What compelled you to launch your own footwear line?
A I started Olsenhaus (in August 2008) with the intent of spreading my mission to free animals from cruelty. I also strive to educate the fashion industry and the public about the impact of producing leather—on the animals, on the environment, and ultimately, on people's consciousness.
Q What materials are you currently featuring in your designs?
A I use sustainable natural materials such as linen and cork. Also, I recently discovered a material from Italy that is 85 percent cotton and 15 percent resin. It was featured in our fall 2011 collection. It has a supple, leather-like feel, and most people cannot tell the difference.
Q How do you spread the word about your commitment to cruelty-free fashion?
A Olsenhaus's lookbook (a marketing tool showcasing the designer's new collection) contains our mission statement; thousands of these are sent out to retail outlets and media. I also collaborate with other designers. In December, we're debuting a wedge sandal for designer Malia Mills. And I've worked with schools such as the Pratt Institute and FIT on developing eco-friendly vegan design programs and contests.
Q How has the line been received worldwide?
A I get e-mails and product orders from around the world: Japan, Italy, France, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, Australia, and the U.K. In terms of vegan and eco awareness, the U.K., Japan, and some European countries seem to be about five years ahead of the U.S. In Europe, they also have higher standards against pollution and for recycling and organics.
Q What do you see in the future for vegan footwear?
A Really, it's the consumer asking for the product that is driving buyers and store owners to order our shoes. And it is because customers are asking for them that we are starting to see more designers launching their own vegan lines. I anticipate droves more as we move into 2012. Even if they are only doing it for the sake of trendiness, it gets the awareness into the mainstream.