To kick off the first Mashu Meets of 2024, we share an interview with Mashu founder & creative director, Ioanna Topouzoglou. The brains behind the brand and the vision behind the bags, we deep dive into why Ioanna started Mashu, her hardest business lessons, Mashu's values and what's in store for 2024.
Why did you want to start Mashu?
It all started when I adopted a plant-based diet in 2016. At the time, I was working at an accessories brand that predominantly used leather, and I felt that working with, or wearing leather no longer aligned with my personal values. I started to look for vegan bag brands. At that time there was not much in the market – especially anything contemporary or fashion-forward that really excited me. I decided that I wanted to have a go at filling the gap in the market, and so Mashu was born!
What were you doing before Mashu, and how did these experiences help you in founding Mashu?
I was working as a freelance designer for two businesses, an accessories brand and a jewellery brand. Both companies were small so I had multiple roles, not just designing. This gave me incredible exposure to understanding how a small business was run, and it gave me the confidence to start something on my own.
Have the founding morals/values of Mashu changed since you started the brand in 2017?
I’m proud to say that the core values have stayed the same – 100% vegan and cruelty free - sustainable and ethically made – cool and playful. That being said, how we implement these values in our business have definitely evolved. We use different materials, produce in new ways, have new partners and generally are constantly looking at ways to reduce our environmental footprint. If you want to be more sustainable, an openness to change and evolution is a non negotiable.
THE BUSINESS LESSONS:
Mashu was founded in 2017 when the vegan / sustainability movement in fashion was pretty non-existent. What barriers did you come up against in launching the brand back then?
There were a few! I would say the first barrier I faced in terms of production was convincing my leather artisans who had worked with leather for generations to use a non-leather material that they had never heard of or worked with before. Once I convinced them to work on samples with me, the second big learning curve came hard and fast. I quickly realised that not all our materials were the same level of malleable and durable. I learnt that some materials couldn’t be used on certain designs, and that our structured bags needed backers to stay structured as some of our vegan materials were just not as thick as traditional leather. This learning was key, as it helped me to ensure that even our first bags upheld a high quality, and this was crucial as customers at the time were still very dubious to the idea of investing in vegan leather fashion.
Another barrier was convincing buyers to stock us in their stores. At the time our brand and offering sounded so niche to them, and buyers believed that only a select few people who strictly followed plant-based lifestyles would buy our bags. As a designer, I saw Mashu as so much more than just a bag with environmental values, and at times it was frustrating to be misunderstood and put in a box. It was very much the same barrier with press and influencers too. In 2017, there were no journalists writing about vegan or sustainable fashion, and generally, influential people in the fashion industry had very little understanding or interest in what we were trying to do beyond just creating beautiful bags.
Of course, things have changed so much since 2017, and the very thing that buyers and press were dismissive about is now one of our most celebrated qualities. We have customers from around the world, and now feature in sustainable & vegan fashion stories across some of the world’s biggest publications.
We now exist in an era where sustainability is a prerequisite, and Mashu is proud to still exist, with the same mission to make cool bags that have as little environmental impact as possible.
Can you also talk about some of the business lesson you have learnt since starting Mashu?
Something I have learned through our experimentations with materials is that just because a cool new material exists, it doesn’t mean we can work with it. We carry out substantial due diligence to ensure we are working with ethical suppliers, and with materials that are actually causing less harm than what already exists on the market. We’ve come across incredible innovations, but suppliers haven’t been able to prove to us all of their sustainable credentials, or the material has been located so far from our factory that shipping would result in a highly excessive carbon footprint. Over the years we have become increasingly selective with the suppliers we work with to ensure that we are confident that positive value is added to our designs and environmental mission.
What are Mashu's core brand values?
Mashu’s core brand values in my eyes are:
- Everything we create is 100% Vegan & Cruelty free. Using innovative leather alternative materials, we are proving one bag at a time that you can choose a sustainable option without compromising on quality.
- We are trendless and timeless. Our bags are made to uplift your wardrobe, and be adored for a lifetime (we offer free repairs for life to ensure this!)
- We support local, ethical production. We work with individual artisans and small family businesses that we get to personally know, learn from and appreciate their craft in real life! We know exactly who makes our bags, how they make them, and the conditions in which it all happens.
- Driving sustainable change in the fashion industry - from our materials, to our supply chain, how we run our office, all the way through to our packaging packaging, we try to lead from the front in creating a more innovative, lower impact industry.
Tell us about the design style you adopt with Mashu, and what inspires you as a designer.
I design contemporary pieces that feel unique and stand out from the ordinary. I am inspired by curves, movement and interesting structures. A lot of my core inspiration for the main silhouette of our designs comes from cyclidic architecture and mid-century interiors, while the detailing on our bags is often inspired by forms found in nature. For example, a lot of our hardware like our molten T-bar and zipper handles represent misshapen twigs and sticks.
Traditionally, a lot of the places that I seek inspiration from have quite a muted colour palette, which is great for staple bags, however I always feel compelled to add optimistic bursts of colour to our collections too. Some days, I reach for a simple black clutch, but other days, I want a bright yellow or punchy red. I love that a Mashu bag can do both.
Finally, what is the future of Mashu, and what do you want to achieve in 2024?
I have a couple of goals for this year, some harder to achieve and a few simpler ones (and throw into the mix that I now have a baby, the juggle is real) As always my ultimate goal is to make Mashu more sustainable than the year before, and this is something I always look at the beginning of the new year to see how we can achieve that. I want to also make Mashu more accessible to everyone by introducing designs with lower price points. Finally I have a lot of design plans that I want to bring to life - my head is always swirling with new design ideas and projects, something I really want to achieve for 2024 is to work with some new artisans in creating an exciting new product category. Stay tuned!