Sambar are an ethical vegan fashion brand from serial creative, Andrea Nunez. Each of their bags is carefully handcrafted in Spain by local artisans, using textiles made from sustainable sources such as organic cotton and up-cycled polyester. ‘Sambar’ is an endangered deer, whose antlers comprise their signature gold closure clasp. Each handbag also bears the name of a different endangered species – delivering beautifully made, covetable pieces that are inspired by nature, without hurting it in the process.
Form And Function
Could you tell us a little more about your background and how you first came to be interested in fashion?
Ever since I was a kid I always loved fashion and knew I wanted to be a fashion designer – although I thought I would be a bridal fashion designer. I started studying fashion design and pattern making while I was still in high school and when I graduated, I went to study Fashion Design in Marangoni Paris for a while.
After this, I went back to Mexico to get my bachelor’s degree in Fashion Design and started specialising in bridal and haute couture. I started my career in the bridal fashion industry, but that took a turn when I became a vegan and decided to study shoe and handbag design, so that I could make my own vegan accessories one day.
Tell us about your boutique ethos of small batches and slow fashion – has it been easy to find partners that support this approach and vision?
I was always clear on having small batch productions. Our pieces are very delicate, they are all handmade and require a lot of time. That is part of what makes them special and there are very few pieces in the world, so you know you have something pretty unique.
However, finding partners to make this possible has been the most complicated part. In the Fashion Industry the order quantities are large, mostly because it is cheaper and logistically easier for companies to buy bulk, and manufacturers have a high minimum order threshold to keep raw costs down. It’s hard making a small line, and much more expensive. Thankfully, after searching high and low, we found smaller ateliers that believed in the brand and work with us in custom batch productions.
In terms of sustainability, creating small productions is very important for us. Each year, 92 million tonnes of garments end up in landfill. You can make a product with sustainable materials, but the moment you have overproduction, some of those are bound to end up in a landfill, and it stops being sustainable and becomes part of the problem. The fashion industry is one of the most polluting, and the only way to reduce its impact is to reduce the production at the source.
In the future, the goal is to have on-demand production, but it requires an infrastructure and investment that we, as a small brand, don’t yet have.
Turning the fashion industry on its head, each of your pieces represents an endangered species, while supporting their plight and ecosystem – what instigated the inspiration behind this, and what brought you into contact with the Sambar deer in particular?
I wanted Sambar to be a declaration of the importance of welfare conservation. There are so many endangered species and not enough progress is being made. We hear so many horrible things about our environment and habitat loss these days that we sometimes tune it out. We don’t want to hear negative news all the time. But fashion, like art, has the ability to convey a message and reach people in a different way. I believe in spreading the message in a positive and engaging tone – and fashion can do that.
The idea to use our designs to spread awareness was actually born while deciding how to name the brand. I knew I wanted a name that had meaning, and the Sambar deer represents everything I wanted our brand to stand for. The Sambar is a majestic creature, one of the largest deer in the world. Sadly, it has been listed as a vulnerable species due to severe hunting and habitat exploitation. Their populations have declined by more than 50%. It’s sad how these majestic animals have become endangered, and like them there are hundreds of other species facing the same issues.
The Sambar Deer symbolises our fight against the inhumane treatment of animals and their environment, but there are so many other species that are also endangered and not many people know. That’s why each one of our handbags also bears the name of a different endangered species, to foster a greater conscientiousness of the importance of animal protection and welfare.
How do you define luxury?
I think the definition of luxury has been changing. Luxury used to be an expensive pair of shoes, but where the world is headed, luxury will be having access to water and natural resources.
For us, luxury is less about status and price, and more about responsibility. I think we are going back to attaching the term luxury to quality and values. The world went through a fairly stable economic period and luxury became less special – we took it for granted.
Now when we look for luxury we want to know the values behind it, it’s not just about status, or comfort, we want to know its qualities – and that it does not exploit nature or human dignity. If we invest in something, we want to know it’s not causing any harm or long-term damage to the fragile world we inhabit.
What are some of your favourite products from the range right now, and what’s yet to come?
I shouldn’t really have a favourite, and I love all of them, but honestly, I’ve been carrying the Impala handbag everywhere lately. I love how it goes with everything, and it’s small and elegant but can also fit everything I need.
I’m very excited for new models that are coming out soon, as well as new materials. We are also expanding into new categories but taking our time so that we can do it as responsibly as possible.
What are your top tips or myth busters when it comes to the vegan industry as a whole?
Thankfully this has changed a lot in the past decade, but I when I first became a vegan I used to hate all the stereotypes and misconceptions around veganism. Where I come from, meat and leather are still a very big part of the culture, so there is still a lot of rejection towards veganism – but it’s starting to change.
There is still a lot of misinformation though – such as that we have to eat meat, or that leather is a more sustainable option because it’s a by-product of the meat industry. Some of these rumours are spread by the meat industry themselves, but with the rise of veganism there is a greater awareness and people can make more informed decisions about adopting this lifestyle.
With more people becoming vegan, and more information available, society is now understanding that it’s more than just a trend, it’s a lifestyle. It’s about making choices that protect animals and the environment. There is more to veganism than eating greens, it’s about abstaining from hurting animals, and reducing our impact on the environment.
Boutique Brand Building
How was the business fundraising process for you?
Sambar is still self-funded. In the beginning I started looking for investors, but I felt like there was more to funding than money. The more people became involved, the more the ideals behind Sambar were lost, especially if people were investing for profit but didn’t share the values behind the brand.
Investors typically look for profitability and optimisation first and foremost, and Sambar is about sustainability and values above everything else. That was easily lost when they wanted to increase production to reduce costs, or switch to cheaper materials. These were compromises we weren’t prepared to make.
What unforeseen challenges and opportunities have arisen?
Finding the right materials is actually an ongoing challenge.
Thankfully, the vegan materials industry is rapidly growing due to increased demand for sustainable materials. This means that every day there are more and more alternatives to leather and PVC-based materials.
I want to make Sambar as sustainable as possible. I’m aware that we are still not 100% there. And we are constantly looking for new materials to incorporate into our products. However, it’s not an easy process: new materials need a lot of testing, and sometimes materials come out that are marketed as plant-based, but when you really investigate them you see that they are 95% plastic, and 5% plant!
Every time a new material comes out, we test it in order to find the right balance between durability (which is so important for the life-long impact of the product), quality and sustainability.
How does running your own brand compare to your background in the fashion industry working for other international clients?
It’s hard making your way as a small brand with a tiny marketing budget, in an industry that is operated by huge conglomerates with unlimited resources for marketing and publicity! But for me it’s worth it because I can really stay true to myself and my values.
While working for other companies, I always had to put profit first, no matter the other costs, and sadly that is how most of the fashion industry operates. But now I can really focus on sustainability and building something I truly believe in.
When you first launched, what brought the most traction and momentum for you? And what hasn’t worked so well?
I’m so thankful for the press in Spain – which gave us such a warm welcome. It had a lot of momentum and started appearing in many major fashion magazines even before we officially launched. Also, celebrities in the US started carrying our handbags on red carpets and that gave us momentum too, I’m very grateful for that.
The hardest part has been getting major players in the retail industry to believe in Sambar and help us grow.
What motivates you?
Protecting animals and eliminating animal cruelty altogether.
Spreading the message, getting people to see that there are other viable options, to question leather, and question polluting materials, and to know that there is another way – a better way.
To me the ultimate goal is to make animal leather obsolete. We shouldn’t even be torturing animals for the sake of fashion, it’s 2022 and we have so many alternatives available.
What has been your biggest lesson, fear, or failure?
Teaming up with people who really share your values is very important. You can team up with the best business genius, or marketing guru, or investor, but if they don’t share the same vision as you do for your brand, it will damage it more than help it.
Do you have a mentor or people you ask for advice?
I’ve been so fortunate to have met teachers and advisors that have become my mentors on this journey. Sometimes the entrepreneurs path can be a little bit lonely, and if you are trying to do everything on your own, you are not going to get everything done perfectly. It’s important to have people who are experienced in areas you feel less comfortable in.
If you did not have your own company, what would you be doing?
I think I would be still in the bridal fashion industry, but creating on-demand, unique pieces. Maybe a small atelier where we created bespoke gowns.
Where is your happy place?
Madrid is my favourite city, and Mexico is my happy place for vacation and rest.
How has what you do changed you as a person?
It’s made me more resilient, and also more understanding of other peoples journeys and challenges.
Do you have an opinion on plant medicines such as psilocybin or cannabis, as tools for living in alignment?
I’m not familiar with these tools specifically, but I think everyone has their own path and I have enormous respect for people trying to live in alignment, whichever tools they use to get there.
What does spirituality mean to you?
It’s a journey back to yourself. It’s discovering your connection to something bigger than you, and making the choice to live in alignment with it, and with your true self.
If time and money were no object – what would be on your to do and to see list?
Everywhere! I want to travel the whole world.