Sydney Brown strides into her office in coveralls, not power heels. Brown, CEO of her self-titled designer shoe brand, spends her 5-to-6 work day carving chunks of trees into soles alongside 10 employees in her small LA factory. Her designs are sustainable, simple, and elegant. She does not use sweatshops. She does not use animal byproducts. But she doesn’t want to be known as a vegan designer. She doesn’t like that word. She wants to be known as a designer—who happens to design ethically.

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Image courtesy of Sydney Brown

You started designing for yourself. How did that kick off your label?

I had been a vegetarian for about 20 years, and I realized that I was always conflicted about buying leather but not eating meat. I decided to stop buying leather. Within a week I had a big event and realized I needed shoes. I started to research the options.

There was nothing really available. I was wearing these hideous canvas sneakers or old shoes. I wasn’t buying anything new. It was extremely challenging. I love shoes. I’ve always loved shoes. I realized there was a huge opportunity.

How did your business stem from this opportunity?

The demand was so strong I decided to create a brand. I moved to Europe for two years and worked in factories in the UK, Italy and Portugal. I came back in 2013 and opened my own factory in LA. I’ve generally never been militant or outspoken about this stuff, but I thought I could quietly change the way I was doing things.

You lived in Japan for 10 years. It is one of your main markets—how did the culture influence your design aesthetic?

I was fascinated with Japanese design. That was initially the reason I had gone to a master’s program there—I was studying sound design in Japan. In terms of Japanese aesthetic and traditional Japanese design, there is huge emphasis on the material rather than embellishment. There are a lot of really clean lines and surfaces.

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Image courtesy of Sydney Brown

And your ethics?

In Japan I had a business partner who was Shinto. In the Shinto religion people believe there is a soul in in everything—whether it is a rock or something we created. Regarding my shoes, we are doing them by hand. I have 10 workers here and I’m also a part of production, and I think a little aspect of our souls go into each pair.

Does not using leather and animal byproducts make finding luxe materials hard?

I search high and low for the materials. We are using a lot of cork now that’s been shaven and bonded to organic cotton. For Spring/Summer 15 we’re using a lot of bonded straw. I have someone who’s almost full time just doing materials research. It’s extremely challenging, but it’s fascinating.

You create holistically, so why don’t you like being called “vegan”?

People try to put us in the eco-sector, and I’m adamantly against that. I would like to be in luxury stores. The added bonus is [my shoes are] sustainably made and animal friendly. I want this to be design-driven. If it’s not beautiful, no one is going to buy it. So that’s the main point. And if every aspect of it is done beautifully, and without harming things, then that makes it even more exceptional.

You’re moving forward in material, in future collections what are you excited for design-wise?

Soon we’re starting sneakers — both women’s and men’s. Then for Spring/Summer 2016 we’re launching the men’s collection. We’re getting so many requests from men. I have this amazing guy who’s going to be doing that. I haven’t designed men’s in the past. He had done Adidas work––he’s pretty incredible. We’ll be working on that together.

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Image courtesy of Sydney Brown

When you started in 2011, you said there weren’t many designers creating ethically. Do you think this is a flaw in fashion?

I think it’s terrible. There’s such an emphasis on fast fashion and the financial piece of that. The general environmental destruction by the fashion industry it is totally astounding. This is one of our big challenges. When I started this whole thing I tried to get the top people in every aspect of the industry. Like Kate Fletcher of the Center for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion. She works on policy change with the British Parliament. She is signing off on every decision we make as far as the materials we use.

I’m trying to create my ideal. Everything we do is so consciously constructed. In every aspect of the shoe we are trying to trace the supply chain. Where is the cotton growing? Who is growing it?

I have a teeny tiny budget, so if you imagine these huge brands and their budgets, their capabilities would be so extraordinary.

Where else in your life, besides your designs, are you conscious about making an effort?

I’ve always been pretty active. I grew up near horrible slaughterhouses. We could hear the animals screaming as we passed by. My family decided not to eat meat. I’ve always had a strong sensitivity towards animals. Now it has manifested in [my designs]. There’s enough suffering in the world. I don’t want to be contributing to that in any way. Especially fashion. If we were living 2,000 years ago that would be a different story, but now we can do things so incredibly without causing suffering.

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Image courtesy of Sydney Brown

Browse Sydney Brown’s collections here: http://www.sydney-brown.com/en/

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