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Vegan label and bag maker Melina Bucher: “Leather or plastic is out of the question”

By Simone Preuss


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Fashion |Interview

„Angel“ bag by Melina Bucher.  Credits: Melina Bucher

Last year, German luxury bag label Melina Bucher opened its own master bag maker’s workshop, a skilled craft that traditionally specialises in leather processing. What is different, however, is that the young company specialises entirely in vegan and bio-based materials, making it the first and only one of its kind in Germany. The aim is to develop a 100 percent bio-based product. 

If one looks at Melina Bucher's history, the label seems to be well on the way to achieving this goal, having already won the PETA Vegan Fashion Award 2022 for its “Bailey” bag in the category “most innovative piece” and the German Sustainability Award for design in 2023. FashionUnited spoke to founder Melina Bucher about the motivation behind the label and the manufactory, alternative materials and the challenges involved in processing them. 

The award-winning “Bailey” bag.  Credits: Melina Bucher

What made you decide to set up your own vegan label?


After studying business administration at the University of Mannheim, I taught there as part of the fashion management programme with a focus on sustainable fashion and innovative business models. In addition, I was involved in research where it quickly became clear that one cannot believe everything one reads about materials and that one has to do one’s own research. I wanted to create a vegan handbag, having been vegan for years. It simply does not make sense to walk around with a leather handbag  then. 

I developed the first designs at the Mannheim Startup Centre and the first bag came out in 2019. Producing it was quite difficult though. I initially wrote to all the major luxury labels to see if they would be interested in developing a vegan bag, but the answers were relatively sobering; they were all proud of their leather craftsmanship.

And did you manage to be plastic-free right from the beginning?

Not at first, because there was no alternative, but then I made the switch very quickly. I had dealt with the plastic problem as part of my thesis - the more you read, the more shocked you are at what it does - if you can already find microplastics in embryos or in the placenta of women, it's unbelievable. The research results are also becoming increasingly clear; plastic is simply very harmful to health.

Melina Bucher. Credits: Elmar Witt

That is why we are busy developing a 100 percent bio-based product. Though we have already come a long way, we are still struggling a bit with funding; to develop your own adhesive, for example, you need more than a small label. That is why we are trying to incorporate collaborative projects; there are quite a few that have a biological component, if not yet 100 percent, but we're working on it.

When did you decide to start producing the bags yourself?

I had found a wonderful manufacturer in Spain, a family business that was also interested in the subject and in working with new materials. They were given the time to try out new things as the materials, whether artificial leather or newer materials, are all a little different because different technologies are involved. One has to keep rethinking and experimenting with the materials, perhaps also with the designs and with adapting the machines. 

A seam is sewn with a machine.  Credits: Melina Bucher

I actually wanted to start producing in Germany right from the beginning in order to be as close to the product as possible, but it was the same problem everywhere: Once I had found two or three bag makers who would have taken part in the experiment, they then ran into opposition from the tanneries and suppliers. I think it is also sometimes a bit of a political issue as to whether you can, want to and are allowed to work with the materials or not. 

As I said, we then produced in Spain and were also very satisfied with the quality, but for me that was not the end of the story. I then worked very early on with Natural Fibre Welding, the company that produces Mirum, a plastic-free material. Over the course of two years, we tested the material again and again and created new prototypes until we were able to bring a bag made of it onto the market for the first time worldwide [the “Bailey” bag, ed.]. 

“Angel”, “Indy” and “Trudy” bags by Melina Bucher (left to right).  Credits: Melina Bucher

That was in 2022?

Yes, exactly. And this achievement of constantly testing new samples and seeing what works, what might work differently, what might not work at all - at some point an external supplier can no longer do that. Our producer in Spain actually worked with us for a long time, but at some point last year I said 'We actually have to do this in-house'. On the one hand, so that we can learn more about the material, and on the other, because we have simply started more and more research projects like this, including on adhesives, colours and the like. We are currently experimenting with seven or eight exterior materials from different innovators to see if we can find the most sustainable materials that are also visually and design-wise appealing. 

And this is how the master workshop came about?

Exactly. And here we are not just looking at the outer materials, but also at everything that is in the bag, for instance foams and the like, which I do not think anyone is looking at yet. There are also initial alternatives, but they also have to be compatible with the new materials. It is quite a lot of work; I think two of our employees are almost exclusively involved in testing the materials. 

Choosing the right material. Credits: Melina Bucher

How many employees do you presently have?

There are currently five of us: two bag makers, one designer, one person for marketing and PR and myself. 

Was it difficult to find employees?

Not at all. Last year, I said 'come on, let’s advertise a vacancy for a fine bag maker', as I knew that there were still five training companies in Germany. And then we quickly received the first application from a woman who was one of only two who had just qualified as a master craftsperson and was also looking for a job. Many master craftspeople move to other European countries (especially Italy, Spain or Portugal) because there are no alternatives. Our applicant wanted to work with sustainable materials and was very happy that this position was advertised. 

We also recently hired a bag maker who had previously worked at Loewe in Paris. She was also looking for a job that worked with sustainable materials and focussed on sustainability - not just on paper, but in reality. (laughs) So we actually received many applications. So when it comes to the shortage of skilled labour, we have a completely different perspective. 

The tools of the trade.. Credits: Melina Bucher

What does this perspective look like?

We let our employees try things out and they have fun doing it. Our bag makers, for example, try out how they can work with the materials, how they can do with them what they have always known, but also what can be done differently in terms of pattern development, prototype and with the machines they work with. In other words, how we can adapt with the materials.

I think that is a bit of the secret of our success. Also in the design process - our designers first look at the materials and then come up with designs that suit them and not the other way round. And I think that is what makes the products so successful, because you can't do everything the same way as with leather. But you can do other things that don't work with animal leather, for example. That is also the beauty of it, you have to get involved with the materials and also need to have a desire to do so. 

Pattern makeing. Credits: Melina Bucher

When you approached luxury labels back in 2019, they were not very enthusiastic about the idea of a vegan bag. Do you think that has changed now, five years later? Are you garnering more interest now?

That depends on the target group. There are definitely more and more people who are specifically looking for a vegan and above all, a plastic-free product, and they also find us via the internet. This is particularly the case in North America, in the UK, where being vegan is actually a bit more modern and cooler than in Germany.

So the target group is definitely growing. I would say here in the DACH region, it is mainly the craftsmanship that is convincing people and that we manufacture locally in Germany. We have already been represented as a pop-up in various luxury fashion stores. People buy the bags there because they like the design and the question of where the bag is made is almost never asked in the luxury sector. 

“Indy”, “Trudy” and „Angel“ bags by Melina Bucher (top to bottom).  Credits: Melina Bucher

That 's actually the goal - that one can go into a fashion store and choose by design and still buy a sustainable product because they are all sustainably produced. That is why I am happy about every customer, especially those who have no idea about sustainability and just think the bags are beautiful and have bought a sustainable product anyway. In the sustainability bubble, you always think that everyone is buying sustainably or looking for sustainable products, but unfortunately, we are still a long way from getting there. 

Is the leather-like nature of vegan materials still sought after?

With our new design, we are moving more and more in a futuristic direction and are getting to know our own signature. This is also an exciting development with the bio-based materials that are now coming onto the market. All this time, the focus has been on developing an alternative that is as close to leather as possible - both visually and haptically. But now there are always material innovations that look different. 

This also makes it easier for innovators to convince brands, because designers evaluate it for themselves and say ‘it looks cool, I can use it for these products’ and do not automatically compare it to animal leather. Every little inaccuracy is noticeable, or the fact that something is different may stand out negatively, whereas with a material that looks like marble, you might not compare it to leather at all. 

This sometimes makes it easier and I believe that many exciting, new visually and haptically appealing products will come onto the market in the next few years that no longer have much resemblance to animal leather. In my opinion, offering new choices is the right way to inspire people to innovate again and show them new things. I think there has to be both - there certainly have to be products that appeal to the animal leather lovers, but I think there can also be completely new, crazy, beautiful, creative approaches that perhaps open up completely new target groups. 

Hand-sewn details.  Credits: Melina Bucher

What is the cooperation with the university like?


We actually have several. We work closely with Reutlingen University because we are part of the Textile Accelerator Programme as founders and also as mentors. We also initiate joint research projects wherever there is a need. We then test the materials in terms of being useful for accessories, but the universities also test the materials in the laboratory because there are various standardised tests for material performance. Then we might develop components together, which is very different. The universities are actually very open and have lots of ideas on how to improve materials. However, they lack the application part and we lack the tests in the laboratory, so the exchange is very fruitful.

We then use the knowledge for our own collection, but also for projects, be it with the innovators themselves, such as the path from the laboratory to scaling: what you need to pay attention to, what material properties a material needs for the fashion industry, for shoes, but also for the automotive sector. What they need to improve and how they might approach labels - we consult in that area too.

What does the future hold? Can we expect a new collection or new styles?

We are of course developing new bag styles. Our selection is still relatively small and will remain small and selective because we take a lot of time to develop a new design. But we also want to expand our portfolio, for example with a briefcase for men, belts and the like. Everything you know as a leather product will also become available in a vegan, sustainable alternative and our main project is actually to develop this first completely bio-based bag. That will probably take another year or two. Progress is slower than we would like because we do not have an infinite budget.

Also read:

Melina Bucher
Sustainable Fashion
Textile Innovations