HAILEY HARMON - making salmon skin luxury
Like most people's reaction when they hear the words - sustainable salmon skin - I don’t automatically think of luxury, let alone luxury accessories that retail from around £1200 - £2500. After looking further into Aitch Aitch, the company founded by Hailey Harmon that launched in March 2017, I’m completely in no doubt that the products are truly luxurious.
Having the pleasure of speaking with Hailey further cemented the belief that Aitch Aitch is a innovative leader in sustainable luxury. Hailey’s dedication to craftsmanship and uncompromising business approach have paved the way for a business that has great foundations.
In this interview we discuss; her journey to founding Aitch Aitch, who inspires her, how she turned using sustainable salmon skin into a wait listed must have, and why she feels San Francisco is a truly special place.
JMH Can you describe your career journey - that has led you to create your own brand - has it been fairly linear or have you working in various roles/jobs?
HH I would say that it has been fairly linear. I come from an entrepreneurial background, my grandfather founded a hotel Auberge Du Soleil— which my father has developed and now runs The Auberge Resorts collection, so you can say that business is in my blood. I took an art major including print making and sculpture which gave me a great avenue to explore creativity.
Following that I was one of Monique Pean’s (sustainable fine jewellery designer atelier in New York City) first full-time employees, which as with most small businesses I had many roles, from design to branding and marketing. I remember we a show at the Lincon Centre and Monique said get ready ‘we’re going into the lions den’ which shows you how brave you have to be to approach launching a new brand. I saw the brand grow from 3-12 employees within the 3 years that I was there, which gave me a great understanding of business needs and how things can develop. It also inspired me to see how Monique, with her finance background had a firm understanding of both the creative side and business sides of her business.
After Monique Pean I went to business school in San Francisco and completed an MBA from the innovative California College of the Arts program. I then did a 9 month apprenticeship course with Beatrice - a renowned leather craftswoman who trained at Hermes in Paris - she taught me how to make luxury accessories and it was during this time I made the first samples for Aitch Aitch.
JMH What are the most valuable lessons you learned from working with Monique Pean?
HH I’d say the main lessons were:
- That contrary to poplar belief fashion is not all glamour, in fact it’s more than often not glamorous at all
- Who will buy your products, who really wants it, how is it going to live in the world, and how is it going to stand out from the other products on offer
- Don’t compromise, stick to your long term purpose and vision
- Never burn any bridges, care, maintain and develop relationships, for the long term, not because you think they will bring you something in return, but because you genuinely care
JMH Starting your own business is exciting, daunting, empowering….is it anything like you imagined, and what’s the biggest lesson you've learnt so far?
HH Be patient. Not something that comes naturally to me, but to do things well we have to take our time and be patient. It took 2 years before I launched Aitch Aitch including the apprenticeship, sourcing and working on the brand identity. I’m still learning every day.
JMH Your bags are named Ella, Rosa, Amelia, MK, are these all names of important people in your life? How vital in launching your business has been the support from family and friends?
HH My family as I mentioned early have been incredibly important to me, as an inspiration and support for the entrepreneurial drive that I have. And I value the relationships with friends, especially women incredibly important. I haven't used models in the imagery for the brand, but have used friends who are inspiring to me, embody the brand and self empowerment. I feel that we are at a turning point for women and that it’s not about a male or female thing, but an ambition thing. There are women that led the way for us, but now it is up to us to be ambitious.
The bags are named after inspirational women in history:
- Ella Fitzgerald - American jazz singer often referred to as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz
- Rosa Parks - an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, whom the United States Congress called "the first lady of civil rights" and "the mother of the freedom movement
- Amelia Earhart - the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean
- Mary Katherine Goddard - the first to print the Declaration of Independence with the names of the signatories
JMH You use salmon skins that are sustainably sourced in Ireland, tanned and dyed using non-toxic, non-chemical techniques. What would otherwise be discarded as a by-product of the fishing industry in your hands in now a luxury skin. Is the salmon skin treated using any processes that technology makes possible, or is are the treatment techniques very traditional?
HH I first came across the idea of using salmon skins whilst I was on a trip to Iceland during my MBA, and then found a sustainable source in Ireland. The process is very traditional, hands on, non toxic. Using technology you’d be able to process more but the way we do it is still traditional.
JMH How does working with the material compare to leather or exotic skins?
HH The skin is thinner than cow hide, so handles a little differently, its also more durable than exotic skins. It develops a beautiful patina through time, so reacts more like naturally dyed leather rather than exotic skins. It’s something that can really be used frequently.
JMH You work with a leather workshop in London, how did this come about?
HH As most start-ups do I spent alot of time googling, sourcing and found a workshop in London that is ran by ex London College of Fashion tutor. The skills the people have the workshop and the way I need to work (small orders etc) fitted perfectly. I feel the brand benefits from the global nature, and they are certainly the best for the job, the quality level is amazing.
JMH Do you feel a responsibility to to keep the craft of leather alive whilst forging new ways of working?
HH I do feel a responsibility, I care about craft and craftsmanship, I also care about and want to work in innovate ways. I hit the jack pot when I came across salmon skin, as for me it embraces the two elements perfectly. Supporting craftsmanship is one of the pillars of the business, which I feel has been lost in fast fashion. I want to celebrate craft and recognise a new way to elevate it through innovation.
JMH Do you envision any issues with scaling of manufacture in the future?
HH There is always issues with scaling, and I’d never want to compromise on quality so therefore would never outsource and make huge quantities. I would need to scale the business in a different way to grow, rather than scale quantities. I’d rather create a wait listed product, with no excess, no mass manufacturing and something that people keep for years to come.
JMH Are you looking to work with other new unusual materials, or partner with other brands to experiment with new innovations?
HH Theres nothing more exciting and rewarding that co-creation. I love working with new materials and exploring how they can be transformed into something commercial, luxurious and desirable. Stella McCartney has been a real inspiration to me, the way she has fused all the elements creating a successful business without compromising her vegan ethics.
JMH You have worked with another UK based company, Positive Luxury. What does being awarded the Butterfly Mark from Positive Luxury mean to you?
HH Positive luxury have an extremely thorough process looking at the company’s business practices. This thorough approach and also how they create a community of conscious brands and retailers, really appeals to me. They also have an amazing understanding of the luxury sector as a whole as they operate in other markets such as luxury travel.
JMH Have you looked in to any other certifications that support ethical & sustainable manufacturing and businesses?
HH At this time no, because of the relationship I have with Positive Luxury. If I feel I need to be audited or gain any other level of certification in the future I’ll have to look at that at a later date. Those kind of things take a lot of time and cost a lot of money, for now I’m happy with my business approach and working with Positive Luxury.
JMH Creating a brand using animal products maybe seen as not sustainable, what is your view on this?
HH The salmon skins that I use are essentially trash, a by-product of the fishing industry that would otherwise to go waste. I think that saving something from being thrown away is certainly sustainable.
JMH Your website states Aitch Aitch was born out of your ‘desire to live a life inspired by beauty, quality, and adventure’. How does look in reality running a business, are you able to live a life connected to nature, be adventurous?
HH San Francisco is amazingly connected to nature. I have national parks right on my door step. I can take the time to go hiking, and reconnect. It’s important to look after yourself. People like Arianna Huffington talk about this a lot. And it's true, how can you run a sustainable business and then not look after yourself? It’s important to me to be present in the moment.
JMH Something that is considered luxury is often seen as rare, special, only available to few, and perhaps traditionally using exotic/endangered skins or expensive materials. So far how do you feel the luxury market has reacted to Aitch Aitch?
HH Traditionally the two terms - luxury & sustainability - are not synonymous. So yes the reaction has been interesting, I think slowly people are understanding that the can mean the same thing, that you don't have to compromise. Luxury is about being transparent, being honest, and having something that we truly connect with and understand. Millennials demand this, their definition of luxury and the expectations from a brand are different to that of generation before. It’s bigger than a trend, it’s where the industry is heading.
JMH Having never visited San Francisco myself it appears from the outside home to innovate, creative and spiritually connected people, what’s your view on this?
HH Yes I would agree, San Francisco is a special place with a lot of energy. The tech side is hard to keep up with, and it is different from the pace of New York, but there are lots of determined people here who make businesses really work. It’s also very liberal and connected to nature, so the kind of people here are connected. I love being here, at for the moment can’t imagine living else where.
JHM How has your personal style and how has evolved over the years?
HH I’d say my style is minimal with an edge. I like tailored items that make you feel good when you wear them, like a structured dress. Brands I look to are Helmut Lang, Theory, and Dries Van Noten. Over time I have bough fewer pieces, of really good quality because I value longevity and I have more income to enable the purchase. And of course I love my Aitch Aitch accessories!
images courtesy of designer
If you enjoyed this Q&A take a look at our podcast with sustainable luxury fashion retailers Reve En Vert