Consider the cactus. The iconic desert plant survives in a hostile environment by adapting. With deep roots and a waxy stem, the cactus hangs on to every ounce of water that comes its way.
So it seems appropriate that Poppy Barley’s latest innovation — a line of vegan accessories created in the midst of a soul-sucking pandemic — is crafted from the hardy cactus.
Launched in January, PB PLNT is already proving popular, according to Kendall Barber, co-owner of the Edmonton-based brand of sustainable luxury footwear and accessories.
In February, 2020, just weeks before the COVID shutdown, a team from Poppy Barley visited Mexico after receiving a tip about a new product called laguaro, a leather-like material made from cactus spines.
“Our timing was absolutely impeccable,” said Barber.
Poppy Barley spent 10 months working on products that flatter the material, which feels so much like leather that creators have stamped a plant medallion on the products so they are easily identified as vegan.
“Shoes have more components, and there are issues of comfort and breathability,” said Barber. “We still haven’t found the right material to do it in shoes, but we are hoping for one by the fall of 2021 or spring of 2022.”
Ethical fashion prioritized
Poppy Barley began its life in 2012 as a custom-made fashion footwear company focused on more than profit.
“When making our decisions, we think about the environment, people and the community, and the impact that our decisions have on our workers, customers and suppliers,” said Barber, whose company is a Certified B Corporation (an audited designation reflecting a balance of profit and purpose).
A vegan product line had been a priority for years, but Barber and her sister and co-founder, Justine Barber, weren’t happy with the non-animal materials available, which often rely on synthetics and plastics that aren’t good for the environment. But laguaro is a perfect fit, as is another vegan product coming this summer and crafted in Portugal from apple skins. Barber says the apple products have a different texture than the cactus leather, and come in more colours.
“For us, the plant products provide new customers who live the vegan lifestyle in everything they do, and it’s an alternative for our existing customers,” said Kendall Barber. “We still work in leather. It’s about providing options and letting people make choices.”
Pandemic hit Mexican factory
“In Mexico, there isn’t a person who works in our factory who hasn’t lost someone to COVID,” Barber said. “It’s devastating and it’s not getting any better and they don’t have the government support we do.”
Poppy Barley tried to help Mexican partners by paying for products even when they weren’t being produced. Here at home, the company has benefited from government pandemic programs for rent and wage subsidies, as well as an interest-free, $60,000 government loan.
The company had roughly 50 employees before the shutdown, and now has about 32. Most layoffs happened at the retail stores, which are still affected by restrictions, including reduced hours at the mall locations. Uncertainty around new variants and the vaccine rollout hasn’t helped. While the business enjoyed “some really nice recovery” in the fall, it was hit hard again in December and January.
“There has to be a level of comfort with going shopping, or going to the mall, or even spending when your job feels precarious,” said Barber. “Emotionally, it still feels like we’re back in the early days.”
Still, as the first company in North America to offer custom fashion boots online, the brand has marched into unknown territory before. In fact, the virus has spawned a new product called a house shoe. More refined than a slipper, the first shipment of house shoes sold out in 48 hours, with more expected in March. Coming soon is a cabin shoe, as well as a new line of sleek, warm winter footwear.
The new products are expected to help the bottom line for Poppy Barley, whose sales continue to lurch.
“It has varied drastically, month to month,” said Barber.
Still, though Barber feels weird saying it, a decline in shopping is not necessarily a bad thing.
“For fashion, it’s a good thing,” she said. “Our ultimate goal at Poppy Barley is to rethink the fashion industry. A big part of that is that we need to buy less, and buy things we love and hold on to those things. Right now there is too much stuff being created and being disposed of.”