SO-LE Studio creates unconventional and striking jewellery using leather remnants from the luxury fashion industry. Fresh from winning the Top Next Generation Entrepreneur Award at our European Families in Business Awards, founders Sole Ferragamo, an artist, designer, and the granddaughter of Salvatore Ferragamo, and Leila Hoda, a banker turned humanitarian turned entrepreneur, spoke to Alexandra Newloveabout offcut inspiration, chance meetings, and the double-edged sword of a famous name.
SO-LE Studio was officially launched in November, but its roots go back further. Can you tell me about how the concept came to be?
S:It seeded in a project that started in 2015, just after my graduation in architecture from Politecnico of Milan. Since I was a young kid I have always been passionate about creating things. While I was studying I was really missing designing something I could hold in my hands.
I found out about the abundance of left over material the exists in the fashion and luxury business, especially leather, and felt the need to do something with this material. Because I've always made jewellery the first thing I made this leather necklace.
I interned at a few factories to learn how to work this material, and as the project was developing I applied to a master's degree at Central Saint Martins college here in London - a masters by project. During these fascinating two years, I developed a wearable collection of jewelelry and accessories.
After graduation I opened a London pop-up for three months to test this work in the real world. I was in the store as a shop assistant to really experience all the reactions.
Leila was the first person who walked into the store. The pop-up was very successful, and I wanted to push forward. But I needed a partner in crime for the commercial side. I asked Leila to join forces and we started working together. We relaunched the brand in November 2017 as SO-LE Studio, which is my name, but also the combination of our two names, Sole and Leila.
On a practical level, how do you get access to the discarded leather?
S:I go to Italy to visit brands, stockists, and other places where I find leftovers. I hand pick them and it is from the material I get a lot of inspiration.
L:This process forces us to start with material, whereas other brands do the design and then choose material. There are two advantages of this. Firstly, everything is almost limited edition. Secondly, going through this process has forced us to think about what this business is about. Having sustainability as a pillar of it is really important.
You’ve mentioned that the materials give you inspiration. Where else?
S:One is optical and kinetic art. Our pieces create the illusion of movement and of changing colour. Another is architecture as it is part of my background and I’m fascinated with structural elements. I also get a lot of inspiration from construction, and often visit construction stores—my favourite type of store.
I also look back at the Elizabethan age, as there were interesting costumes at the time that made women feel protected and regal. But they were rigid and tight, and restricted the women… so though I’ve kept those elements of protection and projecting your inner strength, the pieces are really light, soft and pleasant to have on.
Sole, given your surname is synonymous with luxury fashion, is it intimidating when you are trying to start your own business?
S:I think it’s a double-edged sword. I am grateful for being born in a family with this great heritage. It educated me to appreciate craftsmanship, the value of work, and to recognise beauty [and] it’s a help in terms of finding expertise and contacts.
On the other side it is definitely intimidating [and] it can be a bit of break to your journey, because people don't take you that seriously, they don't believe you are working hard and they assume everything comes easily. Actually, many times it's even harder.
People assume you have a lot of money financing the business, which is definitely not the case, we are a proper start up and are financing it ourselves at the moment.
At the beginning [my family] didn't take me that seriously, to be honest. But as time evovled and the work developed, they saw our commitment, and the pieces came to life. The feedback now has been really positive, and they are really supportive and curious. All the women in the family love to wear the pieces themselves.
How do you move your stock primarily?
L:From the pop-up we’ve been able to create a strong and loyal clientele. We have events [at the Notting Hill studio], so we have a direct-to-customer route that way. We also sell on our website.
We work with the Elisabetta Cipriani Gallery, who commissions world-renowned artists like Ai Weiwei and Ania Guillaume to make jewellery.
In terms of fashion, we are in two stores right now. One in Florence called Flow, another in Mykonos in Belvedere Boutique.
Where do you see the business going in the next five years?
S:Don’t tell God about your plans, because it will make him laugh! We are looking at other materials and we will expand the collection of jewellery, and also work on creating bags and expanding the couture range.
L:We’d like to keep a foot in the fashion world, and a foot in the art world. We will develop our direct-to-customer route and work with other strategic partners, where we have common ethos.