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Caught in the Act

Before launching Toronto- and New York-based Piper & Skye in 2015, Joanna
MacDonald, founder and CEO of the company, studied at the London College of
Fashion. There, she broadened her knowledge of accessory design. MacDonald, who
had previously studied to become a human resources professional, credits her pivot
into fashion design — specifically luxury handbags using non-traditional leathers —
both to her entrepreneurial spirit and to her late grandmother.

“At an early age, [she] taught me how much fun it was to dress up and wear heels, of course carrying a unique and gorgeous handbag,” she says. “She taught me the confidence a woman has when carrying a piece of fashion on her arm, especially when it is created with genuine purpose. This purpose has driven my own brand values and inspires every aspect of how I have designed the business. I have an ingrained, deep-rooted understanding and appreciation for inclusion, transparency, and responsibility, which is reflected throughout every aspect of Piper & Skye. Best of all, we design and create bright, bold, top-quality, and unique handbags that draw attention everywhere they go.”

MacDonald began by networking with other fashion entrepreneurs in Toronto, where she also started researching suppliers. Then, at a leather fair called Lineapelle in New York City, she met Nova Kaeru, the now supplier of Piper & Skye’s signature material, pirarucu (a freshwater fish native to the basin of the Amazon River). “[It is] tanned sustainably in Brazil,” MacDonald says. “This was around the time that I was beginning to learn more about sustainability. [Pirarucu] is award-winning for environmental sustainability. A food source in South America, the leather is a waste product, and the fishing of pirarucu supports the economy of the local fishing communities in Brazil.”

Piper & Skye
Courtesy of Piper & Skye

Formerly discarded, pirarucu fish skins are transformed into renewable materials that form the core of Piper & Skye’s collections. “Pirarucu leather produces significantly fewer greenhouse gasses and a lower carbon footprint than traditional bovine leather,” MacDonald says. “Sourced through sustainable fishing management and overseen by the CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] governing body, pirarucu leather fishing contributes to a biodiverse, regenerative ecosystem, while also providing a source of income to surrounding communities.”

In addition to the positive social and environmental impacts, pirarucu leather has other unique and beneficial qualities. With most leather goods, it’s recommended that they not get wet. However, with pirarucu being an aquatic species — and with proper treatment and care — the handbags will not get ruined if they get wet. “We strive to create our pirarucu bags for longevity and durability,” MacDonald says. “A Piper & Skye bag should be passed on from generation to generation as an heirloom and collector’s piece. Each [handbag] comes from a unique fish, with unique scales and its own battle scars. No two are alike, and we choose to honor and respect each individual bag’s qualities for this reason.”

Piper & Skye also uses wild American alligator leather, which is sourced and tanned in the United States. “The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries has fine-tuned a scientific management program to maintain a healthy and stable alligator population, while creating a sustainable and certified industry in Louisiana,” MacDonald says. “Each registrant must prove compliance with science-based animal welfare standards established by the government. Each certified LDWF registrant is issued CITES alligator tags … [and] each tag is registered for detailed record keeping that LDWF maintains and to ensure legal trade practices. All fees collected by CITES tags go toward alligator sustainable management programs, population control, education, and conservation efforts to ensure the health and stability of the population.”

Piper & Skye
(c) Gulnara Khamatova

The luxury handbag brand also has embarked on a new initiative with INVERSA Leathers, a regenerative materials company that creates leather from invasive species that destroy ecosystems, to launch a new collection using Florida’s invasive Burmese python. “The Everglades, one of the world’s most unique and endangered ecosystems, faces an ongoing challenge due to the invasive python population,” MacDonald says.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has already implemented several efforts to remove the large snakes from the Everglades’ ecosystem — primarily by humanely killing them. Piper & Skye created the collection with the idea of evolving what sustainability means in the world of fashion.

“Piper & Skye is looking to this invasive species as a regenerative resource to craft a collection of luxurious bags, showcasing our brand’s unwavering commitment to innovation and design and underscoring our dedication to utilizing materials that exhibit environmental stewardship.”

In order to achieve a long-lasting and high-quality product, Piper & Skye invests in quality control and skilled craftsmanship. “Stitching the scales of [the pirarucu] leather proves to be a challenge for our artisans, hence why we are one of the very few brands who tackle this craftsmanship challenge,” MacDonald says. “Alligator and python skins are extremely durable materials. They are very hard to scratch; they do not transfer color-fastness; and they are easy to wipe clean with a moist cloth.”

Through Piper & Skye, MacDonald operates on the idea that luxury goods production and sustainable/ethical business practices can co-exist without being mutually exclusive. “The luxury goods industry needs to do better, and we can,” she says. “Given proper planning, collaboration, education, innovative thinking, and a true desire to do better, we have the ability to stop being one of the world’s worst causes of environmental harm. But we must do it together through strategic partnerships. Our core values are respect, responsibility, and community.”

Piper & Skye
Courtesy of Pipe & Skye

MacDonald approaches each of these values differently. To earn the respect of stakeholders, she focuses on transparency of business processes, partnerships and alignments, materials selection, supply chain, and manufacturing relationships, and the way the company treats its internal team and external partners. She feels a deep sense of responsibility to her internal team, her stakeholders, and the communities surrounding all business and personal relations. One way that MacDonald acts on the value of community is by collaborating with the pirarucu material supplier to support and meet the needs of the local fishing communities along the riverbanks of the Amazon.

Piper & Skye also donates new, higher-quality nets to the local fishing communities, which has a direct impact on preserving the local fauna. “The smaller fish are no longer caught by accident, as they can swim through the larger holes in the new nets,” MacDonald says. “This just goes to show how small actions can lead to significant and far-reaching positive effects on the environment. These nets [also] contribute to the local villages to put food on the table [so fishermen] continue to earn a living that is fair, equitable, and contributes to a higher quality of life.”

The entire team at Piper & Skye understands that sustainability is a paradigm shift for the fashion industry as a whole. “[We have] established ethical business practices and policies to propel the fashion industry toward higher accountability standards,” MacDonald says. “Piper & Skye takes action on these priorities through ethical sourcing strategies, strict materials selection criteria, reducing emissions, and building circularity into our products and throughout all business processes.”

Piper & Skye also measures and works to minimize both its own greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, as well as paying close attention to its supply chain. “We are working hard to understand how our products can support biodiversity, ocean and aquatic conservation and regeneration, and focusing on making the best use of what nature has gifted us,” MacDonald says.

Piper & Skye’s handbags are perfect both for everyday use and special occasions, boasting both elegance and functionality. “During the design stage, we envision how one would use and carry the bag, and we equip each one with suitable options for day to night,” MacDonald says. “Many of our bags can be carried on your arm, as a crossbody, or as a clutch. I truly design bags that align with my needs for any occasion and ensure all styles have the right pockets, straps, and final touches that make our bags so unique. We pride ourselves on the bright, bold, cheerful colors and the subtle branding on our collections. We love the new term, ‘quiet luxury,’ even though we are bold and making a statement in many ways.”

As an example, the Lola crossbody — a signature Piper & Skye bag known for its effortless style and functionality — is one of the brand’s most popular styles. “The size allows you to carry everything you need for day or night, and a removable strap converts the Lola into an evening clutch,” MacDonald says.

“Our Mac Pack is another iconic Piper & Skye look. This crossbody pouch is great for all genders and makes a stylish statement. Last but not least, we have to mention our Braemar tote — a ‘quiet luxury’ statement tote that’s durable and functional for carrying office essentials. Our newest bag is the Rio Raffia beach bag, which comes with a removable wristlet.”

Recently, Positive Luxury awarded Piper & Skye with the coveted Butterfly Mark certification. This global trust mark serves as independent verification that organizations have met the highest standards of sustainability best practices. “Being part of the Positive Luxury community, and now working alongside the other luxury brands [that are] Butterfly Mark certified, we are very much excited to collaborate with those brands and, together, leave this planet in better shape than we found it.”

MacDonald also founded a nonprofit transitional housing solution — dubbed Safe Transitions in 2020 — serving domestic violence and human trafficking survivors in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area. “Through collaboration with community partners and its network of volunteers, Safe Transitions provides survivors with access to affordable transitional housing and a suite of wraparound supports such as life and career skills training and mental health care,” MacDonald says. “Taking a housing-first approach, Safe Transitions’ mission is to support and empower survivors to rebuild their lives by providing them with the community and resources needed to create meaningful and sustainable lives free of violence.” Piper & Skye supports Safe Transitions with corporate donations and by donating a percentage of profits to the organization.

Read more Style articles from Green Living.

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