This week I have the pleasure of interviewing Sophie Vatousios Designer & Founder of La Sierra. I first met Sophie at a pop-up I hosted at South Melbourne Markets and I can hand on my heart say she is one of the most beautiful (inside and out) women I have ever met.
Just for example, one day I was sat manning my pop-up and Sophie came over from her stall with lunch for me that she had brought from home! Anyone who has worked in retail will understand how amazing it is when someone brings you food - especially when you cannot leave the stall to get lunch because...well, you don't have any staff!! ha!
I am SURE you are going to love learning more about Sophies brand La Sierra, I will let Sophie tell you more about it....
Tell us about your brand and what you do.
La Sierra is an Australian based fashion and homewares brand. Everything is made utilising Alpaca fibre, crafted in South America by small-scale family run artisan businesses. We design timeless pieces that can be worn year after year, encouraging quality over quantity.
I am passionate about slow fashion and capturing the stories behind the clothes we wear. I want to highlight the importance of knowing where your clothes come from, interweaving the connections between the artisans and their traditions with my personal journey.
My goal is to connect people to place and to all aspects of the amazing sustainability of the Alpaca fibre. I aim to really tell our customers the story about where their products come from and introduce them to the people who make their clothes, in a way that promotes more conscious consuming and the rejection of fast fashion.
When and how did you start?
Travelling in South America in my early 20s, I learnt about the local Indigenous communities and the Alpaca textiles they make. I was inspired by the rich history and culture that surrounds the artisans and their Alpaca textiles, and I met my partner who is a local Ecuadorian. He has been instrumental in the success of La Sierra, as well as my mother who does all the accounts. I have a great team behind me, and I am very grateful for that.
So, starting from a love of travel and South America, its culture and its people, I wanted to bring this connection to Australia and share the Alpaca fibre. I thought there was a gap in the market as a lot of the designs were for an older generation. My idea was to make it more inclusive and for a younger market, bringing Alpaca into staple, timeless pieces that would be less exclusive.
My partner Rene helped organise for our first samples to be sent to Australia, and he gave the budding business its name - ‘La Sierra’ is the local term for the highland areas of the Andes Mountains that are the natural habitat of the Alpaca.
I came home from a year away in South America and was trading three months later. With no prior experience, and hardly any planning, I became the proud owner of La Sierra, and I couldn’t be any happier than doing what I do.
We started off simply colour-choosing with modifications to existing designs and have gradually worked up to designing our own timeless, basic pieces with a twist of Australian style.
I was originally trading as a pop-up during the Winter seasons and travelling back to South America in the Summer time. I did this for a couple of years and then just last year decided to start trading full time as Alpaca is an amazing natural fibre for warmer weather too. After having a retail pop-up for half of last year, we have now started trading in a permanent space in South Melbourne Market. It’s so exciting to see how much we have grown especially trading full time for only a year!
What has challenged you the most since starting your business?
Soooo many challenges since starting La Sierra - but probably the most challenging thing has been having no experience in the retail or fashion industry, as well as having a no real design background. So that part has been a massive learning curve. It’s such a multi-faceted industry, and I had never considered all the different layers when I wasn’t a part of it.
Another big challenge for me is language barrier! My Spanish has improved over the years so things are getting a bit easier now. However, all my suppliers speak Spanish and not a word of English. At the beginning, so many mistakes happened as I didn’t understand everything properly. That’s when I asked Rene to come on board and play a more active role in helping me communicate with all our different suppliers.
Also, as La Sierra has grown, I have been less able to spend time in South America. This has been a challenge for me as I really need time over there for product development. So I can say we are really slowww fashion as we do not release new collections very often at the moment!
Where are your products made?
All La Sierra products are made by Indigenous families and communities in the Andes mountains of Ecuador, and in the South of Peru bordering Lake Titicaca and around the Sacred Valley. We believe in small-scale production and support the artisans to work from their homes in a comfortable, secure environment. Rene and I regularly take trips to visit the artisans in their homes and spend time collaborating with them. I feel like I have the best job in the world when I am able to go and travel around Peru and Ecuador for work. Being surrounded by such a different culture, different smells, music and sights really makes me happy.
Meet the makers: Can you tell us about the people who make your products?
Our makers are the best! I feel lucky to collaborate with such beautiful and grounded people. They have a deep connection to the land they live on and I’ve learnt so much from spending time in their communities. They have been very generous with their knowledge, have welcomed us into their homes and into their families, and really made us feel a part of their community, which is such a privilege.
Each of the families have insisted that they make us lunch or dinner whenever we have been to visit them. If they have room in their house, they always offer for us to stay with them. With one of the artisan families we collaborate with, we have sometimes taken the day off and taken a trip to visit interesting places around where they live.
They are very passionate about their work, always trying to do things better in their craft, asking for feedback and the response from people in Australia. They take their work seriously and want to deliver the best possible product they can.
Rene is always on the look-out for new artisans to work with and has also spent a lot of time travelling without me in order to continue our work with the artisans as well as source other handicrafts. He has a very close bond with all of them and helps me in communicating with everyone (as my Spanish only goes so far).
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I draw inspiration from spending time alone in nature. It’s where I feel the most centered and grounded, and where my best ideas come to me. I’m lucky I live on a property out in country Victoria, so I always try to make time for myself to go out into the bush and just be. It keeps me from getting too stressed and helps me to focus on what is important.
I also find inspiration with the beautiful people of South America and seeing how they interact with nature. There is so much joy and passion in South American cultures, and they really inspire me to give things my all. The authenticity of their lives and their connection with the Earth really inspire me to carry a product range that will stand the test of time on all fronts. I’ve seen some of the items they wear, and they tell me they have had them for 20-30 years - that is true quality, and it inspires me to believe that all clothes should now be made to stand the test of time.
What is your main ethical and sustainable agenda?
Real sustainability is based on long-term stewardship of both natural and human resources, resulting in a healthy environment, economic profitability and social and economic equity.
My main priority is to connect people with makers. I am passionate about supporting talented artisans whose work has integrity. It’s also incredibly important to me that those artisans are treated with kindness and respect, and that their work is seen and appreciated for its intrinsic values. Having a transparent supply-chain, from fibre to shop, is a key component of a more sustainable future for fashion. By learning about who makes the products, the skills they use, and how and why they do it, people can make an informed choice about who they are supporting when they make purchases.
I am also committed to ensuring that there are options for earth-friendly products in the fashion industry. The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world, second only to oil. The future of fashion needs to be slow; we can’t keep moving at the pace we are now. Alpaca is one of the most sustainable fibres on earth, especially when garments are handknitted or handcrafted. I definitely want to educate people about the viability of Alpaca fibre as a material of the future. Alpacas need to be given a haircut once a year before Summer time, otherwise they overheat during the warmer months. I have observed the process and it follows the values of ethical treatment of animals.
Educating people about the sustainability behind the alpaca fibre is important to me, not just environmentally, but socially and economically and for the long-term effects it has on artisan communities in South America. Maintaining traditional skills and keeping artisans in work in order to help support their families play a big part in enabling these communities to have better opportunities for their lives.
Which of the following Values do you align with?*
Fair (Human rights)
Sustainable (natural, organic fabrics etc)
Animal cruelty free