Product Director Deborah Luffman talks frankly about ditching the sequins, jumping off a cliff, babies sleeping under the desk and taking her passion for sustainable textile innovation to new heights.
I started out working in womenswear high-street fashion in London, I won’t name names, but it was very much looking at catwalk designs and quickly ripping them off with zero textile integrity at all. The latest fabric that was selling cheap, a lot of sequins... I just ended up in a world that didn’t suit me. I was very sporty, very environmentally conscious and wanted to save the world, and was working in central London for a brand that didn’t give a shit about anyone. My life didn’t match. I would literally put on some high-heels as I went through the door – take off my bike stuff and get changed. It was a bit Clark Kent... I suddenly had to turn into this fashionista that wasn’t me.
I left and went travelling to South America, and – literally – joined a circus. I ended up on an organic cotton farm in Peru, met the love of my life, got married, came home and moved back to Brighton (where I’m originally from), and tried to make a go of it with a brand I started with friends: printed ethical occasion wear, vegan bridesmaids’ dresses…pretty bonkers but awesome. But I didn’t have what it took to do my own business, I just liked being around people.
A really good friend of mine from university, Tom Podkolinski, came to stay with me one night. A few beers later, he showed me this three-page website for the company he worked for, called Finisterre. He sold me the dream of how amazing this brand was; it was just ticking every box in terms of fabric development. He knew how much I loved textiles and how much I was driven by environmentalism. They had just won the Observer Ethical Award and it seemed to have loads of promise. He said, ‘Why don’t you come and check it out and bring your portfolio?’ At that time there were just three of them.
They met me at the train station. I was thrown a wetsuit, we drove to these rocks at Trevellas, and it was basically, ‘Right, jump off that rock’. I hadn’t really done anything like it, but I thought, ‘Why not?’ So I jumped. It was pretty high up, but I didn’t die. I seem to remember doing a bit of a bum slap when I hit the water. We all survived, it was a lot of fun. That was my interview. The portfolio never left the boot of the car.
At the time they had a huge amount of passion and ideas. It was very much like, ‘How are we going to change the world?’, which totally worked for me. But there wasn’t a lot of experience; none of them had ever worked in the industry before. But the amazing thing from day one was that Tom Kay had this pitch, which I absolutely adored, and still do: ‘This is a platform for your passions…make of it what you want to do with the universe…And use Finisterre to do it.’ It was just phenomenal and I haven’t really looked back.
“The amazing thing from day one was that Tom Kay had this pitch, which I absolutely adored, and still do: ‘This is a platform for your passions…make of it what you want to do with the universe…And use Finisterre to do it.’ It was just phenomenal and I haven’t really looked back.”
When I started at Finisterre I was doing the womenswear design; buying of all the ranges, sourcing and development of the fabrics, the analysis of how things are selling (badly – I’m no mathematician). In a start-up you do everything. When Tom P left, I did the menswear and the womenswear design and had a baby in the same year. She came into work with me, slept under my desk. I wouldn’t change any of that, but there was a moment of ridiculousness when we were too small trying to do too much. Now it’s really changed as we have a fantastic design team, buying team and development team, who are experts at what they do. So I get to have a bit more perspective in terms of building ranges and pushing the design forward.
The company has changed a lot. We’re a business now; the guardians of our people’s welfare. We all used to live together; there was zero money, we partied together – shut the office and went to Bestival for a week. I got married and everyone came. But there’s a shelf-life when everyone starts being a bit more grown-up and having kids and buying houses, so we had to actually look at financials a bit more. Even so, we’re not very corporate. The values and the ethos and the passion is absolutely there…we just need to balance it all and make sure it’s stable. And more people have joined who’ve brought their expertise to the table. At the beginning we had so much energy and passion and ideas and enthusiasm, but we were probably lacking the thinkers and the finishers and the people to deliver what we were saying.
The size of the prize is different. Back then the perk was to go surfing at lunchtime. I think as you get older, the perks are more about your personal ambitions and your career aspirations. You want more from life and want to make an impact on the universe – to effect change on a bigger scale.
For me it’s all about the textiles, I’m a complete textile geek. Textile development and sustainable innovation – setting and pushing the agenda on sustainable textiles – is what gets me out of bed in the morning.
I’m massively passionate about wool. Every time I spend any time with Lesley Prior, our Bowmont Project sheep farmer, it’s a reconfirmation of everything that I believe in personally and professionally. She’s just incredible. I get a massive kick and feel inspired about her journey – to create a Merino sheep breed in Britain, which everyone else says is impossible. Just talking about genetics and fibres with her in her kitchen is pretty geekily amazing.
The suppliers don’t get enough recognition. We’ve got an incredible history with really good quality suppliers. They are the people who make it work. All we have to do is push the agenda. We rock up and say, ‘Can you do that recycled, can you do fluorocarbon free, what is it made of, can you blend that with organic cotton, can you make that degradable?’ They’re the scientists. They’re world class. They say, ‘Maybe, we’ll look into it for you and let you know.’
I’ve been able to develop myself, my interests and my passions within Finisterre to be able to grow in terms of learning how to lead and manage a team. Some of it’s trial and error and experience over the 10 years, but Tom has been patient with that – he was never in a rush. I feel like I’ve had a journey and have been able to develop myself.
You don’t shut the door when you leave your house and become somebody else when you come to work. I get really fired up by things; it doesn’t take much to get me excited about something. Here I can use that passion. I get to bounce ideas around and I’ve got people who add their experience and ideas and can be a really good sounding board. It’s just been a really nurturing environment for me and for the team as we’ve grown.
Finisterre has impacted my life monumentally. Ever since I started designing and working in fashion, I always had that slightly awkward feeling that I was in the wrong place. As soon as I arrived, it was crazy how many things slotted into place. I wasn’t a surfer before I came to Finisterre, but I fell in love with a Peruvian guy who’s a mad surfer (Warehouse & Logistics Manager, Jackson) who has to get in the sea every day or he won’t be able to breathe. I met him first, then I got the job. Then I basically said, ‘Why don’t you come and live in England rather than Peru, because we’ve got really good waves here and I live in a beautiful place?’ And he said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, there are no waves in England.’ I started sending him videos of waves in my lunchbreak, asking him to come. And he did; he came from one of the biggest, craziest cities in the world, Lima, and moved to Cornwall, to the village of St Agnes. Ernie, our marketing guy at the time, was half Peruvian; Jackson didn’t speak English, so we had this Spanish thing going on. From a life point of view, it was ridiculous how much stars aligned and said, ‘You need to work at this place…this is your home.’
We had a special visit to Wheal Kitty a few weeks ago, from HRH the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall. Showing Camilla around was surreal as hell. But I think it’s more about realising what we have to say, what we stand for and what we believe in means something bigger than our humble roots on a small clifftop in Cornwall. We have led the charge across product, environment and people from day one; whether meeting royalty or speaking at major global events, we’re getting our voice out there.
“What we have to say, what we stand for and what we believe in means something bigger than our humble roots on a small clifftop in Cornwall. We have led the charge across product, environment and people from day one; whether meeting royalty or speaking at major global events, we’re getting our voice out there.”
We’re never finished. I’ve got the first edition of Ecotextile magazine, and pretty much cover to cover, it is about organic cotton, because that was the eco-textile. And now when I open the latest issue the landscape has changed so much. There are so many more sustainable textile alternatives available. The industry used to be all doom and gloom; now I think the agenda’s really changed – embracing how we need to change across different sectors, asking never ending questions and sharing ideas of how to move forwards. Whether it be wool, recycled fabrics, microfibres or improving durability and making better textiles, there’s a driven, global group of people in our community who want to engage and work together towards a better industry.
People will say that wetsuits can’t be recycled or waterproof jackets have to have fluorine finishes on them, because that’s the way it’s always been. It’s just about challenging the status quo and saying, ‘Why exactly? Who says a jacket has to be made in that way?’ That’s it basically; daily, it’s questioning what we’re doing, trying to push things forwards. And we’re a mouthpiece. Even if we don’t buy the biggest, quantities we’ll promote it to the fullest, because actually it’s about strength in numbers. The fact that the big high street brands are trying to source the same fabrics we’ve been sourcing for years is great. We’re like, ‘Please do, the price will go down!’
Finisterre is still quite a secret, I think. I still get a little buzz when I see somebody sat across from me on the Tube or on a flight, wearing a Finisterre beanie or jacket. So, for me, the future is getting the secret out there a bit more. We want to grow, but not to a scale where it’s no longer sustainable to maintain our values and our approach. But we’re a long way off from losing that. Our values remain fundamental not only to Tom, the founder, but also to us as directors, leading the pack, we’re confident that’s not going to happen.
There are two sides to my personality, one is super social and frenetic and the other is chilled and a bit of a loner. I’m a mad keen runner, I do marathons or just run on the coastal path. Running gives me the best ideas and a bit of space and tranquillity to calm down and I absolutely love dancing. And then there’s the calmer side, which is painting or making jam. That's my downtime; nobody around. I’ve got a little studio in the garage where I paint and listen to music. It’s just abstract; not planned, not for anyone else’s eyes, It’s my therapy. I’m a big control freak in work, so there’s something really nice about throwing paint around with no plan. Ultimately there’s nothing better than hanging out with my girls, going to the seaside with them, just seeing them running in and out of the waves and jumping on and off surfboards, not having any fear of the ocean, and it being so normal to them, it’s amazing.
View the Fifteen Years Collection Here | Images by Abbi Hughes