Cover Feature

Denise Focil’s AS by DF: The Cross-Border Love Affair with Earth and Italy

Photo courtesy of Geoff McCarthy

Denise Focil embodies what it truly means to be a global fashionista. Born in Ecuador and inspired by her early years in Italy, Focil’s leather brand, AS by DF, blends sustainability with fierce style meant to empower its wearer. From traveling the world between her business and personal lives to expanding her brand’s presence across oceans, Focil sat down with Fashion Mannuscript to explain just what makes her fashion a globetrotter.

How is the LA fashion scene different from NY?

It’s an enormously huge difference between both our states. While I was born in Ecuador, I grew up in Los Angeles and consider it my home. This is where my family is. I also love California weather, but in terms of being creative and a designer, New York is definitely where it’s at, especially in terms of my aesthetic and my collection.

From a fashion perspective, I’m really inspired when I go to New York. There is a street style that brings such energy to what they wear every day. In California, it’s so relaxed, but we definitely have our own look. But I identify with New York style more.

How did you get your start?

I’m on a plane every week, and I’ve traveled the globe. I’m a really international person. And I love this planet. I love to travel. I love culture. I really identify with being global, both in my career and in my personal life. It’s been 14 years since I started the brand in 2009. I’ve always been into leather as a medium. I’ve worked with it my whole life; it’s really malleable and adapts to the human form so well. It’s essentially a second skin. Even from when I was in design school at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in LA, I knew I wanted to specialize in leather.

And to speak to the global side of this issue, I got my start in Italy, which is where we still have our atelier (in a town called Asolo, 45 minutes outside of Venezia). Once I graduated from design school, I was offered a job to be an assistant designer to design leather motorcycle jackets. And the job was in Italy. I remember being young and thinking “Oh my God, I’ve always dreamed of going to Italy.” So I took the job and moved there to work on motorcycle jackets for a while until I started my own leather brand.

How much has your time in Italy influenced your career?

Working in Italy made me discover my love affair with Italian craftsmanship. And our atelier is in a great location. It’s this little tiny Castle Town. Hundreds of years ago, the castle was the vacation house of Queen Conaro of Cyprus. It’s seriously magic, and there’s no way not to fall in love with that.

Something I learned from the Italians that permeated my design sense is that they take their time with things. But they’d rather do one thing extremely well than do 10 things half-assed. I work at a really fast pace in fashion, in Italy there is such beauty to the slowness of things. Since the Renaissance, art has been born in that country. My sewers are dedicated and are upset if they, say, miss a stitch. So that kind of appreciation is something that was ingrained in me. I’m obsessive about details. That is one of the best gifts that Italy has given me.

Why sustainability?

Planet Earth and protecting the planet that we’ve been on has been something that’s been important to me since I was a small child. Looking after Mother Nature is truly a part of who I am. In 2019, we had just received a shipment from one of our factories, and there was just plastic everywhere. Those bags only served one purpose, which was to go from the factory to us. But then after that, they get dumped into a landfill. Plastic takes thousands of years to biodegrade, and it hit me at that moment that I was a part of something really ugly.

So I eliminated all the plastic from my packaging. We use biodegradable recycled materials down to our main labels or trim. Everything has been sourced responsibly and is biodegradable. Our leather scrap waste is recycled from the factory floors and mulched into a fiber. Then they’re bonded to create a new piece of leather. We also use new machinery that uses 90% water than traditional tanning and has zero emissions. It’s an extremely clean process. Even in my ready-to-wear lines, on my silk blouses and dresses, I use sustainable fabrics.

It’s next to impossible to be sustainable in the fashion industry, so how do you balance out materials that are not eco-friendly?

It is next to impossible. When I do interviews, I always make it clear to say that I’m not perfect. Our recycled leather uses green technology that uses waste, but in order to rebond the leather, we have to use a synthetic one. The technology to get around that hasn’t arrived yet.

At the moment, I’m using the best alternative that there is for production, and that is to make sure that our materials are 100% natural. I’ve experimented with pineapple leather, cactus leather, and a lot more. But those materials are stiff and don’t move with the body well, and I can’t sacrifice making ugly clothes. So I’ve had to find the best of both worlds.

I donated $10 of every leather garment I sell to Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit organization out of Washington, DC. They’ve been around since the 60s. Ocean Conservancy has been an amazing partner. I’ve been a partner with them since I launched my recycled leather collection, and I’ve been donating more than $40,000 a year. I did this because I wanted to help neutralize my footprint. So I wanted to be able to say, how do I give back? How do I help clean up the trash that’s in the oceans? How do I help fund lobbying for changing laws that tackle things like oil tankers crossing certain parts of the ocean, and protecting different endangered species? There are so many things that require funding, and the AS by DF is one of those brands that donates pretty heavily into funding our oceans.

Do you have any sustainable certifications?

Ocean Conservancy is a nonprofit, and they audit you every year. So it’s not like a blind donation. We have a minimum of $25,000 that we donate and I am required to publish that on my website so people know we are doing what we say we are.

Other than sustainability, what’s the number 1 thing your collections must have?

It must empower the wearer. Empowerment is a word that’s been very true to me, from the day that I started the line. Our customer that wears our product is someone who is the leader of the pack. In whatever she does, she is the first person in her group of friends to adopt a new trend. She’s at the forefront of business and she’s always pushing forward. Our customer in general is a person that doesn’t like to blend; they stand out. I always think, “How do I make this person feel stronger?” I want my customer to look in the mirror and say, “Wow.”

How much is comfort a factor?

Comfort is important, but since I’m not leisurewear, it’s not too much of a factor. My customer is someone who is a mom running errands and a business at the same time, someone who is a real multitasker and has to look sharp while doing so.

What inspires your design?

Travel, travel, travel. I travel the globe, and will simply absorb my surroundings and take inspiration from anywhere. If it’s a painting or a woman I pass on the street wearing a long denim skirt, I will take inspiration from that and try to incorporate as much of the world as possible into my designs.

Anything exciting planned for the future?

We are growing our international footprint for retail, and will be attending our very first Paris trade show, March 1. It’s called Tranoi, and it is taking this trade show during Paris Fashion Week, and it’s part of that umbrella and is an advanced contemporary show for emerging brands. It’s very curated, and we got an invitation which is an honor in itself. It’s our first offshore trade show. We’ve been focused on growing the business domestically in the United States, but growing internationally is so exciting for me. We will grow our European, Middle Eastern, and Asian presence. Europe is the birthplace of fashion, and that’s something that will never go away. So expanding our global presence is certainly an exciting new chapter in my career.