REVIEW: GET FRENCH-GIRL-IN-NEW-YORK STYLE WITH OFFTRACK’S ETHICAL LEATHER LEGGINGS
by ALDEN WICKER on NOV 20, 2017 • 8:00 am
Leather leggings have been a core part of my wardrobe for five years now. Sleek, flattering, versatile, I wore mine to fashion events, to all-night warehouse parties, and even to meetings, when I wanted to feel unassailable.
Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. They would have been more central to my wardrobe, but the genuine ethical leather leggings I found were… not ideal. When they started getting noticeably funky, I tried to find a place to get them professionally cleaned, and was quoted a ridiculous price, something like $250. So I put them in the bathtub, and watched buckets of iodine-like dye flow down the drain. They were stiff afterward, but still wearable. After a couple years, the knees started to sag a bit, and then more, and I started wearing them less and less. The final straw was this spring when I accidentally put them in the wash with my other darks and they dyed anything that wasn’t completely black a deep turquoise. Goodbye leggings.
A few weeks later, I spoke on a panel about ethical fashion and two French women – who were stylish in that indescribable French way – approached me afterward, to tell me about what they were working on: creating the perfect genuine, ethical leather leggings.
French Style Arrives in New York
Their startup, Offtrack, launched at the end of the summer, and when I saw what the leggings looked like, I emailed the founders practically begging for a pair. Noémie Blanchard and Isabelle Alix invited me to come by their studio in Williamsburg at try them on* and talk to them about the company.
Both Parisians, Isabelle and Noémie met after they had both moved to New York, Noémie in 2013, Isabelle in 2015. After they were introduced by their friends in common, they clicked, and started plotting how they would someday launch a company together. Noémie was working in merchandising and product development for luxury brands like Givenchy and Saint Laurent, with a focus in leather accessories. Isabel, whose husband is an entrepreneur, was working at Isabelle Marant in New York, helping to open Marant’s second store on the Upper East Side.
Isabelle had also lived in Shanghai, China, for a year in business school. “I realized what the price of clothing really was, of producing a top or skirt. It created a shift in my whole way of consuming, because from production to retail, there’s so much in between, and the consumer is paying so much more. I wanted to do something to change that. To still provide quality, but at the same time make it affordable. Noémie and I were talking about all different potential companies, but always a direct-to-consumer brand.”
I’ve written about direct-to-consumer brands, and why they provide so much value. They essentially cut out the cost of department stores, so that you can get something high-quality for a third of the price.
The best part is that the leggings come in two lengths, so they fit my petite 5’2″ frame without having to be tailored. Oh, and the leather is machine washable!
“I loved the creativity of fashion, but these new companies appeared so much more efficient,” Noémie says. “All these brands have mark-up for a reason. They need it to have these big models, the campaign, the runway. But maybe you can have a brand that inspires people without the giant creative company.”
“Coming here to New York, we realized that people have a way of being individual, doing things different, being more free,” Isabelle says. “It’s different than Europe, where people have a way of respecting traditions, and it’s less groundbreaking. Being here, it opened that door for us. We wanted to something that really speaks to people, with a beautiful product, that’s affordable, and that we’re selling direct to consumer. We saw that companies are succeeding at selling only online. We don’t have a ton of funding, but if we stick to one product and do it right, we can succeed.”
“We had to make this one product perfect,” Noémie says. But what would they choose?
“When I got to New York, I realized that everyone was wearing yoga pants all weekend long,” Isabelle says. “That is very different from Paris, where everything is more structured. But they’re super comfortable, super flattering, and you feel free. Let’s keep that comfort and ease, elevate it to something that is more sophisticated.”
Voila: stretch leather leggings.
So why does Offtrack source real leather?
“I love leather because it lasts,” Noémie adds. “It’s a natural and durable material. Even when you go to a vintage store, you can find clothes that are so beautiful from 50 years ago. It develops a beautiful patina. It tells a story. I don’t think you can tell a story the same way with any other kind of material.”
Noémie and Isabelle actually considered vegan leather. It’s well-known that the typical leather tanning process is toxic, and when it’s done in Asia – especially Bangladesh – it has a devastating effect on the environment and health of local people.
“We thought about it. We looked at everything,” Noémie says. “But there is no product on the market today that can have the same quality and that is really going to be better in terms of the environment. The alternatives are just plastic-coated.” She’s talking about both PVC and PU vegan leathers. Polyurethane is less toxic than PVC, but it’s still a petroleum product, doesn’t breathe, or have the longevity of leather.
“You invest once for a lifetime,” Isabelle says of genuine leather. “With pleather, not only are you participating in a polluting cycle, you’re buying and contributing to that cycle of consuming and throwing away.”
Indeed, as I’ve bought vegan products over the years, I keep finding myself donating them or tossing them, as they quickly crack, break, develop holes, or just look cheap compared to real leather. My genuine leather items? They either last in my closet for years, or I can resell them easily so that someone else can enjoy them.
“You do have the vegetable alternative with pineapple leather, but you can only make shoes with it,” Isabelle points out. “It’s very dry. We are monitoring very closely what is happening in the leather industry. The lab-grown leather we are very interested in.” (Modern Meadow just debuted some test cases of lab-grown leather last month, but they will be working with a few large companies to pilot it before it is widely available.)
According to Racked, the best, most flattering leather leggings are with stretch leather, and that is what Offtrack uses. The leather is a byproduct of lamb meat farming in the Southwest region of France, which is also where the tannery is located. The tannery is certified under REACH European guidelines, which govern chemical usage: no Chromium 6 or AZO dyes.
(I found this story about luxury leather tanning in the U.S. under strict EPA guidelines illuminating when it comes to the difference between luxury leather tanning and Asian tanning.)
The back of the leather is bonded to a cotton canvas with some lycra for stretch. Then the material is sent to New York City to be cut and sewn, with a stretch band and side gussets for a perfect, comfortable fit from sizes XS up to XL.
The Definition of an Investment Piece
The leggings cost $550, which seems steep, until you compare that price to the cheapest prices for stretch leather leggings found by a very motivated and knowledgeable Racked editor: $200 at H&M on sale from $349, $375 at & Other Stores, and $495 at J. Crew. Retailed in a department store, Noémie and Isabelle say their leggings would cost between $1,800 and $2,000. The leather is from the same tannery that supplies Chanel, Balenciaga, and Prada. “The leather is the most expensive and high quality you can find in the world,” Noémie says. With her deep experience in the luxury fashion industry, she has the inside scoop. “We benchmark our leggings to brands like The Row; their leggings are made in the U.S. out of French leather.” In other words, if you want really nice leggings and want to get them for the lowest price possible, Offtrack would be your choice.
The best part is that the leggings come in two lengths, so they fit my petite 5’2″ frame without having to be shortened. Leather tailoring is quite expensive! And the leather is machine washable! The leggings are sort of like good jeans: you wear them for a while without washing them. “Naturally, leather is going to breathe,” Isabelle says. “So you can lay it out to breathe and refresh overnight.” If they truly get funky, you put them in the washing machine, lay them out to dry for 24 hours, then turn them inside out and iron them to bring the shine out of the leather.
Noémie brings me to her bedroom and pulls out a pair of leather leggings she has washed five times. They look exactly the same as new ones. She tries them on, and they still fit snug and flattering. “It’s like your Levi’s jeans,” Isabelle says. “They mold to your body.”
I try on the classic black leather leggings, then the suede ones, which are slightly thinner in weight and make my butt look fabulous. I see myself in a cozy sweater when I wear them. I want both! But in the end I have to go with the classic black ones, knowing that I’ll wear them probably twice a week through the whole winter.
These ethical leather leggings are made to order. From pre-order to delivery, it takes two weeks to a month. If you’re in NYC or Paris, make sure to sign up for their newsletter (at the bottom of the page) to find out about try-on events.