Episode 97: How a serendipitous encounter with alpaca fibre led to creating an impact brand with Sophia Vatousios of La Sierra




Hello and welcome to episode 97 of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. I'm your host, Belinda Humphrey, and today I'm so excited to be talking to Sophia Vatousios, founder of the brand La Sierra. Sophia and I initially met in 2018 and I was struck by her mature and grounded approach to business and the way she was confidently navigating all the ups and downs of her business, despite never studying fashion. Since then, I've watched on as she has continued to stick to her values and put people and community at the heart of her growing business. 

La Sierra is a lifestyle brand catering to both men and women, as well as including accessories, homewares and even toys, and was born from a fortunate encounter with a luxurious alpaca fibre. In today's chat, she talks about how she fell into fashion, the intricacies of transparency when you're working directly with farmers and some valuable lessons she's learnt along the way. Sophia is so passionate about using her business to create impact within communities and is deeply connected to this vision. Her grounded approach, centred in integrity and advocating for indigenous communities, is something we need more of in the fashion industry. I'm sure you're going to love today's chat and I can't wait to see what is next for La Sierra. So please join me in welcoming Sophia Vatousios. 

Hello, Sophia, welcome to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. Thanks so much for taking the time to come on and chat with me today

Hi, it is so nice to be here. I feel like we've literally been trying to organise this for maybe like a year and a half. I don't know if that's right. 

It feels like that. It's been a long, six months though, I think, but definitely before Christmas. 

Definitely. It's been a while. So yeah, I'm glad we're finally here.

Yes, me too. We met a long time ago. I think we met in 2018. Our paths crossed. I was struck back then, how mature you were and how grounded you were and how you had built this label. But your path into fashion was actually an unconventional one. How did you come to start La Sierra? 

It was definitely unconventional and it was not in the life plan. I'd just graduated university and I was about to go into a full-time corporate position, but before I did that, I decided to travel South America with a group of friends and, yeah, it was 2015, I was 22 years old and I just completely fell in love. I fell in love with the culture, with the music, with the food, with the people and just with how alive I felt there. And this trip really changed my life. I met my then partner, Renee, in a small town in Ecuador, on the beach, and it was the first time I'd ever met someone living so simply but with so much freedom and joy, and I had this life experience that I just never had before and I wanted more. So, instead of going into the full-time corporate job I'd planned, I ended up moving to Panama with him and living on a small Caribbean island for a year, and it was here where I started my first job in retail and I saw my boss had started her own brand and I think it started really sowing these seeds of inspiration about what I could do. 

And meanwhile, I was travelling back and forth to Ecuador to be with his family and I met artisans who worked with the alpaca fibre and just started dreaming up this idea. I remember calling my mom one day sitting at my job when I was looking at the ocean, and I was like, do you want to start a business together? And I don't know why she said yes, but she did so, with the help of Renee, we got some samples delivered to Australia. I actually put the brand together really quickly and we launched in a few months and we were doing pop-ups for a couple of years. So I was just working in winter and working other jobs on the side and travelling and then for the last I think it's been six years we've had a full-time store. So, yeah, I was really born from a passion project and just a love and connection to South America and never studied fashion or business and I never really started out to have a brand. So it's really just evolved this way and it's meant a lot of going back and doing the beginning work to build a brand. But yeah, it's all continued to evolving a lot,  to this day. 

Yeah, I mean, that's just amazing to be, I think you've said you're in business now for eight years to have come this far with no fashion or business training. 

It's been a wild ride.

I imagine it has been. But why alpaca wool? Because obviously Peru has a lot of different sorts of craftsmanship and skills. So did you set out in the beginning with a love of the material, or was it something else that led you to focus on that particular fibre? 

Yeah, I think before I went to South America I knew nothing about alpaca, but I remember from the moment I touched the wool and my friend reminded me about this the other day because she was with me and she recalls my reaction to it of saying how soft it was and I was rubbing it up against my face. 

I was really just saying how soft it was and I was rubbing it up against my face and I was really just, in awe of it and I bought some jumpers that I was wearing on my travels and I think I was just,  really like wow, this fibre is amazing. 

It was so soft and light and I was just wearing it so much and it was ageing really well. But, yeah, I didn't know too much about the ethics and the sustainability behind the fibre at first and this knowledge has really developed later as I've gained more experience in the industry and from the artisans and seeing all the processes. But, over the years I've really developed a love affair with the fiber. You know, I really believe investing in quality over quantity and this fibre is just so long lasting and really adheres to those values and I've really been wearing some of my products since the beginning of this journey and some of them still look brand new and it's just really incredible. I never sought out to create an alpaca brand, but, I absolutely love the fibre. 

I often tell clients that certificates aren't 100% guarantee. Often smaller business owners or farmers can't afford the accreditation process, which can be lengthy and in some cases can be thousands of dollars a year. And if they can, sometimes they're sacrificing their family's livelihoods for a Western imposed certification in some cases. How do you stay on top of the need for transparency when you're working directly with farmers in this situation? 

I'm so glad you asked this. We occasionally get emails asking about what certifications we have and, yeah, to be honest, the ones I've looked into are just incredibly expensive for small businesses and it's just, it's not really feasible. And it's the same for individual alpaca farmers and small scale fibre producers who just can't afford these Western certification processes, although their you know their UN's goal to end poverty, and I really wish they would be more accessible and affordable. But we've visited all the farms that supply our fibre and the fibre we purchase from our fibre suppliers is certified to international standards and from that point on, we're responsible for fair trade and checking on safe working conditions for the artisans who make our designs. So this is where we can personally vouch for ethics and transparency, because we know our whole supply chain, we don't work with middlemen. So in our case, I don't overly see a need for a certificate, but I do understand that some people want, or they need to see this to really have trust in a brand. 

And I know you might not have. Well, I know you don't really have another fashion experience to compare this to, but what are some of the limitations in the way that you work so closely with the makers? 

Yeah, there are a few limitations because, you know, our makers are Indigenous people, either from small families or communities. However, we have Rene as part of our brand, so he is a local from Ecuador, so he culturally and logistically makes things a lot easier and overall I'm really proud of these relationships we've built with our makers. We treat them like family, they treat us like family and we've eaten meals together, gone on trips, we've explored with them and sometimes Westerners can be quite intimidating to some of these communities, so really having him there to help interact really, really helps and I just love the way that he's able to make them all laugh and just connect with them. So, yeah, there would be a lot more limitations if we didn't have Renee involved, but to mention a few that come to mind, technology being the main one, so they don't really work with a lot of technology. A lot of them don't have access to email, so the design and the sampling process can be a little bit complicated because all of our communication is done mainly over WhatsApp. Definitely, language, I've only got one maker out of about 15 that speaks a bit of English, so they're mainly their first language is their indigenous language, so Quechua or Aymara in this case, with Spanish being their second language. Yeah, my Spanish has improved over the years, but Renee is the one that mainly helps with all the communication and organisation and logistics, because obviously the Spanish needed for business and design is very technical and I can only do so much. 

Definitely, capacity for scale. Some of our makers don't really have the capacity to produce large quantities. For example, we have knitters that hand knit some of our jumpers, so the quantities we can order of the product are quite small because of the time that it takes. However, mass producing is not a value of us. We're advocates of slow fashion and we really do adhere to those values. And then a couple more that come to mind just the distance to South America Logistically, it's really hard to just pop over and check samples and production and quality. Sometimes the consistency of the products we need to watch that. It's also the beauty of handmade products. But it can be a little frustrating. And working across multiple time zones I always have to sleep with my phone on aeroplane mode because I don't know what time messages are coming in. We're going between Europe and South America and Australia at the moment, it's a lot. 

So, what is your design process? How do you validate your ideas and decide on what to introduce? 

Yeah, this has been a massive learning curve for me since, I've not studied fashion, so I'm constantly trying to improve our design processes. But basically it has looked like we work with a product developer that I bring my initial ideas to. So these ideas come from me working directly in my store and speaking to the customers what are they wanting, what are they needing? You know, maybe one design we've done one year is too short. They want it a bit longer. So I take that into consideration. So she takes these ideas, draws them up, puts them into a specification file. We work on measurements together. 

I find the sizing part so difficult, but, constantly improving that. And the specification files obviously all need to be in Spanish for our makers. So our product developer that we work with is Spanish speaking. But, yeah, I really find this process one of the difficult parts, especially when I'm managing so many other parts of the business and the brand, and it's something I really want to narrow my focus into more, because I've made a lot of mistakes. Some years. I've gotten caught up in what I really like instead of analysing my target and who I'm making for. And, yeah, one year I did some styles that I absolutely love, but they were just not right for my demographic and they missed the mark a bit. So I'm just learning, learning as I go. 

Yeah, and so how do you… This is a bit of a throw-in question I haven't prepared you for, but how do you decide on colours? So I can see that you've got like a beautiful lilac knit on now. Is that just a colour that's available, or do you choose colours from them? 

We have a huge range of colours to choose from. So in the past I normally haven't really looked at trending colours. Sometimes I take it into consideration and we'll pick a few trending colours, but on the whole, it's not really what our customers are after. They're more wanting neutrals, basics that they can wear over many, many, many years and on many different occasions. So, yeah, I I've loved the last colour range that we did, but I also found that, it didn't completely hit the mark with our customers. But we can choose from, I'm going to say, hundreds of different colours. However, it's not my main focus colours moving forward but I do love this lilac. 

The area of sustainability in fashion has gone through a growth period over the last three years especially, and this has led to independent websites that are trying to guide the customer on how to make better and more sustainable and ethical purchases, and I wanted to get your thoughts on something from the Good On you website. So when talking about alpaca under the luxury fibre section, they say that “alpaca is often marketed as small scale and sustainable in the industry. Unfortunately, an investigation into the leading production country of alpaca wool, peru, has shown the opposite to be true. Following the release of the footage showing alpacas suffering as they're tied down for shearing, even Uniqlo has banned the fibre.”

Now, I always dig around and want to research other viewpoints to things that pop up in sustainable fashion, and I read an outside analyst's critique of this, and they said that, that report by PETA explicitly stated that their findings did not apply to small scale producers but to an in comma’s, “the world's largest privately owned alpaca farm”, which wasn't mentioned on the website, and in reality, about 90% of the supply is estimated to come from small holders with alpaca herds of less than a hundred animals, and I know you get a lot of questions around animal welfare and the farms that you're working with. So, as someone who has been working directly with your makers for eight years, I wanted to give you the chance to respond to that information and the ability to go into the nuance of those farms, the size, the animal welfare and the greater impact of dealing directly with communities. 

Yeah, this is such a great question and I'm actually really glad to have the chance to speak on this because I've seen the footage from PETA and yeah, it's horrible. I have a lot to say about this and I especially want to start off by saying the mistreatment of any animal like this is just not acceptable, and I want to say that one farm's unethical practices absolutely does not represent the industry as a whole. You know big companies like Uniqlo. They're mass producing. That's why they're going out to these giant corporations, because they need that level of output. So we know that anything mass produced potentially has a dark side, but I don't think it's fair on this case to apply that to the rest of the industry and assume that the same things are happening across the board. 

There's really hundreds of alpaca farms in Peru and most of the locals have a deep respect and care for these animals as they're literally their livelihood. And I've visited the farms we produce with and I've seen the shearing process and it was not like this, not like I saw in the video. The problem isn't the shearing. You know alpacas need to be shorn. I've seen alpacas that have not been shorn. It's not a good sight and there are many health issues and consequences for them that can actually occur if this process isn't done. They've got the fleece that can grow over their eyes and they can't see. They can overheat. The fleece becomes so matted and dirty, they can suffer from stress, they can suffer from skin conditions and I've heard they can even die because they're smothered by the weight of their coat. So I'm a yes to shearing. Then, of course, I'm a yes to ethical shearing and good treatment of alpacas and animals in general, and this is why I personally visit our sources, so our practices and animal welfare with shearing at the farms we source from. Shearing is done once a year in springtime as it's getting warmer. There's multiple experienced shearers when I was there there was about three on each alpaca and this keeps the process shearing process to a few minutes very, very short. So the time that the animal is in a bit of stress is very, very limited and they shear in accordance with the industry standard of the ground restraint method and this is due to safety and efficiency of preventing cuts. So the video I saw from PETA had them on tables, which is not the best shearing practice, and the farm we shear at. If they do get any cuts, which doesn't happen often, they use a natural solution made from a local flower called a gentiam violet flower, which is this beautiful, bright purple flower made into a solution that treats the cuts and prevents infection. 

As for the greater impact on the community, yeah, if you think about it, peruvian culture is literally steeped in alpaca farming. Alpacas have been domesticated for over 5,000 years and literally all the local farmers I've come across love their alpacas. Their livelihood is tied to them and they understand if they treat their alpacas well, their life can also improve. The indigenous people are really connected to their land and their animals, and the alpaca industry on a whole has a major impact on the community. So, from the breeders to the sorters of the fleece, to the spinners, to the knitters, to the weavers, alpaca is really part of Peru's rich and diverse textile heritage. 

So, yeah, boycotting the whole alpaca industry because of how one farm may treat their alpacas would have really dire consequences to so many people's livelihoods, especially the indigenous population in Peru. So, no, I don't agree with PETA in saying that everything with alpaca needs to be boycotted, but overall, alpaca is incredibly sustainable. Fiber and alpacas have such a minimal impact on the environment and I would say that, once again, choose where you shop. You're always better off buying small scale production from independent designers who have a connection to their supply chain. They have transparency and a more ethical supply chain. 

I'm so glad you went into that detail because I think, yeah, particularly at the moment, customers are wanting information, they want transparency, and I think exactly what you're saying is such nuance and it's so important to acknowledge that small scale farms are so intricately linked to their community and have such a broad socioeconomic benefit to their community. Are there any other examples you have of just the positive benefits of being able to work directly with those farmers? 

Yeah, so, firstly, I would say, working directly with the farmers and the communities is more sustainable when it comes to agriculture. So you know, we're working with people that are preserving and passing down this traditional agricultural knowledge. You know, these indigenous farming methods often align with sustainable practices. They emphasise biodiversity, soil health, water conservation. They ensure greater animal welfare standards, where the animals have a wide range to roam and graze and shelter from extreme weather, and safe handling during shearing, and this promotes healthy land and animals. There's also the element of cultural preservation here and, as I mentioned before, alpaca farming has been done in Peru for 5,000 years and it just remains such a major part of the industry in the Indigenous Andes populations. And yeah, the Incas used to use their fleece for royalty and measure their wealth by the size of their alpaca herds, which I think is really cool. 

So, yeah, the continuation of cultural practices and artisanal skills, such as fleece sorting and spinning and the knitting and the weaving, ensure the preservation of these traditions passing down over generations and, of course, this then leads to economic empowerment in these communities. This means that there are opportunities provided for income generation, entrepreneurship. Self-sufficiency creates really long-term opportunities for future generations. Better education, improved overall living standards and this leads to the development of the whole community improved infrastructure, education, healthcare access and improve just overall living standards. And, yeah, I think the last thing that comes to mind is working directly with Indigenous people, with no middlemen, really means that we can ensure these fair trade practices, pricing fairness and really prevent any exploitation that can occur when middlemen are involved. So, yeah, these partnerships facilitate really valuable learning experiences and they benefit everyone involved. 

I love that. I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about a recent decision you made to base yourself in Spain. What were some of the thinking or events that led to that move? 

Bit of a random one, well, not overly. So, yeah, I've been working in my store for the last six years and I feel like I haven't been working a lot on my brand and my business and, as well, I've been located in Melbourne for many years, where my business is, and I've missed travelling. I've missed being in foreign lands connecting with foreign people. I wasn't really planning to stay in Australia for so long, but my business, my then relationship at the time, covid kept me there a lot longer than I thought when I moved back from Panama. So I was looking to change my life again, was looking to challenge myself. I wanted to be in a Spanish-speaking country. I wanted to devote more in my my time and energy to try and grow online and wholesale and other parts of my business. 

But, when I arrived in Spain, I didn't really realise how burnt out I was. You know years of pushing and stress and when I arrived I got quite sick for a month and I remember the boiling, hot summer heat of Barcelona, trying to navigate, moving to a new city, and I had this horrible cough and it was intense and I started working on the things that I wanted to do and I realised I've never had a plan for La Sierra, I've never had a strategy, and it's in order to grow to the next level, I really needed to put this in place. But first I actually needed to take a step back. I really needed to rest, I really needed to heal my nervous system, I needed to slow down. I changed my lifestyle and I really sat in this unknown space for many months, resting more, being more present, analysing my values, analysing what my products meant to me, what impact I actually wanted this brand to have on the world, what vision I had for the world and how this brand could help support that. 

And yeah, it’s amazing what's emerged out of those months of rest and just taking care of myself, and I feel like my creativity is back and I've had a new vision emerge, something that's really really authentic to me that I want to put out into the world. So, yeah, it's been a really challenging process, moving overseas and running my business back in Australia, but on the whole, I'm really, really grateful that what I've built so far has allowed me to kind of have a big reset in this way, because I really think this brand has a lot of value to add into the world and me taking care of myself means that I have more to put back into this now. And, yeah, I've loved living in Europe. It excites my soul on so many levels. It's been a it's been a very interesting change of life, that's for sure. 

I'm always so impressed because you are so in tune with your energy, and the reason why we rescheduled this a number of times was because of energy needs, and not many people do that you know? Like, a lot of people just sort of push through and just be like, oh, I have to do it, and I've always really liked how you seem to be very in tune with your energy and can allow yourself to rest when you need it, because not a lot of people do 

Oh it's really a big work in process. I've lived most of my life pushing myself and not listening to my body. Now I've started to learn more about tuning into myself and what my capacity is, and I really actually want to learn to navigate my business in this way, because I was getting burnt out year after year after year. And who does that benefit? Absolutely no one. So, yeah, I'm really landing a new way to do business, and it involves being a lot slower and listening to myself more, which is exciting, but it's also scary, Like we don't really give ourselves permission to do that. You know, our society is very go go, go fast, fast, fast, create output, and when we tune in, we're like, oh, this feels horrible, but yeah, sometimes we don't have a chance to do anything about it. But, I'm sort of reclaiming that, landing a new lifestyle for myself. 

For sure. What's one piece of advice you would give for business owners who haven't started fashion but want to create impact through a brand? 

So I think, whether you've studied fashion or not, I think it's crucial to really understand your passions and values, like this is your fuel, what do you generally care about? Why do you care about it? Getting really, really crystal clear on these core values and this vision and your brand purpose so you can really craft a brand with authenticity and purpose and consider how your brand is directly going to impact lives and the planet. 

And, for us, a lot of the impact we've made has been directly in the lives of our makers and it's because we genuinely care about them. You know we're connected to where the product comes from. It's more than just a product for us. It has a face, it has a story, it has emotions behind it, and I'm really passionate about connecting the maker to the consumer. You know, reminding people that there are real humans behind what they buy, because I think it adds so much value to what we're purchasing, and then that person is more likely to keep that garment. And, of course, having ethical and sustainable practices throughout your supply chain is a real necessity of business these days. I don't think anyone should be starting a brand or a business without implementing these practices. That's a whole other topic in itself. But yeah, I think the most important thing is to be looking out for what impact you can make. 

And finally, what are you looking forward to the most in the next couple of years with the brand? I know you were talking about being very excited and rested and feeling much more creative now. So what are you most excited about? 

Yeah, so many, so many things. I feel like, you know, I have a new life and therefore this brand has a new life and I'm really looking forward to yeah, so many things, but simplifying, let's say, simplifying everything, simplifying our product range and being more intentional about our designs. You know, at the moment, the colour range is available in some of our products. It's a little ridiculous. 

It's a little over the top. 

Like it's overwhelming for me. I can't imagine how it might feel for our customers, but I just want to yeah, I want to simplify it. So less products, fewer colours, more intentionality behind the designs. You know, I think we already produced some of the best quality items in terms of fibre content and our items being able to really last you a lifetime, and now I have more time and space, I'm really excited about working more on our designs, really nailing our fit and our styles so that we can really provide some of the best timeless products that are out there. 

Yeah, in terms of this new vision, I'm just really excited to bring this to life, like bringing more of myself into the brand and really spread a vision and a message that I'm passionate about. I want this brand to be more than a brand. It's really rooted in the philosophy of a slow-paced existence. I want this brand to remind people to move slowly in this fast-paced world, to really nurture ourselves, nurture our bodies, our relationships and the world that we all share. I really want our products to remind people live intentionally. Live intentionally but like feel luxurious while doing it and like really allow yourself to like fully indulge in those simple moments. 

I’ve found that that's most of the way that I use my products, like I'm out there looking at a tree but I'm wrapped in the most beautiful like baby alpaca fur and I'm just like, really in that moment and, yeah, doing all this while making a difference to people's lives that create our products and to give back to the earth, it all just excites me, you know, seeing how we can create even more impact and I'm looking forward to connecting more with a community of people through this brand that really align with that message. 

I'm looking forward to seeing where it all goes. It's been a wild journey so far, you know, having a brand and a business that's brought me to some incredible places and experiences and people, and I'm just looking forward to more of that, whilst making sure it's in full alignment with me and my values and just being way more intentional about all parts of operation. Yeah, it's a nice time. 

I've absolutely loved our chat today and I think the listeners are going to enjoy getting such a intimate knowledge and experience from your business and the way that you've run it and, yeah, just everything that you've learned over the last eight years dealing directly with the makers. So I think everyone is going to absolutely love this chat. Thanks so much for taking the time to come in today. 

Thank you, 

Where can people connect with you and find more information on La Sierra?

So at the moment we've got a shop in South Melbourne Market in Melbourne, Australia, of course, but we also do online, so you can find us on our website, which is www.lasierra.com.au, and our Instagram is @lasierraalpaca. And, yeah, I really encourage anyone that has any further questions just to reach out to me, dm me, email me. I love when people reach out and ask, as it shows they actually care what they're buying, and I'm really happy to answer whatever I can to help give you more information of what's important to you and your value system. But, yeah, thank you. Thank you so much for having me on. It was really it was fun. 

Awesome Thanks, Sophia. 

Thanks for listening to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you want to get in touch, head over to or you can find me on Instagram @BelindaHumphrey_ 

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change.


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