Santos by Monica, founded by Mónica Santos Gil in Brooklyn, is a label of hand-crafted, made-to-order bags made from materials like vegan leather made from cactus flowers, recycled fabric, organic cotton and deadstock vintage hardware. Cactus leather was chosen because of its efficiency and climate-friendliness - it grows solely on rainwater, which means that no irrigation is needed (⅕ of the water needed for regular leather!), it has CO2 sequestering capacity, and it is biodegradable and partly recyclable.
Santos by Monica sources its cacti from a farm in Mexico where only the mature leaves of the plant are cut, without damaging the cactus or cutting the tree itself. On top of that, for each bag sold, Santos by Mónica plants a tree with One Tree Planted.
We spoke with Monica about her journey in traditional fashion, how it led her to her current work, the magical properties of cactus leather and her own sustainability journey.
What was your inspiration for creating Santos by Monica?
I always had a desire to create a brand that challenged the traditions of the fashion industry, but it wasn't until the pandemic that I was truly able to spend time conceptualizing and fully developing this idea. Once I realized the potential of my idea and the opportunity I had to really invest in a brand that reflected my own values, I left my corporate fashion job and decided to pursue Santos full-time. My values around sustainability and responsible business practices are at the heart of Santos, which I've also been able to use as a tool to educate consumers on consumption and resources used by the fashion industry.
How has your background in art and fashion influenced your approach as a designer and entrepreneur?
Before finally taking the leap and launching Santos, I worked as a designer for numerous fast fashion and luxury brands. I remember at one point feeling very overwhelmed, like we were living through really fast-paced times. I knew that instead of having that accelerated drive into the future, I wanted to create a slow fashion brand that also had a sense of nostalgia for the past. I’ve always been intrigued by how 60’s and 70’s designers and artists were able to achieve such elegance in their work with elements as simple as a circle or a curve. The simplicity in the forms helps create a visual fluidity, which is essentially what I seek to project with Santos.
Tell us about the materials you use to craft your beautiful handbags - where do they come from and why did you choose them?
Our handbags are made from vegan leather crafted from cactus fibers. The cactus used to create our material is grown and harvested in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, where the cactus is native to. I first came across this material on Instagram and decided to order some swatches. To my surprise, it was an amazing alternative — It feels and looks like real leather, except it is much more ecological and uses 1/5 of the amount of water used to produce animal leather. Additionally, cactus naturally regenerates soil, has great CO2 sequestering capacity and grows solely on rainwater. Our cactus leather is partially biodegradable and the remaining components are highly recyclable.
How does Santos by Monica practice sustainability as a brand?
Our vision of sustainable handbags means each piece is impeccably hand-crafted using high quality vegan materials that do not harm the environment. The cactus leather we use is also long-lasting, ensuring that you will enjoy your bags for years to come. Our handbags are made to order and in small batch production. As a small company, focusing on this type of production is our way to take more direct control of our inventory and reduce overproduction. We also aim to produce at a slower pace and process. Upon placing an order, we ask our customers to allow 7-14 business days for the product to be made before shipment. We do not believe in seasons and each handbag style we design is produced in limited quantities. For every handbag sold, we plant a tree as a way to give back.
How do you incorporate sustainability practices into your own daily life?
First and foremost, by recycling properly and minimizing single-use plastic in my life. I’ve completely shifted to clean/refillable beauty products in the past year; I always try to shop local and organic when it comes to groceries; and only shop second hand or from small brands when it comes to clothing (and try to limit myself to only purchasing when I actually need something). One thing I’m currently working on is swapping my cleaning products for tablet refills.
Any books, podcasts or articles you love that have helped further your education on climate and sustainability?
Yes! One of my favorite podcasts that I’ve been listening to for years is Conscious Chatter. I remember listening to it even as I was working through my past fashion jobs, longing to quit and do something different. In a way, listening to these inspiring stories pushed me to educate myself and invest in a brand that truly reflected my values. As for books, I actually just finished reading The Conscious Closet which I also highly recommend if you’re actively trying to become a more conscious consumer, want to build a more thoughtful wardrobe, and learn techniques that will make your clothes last longer. Within the first few chapters I actually found out I was only using around 20% of the clothing I owned!
What are some brands that you are loving right now?
I mostly shop second hand, so have been really loving local vintage shops such as Hello Banana Vintage, 10 ft single by Stella Dallas, Brooklyn Brickhouse and James Veloria. Also some small brands I’ve been eyeing for the summer: Tidal New York, Loleia Swim and Isleñas Shoes.