I Bought a Bull and Turned It Into a Load of Leather Clothes

Sustainable fashion designer Alice V Robinson wants to make a radical comment about knowing where your clothes come from.
Bullock 374 and the clothes that he produced
Bullock 374 and the clothes that he produced. Photo: Al

A lot of fashion designers pay lip service to sustainability, but not many of them end up buying their own bovine to make a point of it. In 2019, Alice V Robinson made an assortment of items and accessories from a bullock (i.e. a castrated young bull) including, among other things, a tres chic coat, handbag and low-heeled boots – a process documented in her book Field, Fork, Fashion: Bullock 374 and a Designer’s Journey to Find a Future for Leather. 


The 30-year-old trained as an accessory designer at the Royal College of Art, and her final collection there was made from sheepskin sourced near her family home in Shropshire. That collection was named 11458, after the sheep’s ear tag, and famed chef Margot Henderson served the minced meat as 350 burgers at her degree show. While at the RCA, Robinson started to question where leather actually came from. Despite its luxury connotations, its provenance is shrouded in anonymity in the global supply chain. 

In an effort to create a supply chain of her own, Robinson bought Bullock 374 – a handsome Longhorn Limousin cross – from a farm near her family home in Shropshire, and followed its path from there to the abattoir, the butcher, the tannery and all the way to her studio. The resulting Collection 374 was unveiled at the Victoria & Albert Museum, along with dinner served by Michelin-starred Sally Abé from the butchered beef, including a main of roast topside with parsley mash, wild mushrooms and grilled onions. (Beef was also shared with her local community in Shropshire.)

If you find that gross, that’s on you – Collection 374 is an oddly respectful, zero-waste ensemble of the whole animal, informed and limited by the characteristics of the bullock it came from. Robinson and her collaborator Sara Grady also started British Pasture Leather in 2022, the first company to supply leather made from the hides of animals raised on regenerative UK farms. We spoke to Robinson to find out more.

Alice V Robinson and her book

Alice V Robinson and her book. Photo of Robinson: Jason Lowe

VICE: What sparked your desire to understand the provenance of leather?Alice V Robinson: When I moved to do my masters at the Royal College [of Art], I was introduced to leather because it was the most customary material people were using to make accessories with. That was back in 2017, and the conversation around leather, sustainability and traceability really wasn't in the same place – it was more of a binary argument of “Is all leather bad because it's connected to agriculture?” There was very little nuance around what the different practices or standards are in agriculture, and how the way we produce food is not all equal. It can have varying levels of detrimental impact, and also positive impact, depending on how it's practised.  

The leather in front of me couldn't answer any of the questions I had. I grew up in Shropshire – which is a pretty pastoral region of the UK – around many livestock farmers. My dad was a farm vet, so I didn't believe the narrative around all animal agriculture being bad, and therefore really wanted to understand leather material connected to practices I wanted to support. The party line of leather at the time was those questions about traceability weren't able to be answered, because leather is a byproduct of those industries, and therefore is just historically anonymous. It’s just a material that comes from recycling – what’s termed “waste” from an agricultural industry. 


I really wanted to challenge that concept of terming something an anonymous byproduct; I wanted to look at the material in terms of what it was connected to, the landscape, the farming community, the food it was coming from. So my interest stemmed from the fact all of those things were seemingly unanswerable for somebody who wanted to have agency in choosing what materials I was going to work with and put my name to. Leather is a material so clearly connected to a life; you can't have leather without the death of an animal. 

Alice V Robinson in a field of bullocks

Alice in the field of bullocks. Photo: Sara Grady

How did you settle on the idea of acquiring your own bullock?
The majority of leather used in luxury accessories, or the majority of leather in general, comes from cattle, because of the size of the animal and the scale of cattle rearing. I wanted to find a livestock farmer in my region that was practising rearing animals for food in a way that I would support in my food choices. I met this farmer called Malcolm Adams, who is a sixth-generation farmer. Malcolm had always produced food in a way that was with the greatest care to that landscape, and intimately connected to understanding what the biodiversity was on his farmland. That's the type of farming I want to support and learn more from, just as somebody who eats. So I asked him if I could buy the next bullock he was going to be taking to an abattoir. I would then subsequently figure out: What does that mean for design? What does that mean that I designed from that animal’s hide?


How much does it even cost to buy a bullock?
It cost me £1,100. 

OK, yeah. I don't really know what I was expecting.
No, it's a really good question. I didn't really query it because I also didn’t have a benchmark – I’ve never bought a bullock before. Malcolm took three bullocks to the abattoir on the same day as he took bullock 374. He sold me the meat – he didn’t sell me the entire “beast”, as they call it. That was the worth of that meat per kilograme at that time. I had to separately buy the hide and horns back from the abattoir. 

Did you ever think about naming the animal?
No. I wanted to curate the work very much from the perspective of questioning the fashion industry's lack of visibility to leather and its connection to agriculture, whether that be higher standards of agricultural practice for animal welfare and land or the opposite. In food, we really value provenance and transparency and traceability. There is a lack of those things in leather goods. That's what I wanted to focus on in choosing to keep the ear-tag number 374; trying to make the point of these leather goods being traceable to what I feel, as a designer, I can defend as a high standard of farming practices and animal welfare. I wanted to keep that evidence and the image of that bullock as a part of that connection, to try to pose that question of, why do we have handbags costing £10,000 and we have no understanding of where this material came from?

What Vegans Want

Is there a future for leather glimpsed in what you've done here? 
What we're doing now with [British Pasture Leather] is try to create a new offering in leather, where the material is connected to the farming community that has been rearing the animals. That doesn't happen at the moment. What we're trying to do is build a system where we're valuing the raw materials coming from these farms, and asking how can we process and use them in a way that supports the positive practices happening on the land. How can we realign leather as being a product of that agriculture, rather than a byproduct that is anonymous and part of a separate industry? 

In the UK, it's a really unique and exciting opportunity to tie leather to our landscape and to our farming community, rather than the majority of our raw materials being exported because we don't have the infrastructure. There's an opportunity to create those new connections and have more of a closed-loop system – not necessarily exactly the same as [Collection 374] – but in a farmer and designer connection. There is the opportunity to do that on a much larger scale.