Vegan. If there’s one word already in the running for Word of the Year 2019, it has to be that. One currently cannot move without seeing it – or its “veganism” or “veganuary” derivatives – plastered over book jackets, coffee-shop menus and our Instagram feeds. Google the V word and nearly eight million articles pop up, exploring everything from “what’s the best vegan milk” to “where to buy a vegan lipstick”. But while vegan food and beauty products have been on our radar for a while, a new territory is currently undergoing the vegan treatement – fashion.
Last week, it was announced that the first vegan fashion week will be taking place in February this year. Comprised of catwalk shows from vegan-friendly designers, the fashion week is to be hosted in Los Angeles – a city that has already banned the sale and manufacture of fur.
“Since 2017, we have seen an organic growth in customers searching the term ‘vegan’ on our UK and Australian sites,” says a spokesperson for Free People. In response to the increased demand, the brand has created The Vegan Shop – a dedicated area on the website that highlights its vegan offering.
As of spring, luxury online retailer Net-A-Porter will be expanding its vegan range off the back of strong sales of brand such as Nanushka. It will be launching vegan brand, OCHI, for the spring/summer season, as well as vegan trainers from Veja and vegan leather jackets by Oresund Iris.
The high street is getting in on the vegan act, too. Marks & Spencer has just announced that, in response to vegan searches on its website more than doubling in the past year, it is launching a 350-strong vegan-friendly shoe collection. The styles, which span women’s, men’s and kidswear, are a development on its existing synthetic shoe offering, with all components now not including anything animal-derived. “After increased customer interest in veganism and a rise in online searches for related products, we decided to investigate the possibility of expanding our vegan-friendly offering into footwear and accessories. Over the last year, we have analysed our products and gone the extra mile to ensure we offer a great selection that comply with all vegan requirements.” says Rachel Smith, senior footwear technologist. Some styles have already dropped online, with more to come over the coming weeks.
The climate crisis has forced many people to think about the impact that our buying choices have on the planet and the animals who live on it
With brands such as Nanushka and Kitri reporting sellouts of their vegan styles (the latter’s Jacqueline vegan-leather shirt dress sold out in record time – it has since been restocked), it’s clear that there is an substantial appetite for vegan clothes among us shoppers. So, why has it become so popular?
“The climate crisis has forced many people to think about the impact that our buying choices have on the planet and the animals who live on it,” explains PETA director Elisa Allen, who predicts that the vegan leather industry will be worth $85bn by 2025. Indeed, with regular headlines detailing the pollution and waste that comes from the fashion industry, and with programmes such as Blue Planet broadcasting the effects to a global audience, it’s virtually impossible not to think a little bit more about the impact that our shopping habits have. Allen tells me that a recent report by management company, Bain & Company, shows that animal welfare is a key concern for consumers under 35. With millennials currently estimated to have the most spending power, it’s no small wonder, then, that vegan fashion is experiencing such a boom.
The fact that vegan fashion has upped its style factor surely contributes to the rise in popularity, too. Where, previously, one might have felt they had to compromise on aesthetics, the new spate of vegan-friendly clothes have designs and finishes that rival their non-vegan counterparts. In fact, in many cases, you can’t tell the difference. “Faux and vegan leather has historically been quite low-quality and cheap-looking, so it was important to us that the vegan leather we used matched the quality of real leather,” says Kitri founder Haeni Kim. Kim also suggests another reason as to why vegan clothes have caught on – cost: “Good vegan leather is not cheap, but it is no where near the cost of using real leather, so it is a much better price proposition for our customers, too.”
So, what actually is vegan fashion? Like food and beauty, vegan clothes are those that don’t contain any components that come from animals, be that the fabric, dyes or glues. Not to be mistaken with pleather, vegan leather is most commonly made from cork, polyurethane or polyester. While that may ring alarm bells for some (polyurethane and polyester sound distinctly plasticky), according to PETA these alternatives are more environmentally friendly than animal leather: “Luxury-fashion giant Kering, owner of Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent, established in its 2017 Environmental Profit & Loss report that cow leather is the most polluting of all materials analysed. In contrast, polyurethane leather was found to have just half the negative environmental impact of animal leather.”
Manny Kohli, CEO of vegan bag brand Matt & Nat, points out that the vegan leather they use (made from recycled nylon, cork and rubber) is highly durable, meaning the bags last for a long time, hence need replacing less often. The brand also uses 100% recycled bottles for the bags’ linings and makes sure the factories it works with qualify for the SA8000 standard certification.
UK-based Wilby uses cork leather to product its bags, while JW PEI uses ultra-microfiber leather made from recycled plastic and plants. Co-founder Steph Li tells me that the bag brand hopes to put a bag made from 100% plants into production in the near future.
Where, previously, one might have felt they had to compromise on aesthetics, the new spate of vegan-friendly clothes have designs and finishes that rival their non-vegan counterparts
It’s worth remembering, however, that vegan doesn’t necessarily mean ethical or sustainable, only that there are no animal-derived elements. In terms of supply chain and materials, it’s worth checking with individual brands on their policies.
When it comes to identifying a vegan product, things can get a little confusing. As of yet, there is no singular global vegan certification and many brands will use their own labelling. However, The Vegan Society and PETA are recognised authorities – look for the PETA-approved vegan logo. And although cruelty-free doesn’t necessarily mean vegan, Leaping Bunny is an internationally recognised animal-friendly logo. If you’re in doubt, again, it’s worth checking out brands’ websites.
So, is vegan fashion just a trend or are we in the midst of a wardrobe revolution? According to Allen, it’s the latter: “2019 is likely to be another game-changing year for animal-friendly fashion… We'll no doubt also see more mainstream brands use innovative vegan fabrics, such as apple leather and coconut wool.” Watch this space.