“We have to hold ourselves accountable, because we represent all vegan fashion with what we do,” Joshua Katcher said during the Ethical Writers Coalition panel Vegan Fashion: Issues and Innovation in Sustainability.
Katcher, who was moderating, was speaking to the fact that present at the panel were some of the most prominent vegan fashion designers in the market, whose designs define vegan fashion today. Joshua Katcher designs dapper men fashion for Brave GentleMan and runs the vegan website The Discerning Brute. Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart of Vaute Couture often dresses vegan celebrities in her warm and sustainable winter coats. Melanie Linehan is the founder and CEO of animal behavior, a new brand I’m quite in love with. Sugandh G. Agrawal designs perfect purses for Gunas. And Arti Upadhyay of Neuaura designs cruelty-free shoes.
The Enemy of Good
The panel had come together to discuss the conflict between the sustainable fashion community and the vegan community. Often, those interested in sustainable fashion shy away from vegan fashion because it’s can be made out of PVC, a fairly toxic material. But the panelists weren’t down with that idea. Katcher pointed out that livestock production is one of the most polluting and resource intensive industries in the world. Just moving away from that is already a huge step toward more sustainable living.
Hilgart aims to hit all points– vegan, eco-friendly, ethically made in the U.S., last forever, beautiful – but it’s not possible to do all of them, immediately, 100%. “As far as being perfect, I can’t make perfect clothes,” she said. “Maybe someday. We take the steps we can and continue to improve.”
“Patagonia did a great job of saying, we don’t do this well and we’re trying to do better,” Linehan said. “I love that they’re being transparent.”
And Agrawal talked about her own struggle trying to be perfect. “I wanted to do everything right – I wanted to make it in Manhattan, I wanted to use high-quality materials, I wanted to personally work with the factories. That was expensive. Eventually, you have to give something up. I’ve tried production everywhere – China, Korea, India, Brazil. No one has ever done this before, so there is no set path. You have to learn from your mistakes.”
Upadhyay concurred on the question of production. “We produce in China,” she said. “We work with a small boutique factory. I don’t want people to think of China as a sweatshop. I’ve been there for the past ten years, I’ve seen what’s happened. I’m a proponent of China, even though some of the vegans resist it.”
Vegan and Chic?
Panelists also discussed the stigma that comes with marketing a vegan brand. “It’s hard to be seen as a fashion brand that is also vegan instead of a vegan fashion brand,” Linehan said. “I wanted to first be a fashion brand and then a vegan brand. Vegan fashion gets encapsulated into its own community, but we’re not invited into the larger fashion community. Going against the grain isn’t celebrated as much as seen as inferior.”
“Ethical fashion is being rebellious,” Hilgart asserted, “because people who are following the runways, those people have been bought and they don’t even know it.” This bold statement received applause from the audience.
And Linehan discussed her frustration with the apprehension people have about ethical and sustainable fashion. “The first thing they react to when they see the line, they say, ‘Oh it’s so contemporary and chic!’ My response is, ‘Thank you, why shouldn’t it be?’
Upadhyay beseeched the media to rethink the way they discuss vegan fashion. “It’s very important that people who write about vegan fashion stop comparing it to leather. Because you’re putting the thought into their head that, well, maybe I should just buy a leather bag.”
Katcher has the unique problem of convincing men that vegan can still mean manly, since compassion is often associated with women. “We shame men for showcasing emotion,” he said about society’s expectations. “And that’s an issue that’s bigger than just fashion. I have to play around with mainstream male marketing and my identity. It played a role in how I named my company, Brave GentleMan, and in how I describe my products.”
All the panelists agreed that the path to convincing more people to go vegan lies in showing them beautiful things that you would wear regardless of your knowledge and views on animal cruelty. “Focus on something that people will already love, whether or not they consider themselves vegan,” counseled Hilgart, who has turned several unsuspecting customers onto ethical fashion.
“Don’t put strong images and videos on your Instagram and Facebook,” Upadhyay said. “People just won’t go on your website, because they’re afraid.”
Agrawal agreed, “People who are not vegans, they have an image of vegans in their mind of a strong personality. People tend to run away from that. We can change their minds by educating them, but not forcing that on them.”
Exciting New Technology
Agrawal said one way to market vegan fashion as edgy would be to focus on the technology. “New age designers need to make technology cool,” she said.
To that end, the audience got a sneak peek at the exciting new things the vegan fashion industry and designers on the panel are working on. Katcher is working with a company out of Brazil that turns recycled poly fibers into tweed-like materials, perfect for suits. Even more exciting, leather can now be grown in a lab, for a more sustainable and cruelty-free replacement for livestock production. Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow is pioneering the field, and hopes to replace the leather industry in five years if they get enough investment.
“I’m really excited about 3D printing,” Agrawal said when asked what she’s looking forward to. She also listed a whole bevy of vegan materials: coated canvas made not with PVC but with PU, which is not as destructive to the environment; cork; wood pulp that has been pressed into layers and functions like leather; fabulous recycled tires; bark cloth for clothing; and Pinatex, which is made out of pineapple fibers. She passed around samples for the audience to feel and see. “There’s a lot of research that goes into finding materials, but once you go out there, you’ll find so many options,” she said.
And Hilgart announced that Vaute is seeking outside funding. “We have so much demand that we’re ready to take the next step,” she said. She’s joined Circle Up, which connects conscious consumer companies with investors, and is hiring.
Don’t Be Overwhelmed
One thing I wanted to discuss was the subject of guilt and being overwhelmed by information. As a conscious consumer, I often find myself being exhausted by all the work I have to do, and also feeling guilty for the “bad” choices I make.
But Hilgart thinks ethical shopping can be simple. “If I were consuming the way I used to consume, going to the mall with my mom, getting some Auntie Anne’s, that’s a lot of choices to make,” she said. So she goes with thrift shopping. “It’s affordable and fun. I buy 85% thrift and fill the rest in with items from companies I love and trust.”
“Think of it like a sports jersey,” Linehan said. “Who are you representing with your fashion? That can simplify it.”
“Prioritize what your ethics are,” Agrawal said. “Rather than trying to do everything in one go.” Hilgart agreed. “Be kind to yourself. Do what you can. It’s important to care of yourself, and think about what is truly effective, and what has the most impact.”
“Just showing up to your friends party with vegan cupcakes, and they’re like ‘Thank you!’ And you’re like, ‘Yeah, no big deal.'” She smiled a sweet smile at that, and everyone laughed.
All photos by Elizabeth Stilwell