In all its different iterations, designs, and trends, leather is one of those materials that seems to remain relevant in fashion eternally. From luxury bags and sneakers to runway collections and everyday wardrobe essentials, leather is a style staple. But as shoppers, designers, and the fashion industry as a whole turn their gaze toward environmentally friendly fashion, vegan leather has sprouted as a new heavyweight player in the sartorial landscape. And with innovative plant-based and synthetic textiles being introduced, the question of how to clean faux leather becomes more relevant and nuanced as the trend continues to grow.
Many designers and brand executives have made the necessary switch to recognizing and embracing sustainability in their collections in recent years. Nonetheless, given that real leather has been a staple in fashion for centuries due to its durability, and faux leather was once relegated to subpar, “tacky” status, convincing people that they should choose cruelty-free mock leather over virgin leather can pose somewhat of a challenge. That being said, brands including Stella McCartney, Nanushka, Aritzia, Cult Gaia, Everlane, and Veja, among others, have found success selling vegan leather products as part of their brand identities. It’s undeniable that this trend has taken hold for the long haul.
As Ioanna Topouzoglou, the founder and creative director of Mashu, a luxury vegan bag brand rooted in sustainability, tells TZR, the demand for vegan leather in fashion is only increasing. “With the imminent and apparent threat of climate change, we are all becoming increasingly conscious about what we consume and buy,” Topouzoglou says. “Whilst there is a lot of work to do, more and more consumers are becoming increasingly educated on what they should and shouldn’t be buying, and more shoppers are considering vegan leather options as ways to responsibly add to their wardrobes.”
As the faux leather fashion industry grows and consumers add more vegan pieces to their closets, naturally the topic of care and cleaning comes up. After all, there are tons of different types of vegan leathers now — cactus leather, apple leather, polyester-based leather, pineapple leather, and so on. So, here’s the breakdown of how to clean your faux leather pieces and keep them looking new for as long as possible. After all, the goal is long-term sustainability.
Different Types Of Faux Leather
While much of the contemporary faux leather trend is centered on the pillars of sustainability, that doesn’t mean that all faux leathers are created equal. In fact, while you may see vegan or faux leather and immediately think of environmentally conscious materials, the two are not necessarily synonymous with eco-friendly sourcing or even high quality.
Despite being inherently touted as more ethical than real leather, some faux leathers are not much better. “A lot of the vegan leathers that exist are made from petrochemicals like PVC or PU, which are toxic,” Topouzoglou says. Not only are some faux leathers bad for the environment, [but] they can also be cheap and flimsy, particularly in older pieces that aren’t part of the new wave of innovative vegan leather materials.
As Zachary Pozniak, the vice president of operations at Jeeves New York and the face of the dry cleaner’s viral TikTok account, tells TZR, most of those older faux leathers are basically vinyl or plastic coating on top of fabric. “Unfortunately, long term, it is very much the worst [purchase] decision I would say,” Pozniak says. “What happens is when it gets older, it falls apart, and when faux leather falls apart, all it does is peel and melt off.”
However, as the amount of faux leather pieces out in the world has increased, so too has their quality, sustainability, and diversity of material. Not only are newer materials better for the planet, but they are also designed to be more durable and are easier to take care of in the long run. “We use new innovative materials such as Pinatex (a vegan material made from pineapple leaves) or Frumat (a vegan leather made from apples), which are made in a responsible, low-impact way that ensures both high durability and responsible end-of-life disposal,” says Topouzoglou.
Another new trending vegan leather is the durable cactus leather. The star of Everlane’s latest bag campaign is Desserto, a nopal cactus material created by Mexican duo Adrian Lopez Velarde and Marte Cazarez back in 2019. Waterproof, strong, easy to clean, and close in texture to soft virgin leather, cactus leather is a top choice for many vegan designers these days.
How To Clean Faux Leather
The good thing about vegan leather is that the cleaning process remains fairly the same regardless of textile. One of the facets faux leather has always held over real leather is the ease of its cleaning process, according to Pozniak. “You really just need a little bit of slightly soapy water,” Pozniak says. “I recommend putting a couple drops of dish soap in a cup of warm water, getting a clean towel, and wiping it down.”
The reasoning behind this shockingly simple water and soap cleaning method is the lack of pores in faux leather textiles. “It's not like your fabric is going to get saturated with water, and in some regard you could classify it as water-resistant or waterproof,” Pozniak explains. “Water is never going to be able to enter it. So in terms of care, all you can really do is wipe it down. It’s interesting for us as dry cleaners to look at it because in some ways faux leather is actually more stain-resistant [than real leather].”
That being said, if you happen to stain a vegan leather piece, the sooner you get to it, the better. “If there are any spills, simply clean it as soon as you can with a damp cloth,” Topouzoglou says. “The most sensible thing to do is to never use harsh chemicals to clean the material and to always try and use a cloth with some water, or a water-based wet wipe if you are on the go. Never use chemical sprays, but you can use a natural multi-surface cleaning spray.”
As for care and prevention of aging with faux leather goods, Topouzoglou emphasizes proper storage of her vegan leather accessories at Mashu. “The most important thing that we tell our customers is to always store your bag in the dust bag provided when you aren’t wearing it,” she says. “Storage is key — keep it in the dust bag and try not to pile it on top or underneath a lot of other items, as this will impact the bag’s structure over time.” Though speaking directly to vegan leather bags, Topouzoglou’s advice rings true for all plant-based leather goods.
As vegan materials continue to trend and make their way deeper into the fashion ecosystem, it’s important to learn how to properly maintain and clean faux leather. As part of the goal of making fashion more sustainable and ethical, vegan leathers can be enjoyed for a lifetime, not a season, when treated with care.