Your Road Map To The Ever-Expanding World Of Vegan Leathers

No animals were harmed in the making of this guide.

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Courtesy of AG Jeans

“Dupe” — in a fashion context — is no longer such a bad word. From perfumes to furniture to handbags, fakes and alternatives are now talked about out in the open rather than in covert shame-tinged whispers, with whole websites dedicated to sourcing the best knockoffs and magazine series devoted to the discussion. And while the search for cost-effective or more widely available stand-ins for our favorite exclusive designer pieces is driving this growing market, concern for our planet’s well-being is largely the catalyst behind a burgeoning boom in vegan leather. By definition, leather is treated animal skin, so “vegan leather” is a bit of a misnomer for the numerous textiles recently developed to sub in for the premium material. With about two-thirds of consumers noting sustainability as a priority in their shopping decision-making per a recent McKinsey study, it’s easy to see why designers are exploring the possibilities in everything from recycled plastic to pineapples to craft believable alternatives for the classic, durable natural fabric. Established mega-brands including Gucci, Stella McCartney, and Nanushka have all dipped a toe into the expanding space.

Despite the excitement around and investments into these myriad leather-mimicking options, there are also a number of strong supporting points for the oppositional argument, one being that animal hides are a byproduct of our food industry (cattle is not simply raised and killed to produce the leather used by the fashion industry). This means consumers can expect some guaranteed availability of product for natural leather so long as the world continues to consume cattle for their meat. Additionally, real leather is typically far more robust and long-lasting than its plant-based counterparts, so many vegan leather brands blend synthetic polymers with their respective plant materials to compensate. This can be seen as counterintuitive, given many of these plastics are not biodegradable.

Reporting from Forbes also suggests that a number of smaller tanneries may account for an outsized negative environmental impact, as they’re cutting corners to compete on price with their vegan leather rivals, leading them to operate “without safe chemical, waste, and worker conditions.” Leather is often tanned with chromium, arsenic, and formaldehyde, which are considered human carcinogens. Runoff of the chemicals used to process leather can also have major consequences for the surrounding environment.

The phrase “vegan leather” is in its relative infancy, so its loose definition and the lack of any real commonly acknowledged restrictions around what qualifies has given way to a Wild West atmosphere, wherein things like mushroom, cacti, and apples all emulating the same feel of leather seem to classify. There are some valid concerns as to whether these dupes are a greener option, but designers facing environmental concerns will likely continue to experiment and innovate in hopes of creating a more sustainable industry. See below for some notes on the various vegan leather alternatives and a rundown of their respective manufacturing processes.

Lab-Grown Leather

Luxury group Kering manages a number of fashion’s heavy-hitter luxury brands, including Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, and Saint Laurent. So their vote of confidence by way of a $46 million investment in lab-grown leather startup VitroLabs (founded in 2016) may be a harbinger of what’s to come. (Another big-name backer was Leonardo DiCaprio, who invested in the organization’s Series A funding round last year.) The biotech company’s process includes growing leather from cells, procured via a “one-time biopsy from a living animal,” per their website. Producing the animal hide-derived material in a controlled environment accelerates the process from what would take years naturally to a matter of weeks in a bioreactor, according to the startup. VitroLabs’ website explains that the hides go directly into tanning with no additional processing necessary once growth is complete, streamlining the process, “meaning a significant reduction in environmental impact.”

Fruit-Derived Leather

Pineapple, apple, mango, and coconut all sound great for a summer smoothie, but as it turns out you can wear them now, too. These fruits are among the most commonly used for leather alternatives, and though they’re all referred to by their fruit names, different parts of the actual fruits are incorporated; for example, pineapple leather, called Piñatex, is made from pineapple leaf fibers.

The non-woven textile is known for its durability, but it’s not waterproof (though it is water resistant) and has a low resistance to fire and heat. It’s cheaper than classic leather, but it’s also not yet 100% biodegradable; Piñatex’s manufacturers note that the substrate/base material of the textile is “80 percent pineapple leaf fibre, 20 percent PLA” and claim it is biodegradable under “controlled industry conditions.”

Milanese accessories brand THEMOIRè uses pineapple as well as apple, cactus, and recycled leather in their lines. Co-founders and creative directors Francesca Monaco and Salar Bicheranloo count sustainability as their brand’s overarching mission statement and chief focus, so they’ve experimented with nearly every leather alternative under the sun: “Since protecting nature is one of our biggest concerns, we create our products using as many responsible and recyclable materials as possible,” they say in a statement to TZR.

Mansur Gavriel is another brand that has found inspiration in fruit-based leather alternatives, particularly apple leather. The accessories label is known for its bestselling bucket bag and counts Taylor Swift, Jessica Alba, and Margot Robbie as fans. Brand founders Rachel Mansur and Floriana Gavriel were inspired by their network of pals to break into the vegan leather space.

“We have vegan friends who have asked us for years to try something that is vegan,” Mansur and Gavriel tell TZR via email. “We loved the idea of the material being a byproduct of fruit, since fruit is such an inspiration to us as a brand. We also love that our apple material has a clean, structured look and takes color so beautifully. We are very excited to offer a non-leather alternative that is derivative of fruit and still captures our aesthetic essence.”

Like Piñatex, apple leather is also not yet 100% biodegradable. The pulverized skins are blended with a resin to create the imitation leather, which is known for its strength and UV resistance but is ultimately not as resilient as natural leather.

Mushroom Leather

Hermès and Stella McCartney were among the earliest mushroom leather adopters in the luxury brand arena. Stella McCartney’s mushroom leather bag was introduced in the fall of 2021 at the brand’s SS ‘22 show. Hermès backed the California-based startup Mycoworks, which makes a product called Mycelium. Per the Mycoworks website, Mycelium “naturally forms a solid foam that can be compressed into a leather-like material. But compressed mycelium, also known as mushroom leather, does not offer the performance and strength of animal- and synthetic leathers.” Despite its drawbacks, mushroom leather is known for its durability, as well as being waterproof.

Cactus Leather

As those who lack green thumbs know well, cacti are famously fine without much water. With its relatively tiny water footprint, the appeal of using the low-maintenance plant in textile making is obvious. The leaves of the nopal cactus are what provide the fabrication for this leather alternative. According to cactus leather brand Desserto, its materials are biodegradable “under anaerobic thermophilic conditions.” Organic pigments are incorporated to dye the textiles as well as the natural cactus chlorophyll. Also in the cactus leather game is American retailer Everlane.

Plastic Leather

Courtesy of AG Jeans.

Some brands, including THEMOIRè, use recycled plastic (in their case, recycled plastic bottles) to reduce environmental impact. Popular accessories brand Telfar uses vegan leather made with a polyester/polyurethane blend, which, per the label’s website, was a choice driven mainly by pricing: “The decision to make our iconic Shopping Bag from faux leather was guided by our desire to create an affordable product that fosters community and a sense of belonging through accessibility rather than through the exclusivity created by the high prices typical of luxury handbags.”

Durability is one of the major drawbacks of polyurethane vegan leathers, in comparison to natural leather. The finish of plastic leather is known for losing luster over time as well as being prone to cracks and peeling. While polyurethane has a high resistance to abrasion, PVC is known as the more durable of the two. This said, it should be noted that while polyurethane — or PU — leather is considered a safer alternative to PVC from a toxicity standpoint, it is still derived from fossil fuels and not biodegradable.

The Future Of Alternative Leathers

With so many directions to go in the expanding universe of leather alternatives, what’s most clear right now is that there’s still no consensus on which option is best overall. Time may ultimately tell that natural leather is the least harmful of the routes now at our disposal. But with new, cost-effective avenues to explore in terms of avoiding animal hides opening up at every turn, both emerging and established brands seem to feel they owe it to their consumers to experiment with the burgeoning trend. As THEMOIRè’s founders say, there’s still much work to be done in the pursuit of the least harmful, best quality fabrication materials; they hope that increasing interest in and research about the arena guides their steps in the right direction.

“We firmly believe that vegan fabric is a big development in the sustainable fashion industry, but a lot of work still needs to be done to achieve better-performing materials that are responsible to the planet, animals, and people,” they explain. “We feel like we’re still at the starting point when it comes to technology applied to sustainability. Our commitment at THEMOIRè is to work in this direction as well as supporting a new supply chain that really considers the environmental and social impact of our products’ journey.”

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