When you think about veganism, it’s common to associate the practice first with diet, but when it comes to going vegan, clothing is a huge piece of the cruelty-free puzzle. If you don't practice veganism, you may not know that it doesn't just limit menu options or restaurants, but also touches on everyday items from clothing to beauty products, and even cars. Increasingly, "vegan" has become a buzzword in the fashion community, but it's important to understand why this movement away from animal products is on the rise. For those that both make and work with clothing on a day to day basis, there's careful consideration why and how vegan fashion can make an impact on more than a single self, but the environment and well-being of others in the larger sense.
Over the past decade, mindful consumerism has become a greater focus with vegan fashion as an important segment. The industry is making strides toward more sustainable and ethical practices from luxury brands like Stella McCartney — which operates a sustainable and cruelty-free business with materials like vegetarian leather, organic cotton, recycled nylon and polyester, and more — to independent and emerging labels like Nanushka, a Budapest-based brand working with vegan leather, and Sydney Brown, a sustainable, luxury shoe line made from 100 percent vegan materials. More and more, consumers are looking to brands for answers about not just what they produce, but how they produce it — including materials, labor, and even a brand's carbon footprint.
“Personally, I feel very passionate about sustainability, to protect what we have and to cherish this planet,” says Nanushka founder Sandra Sandor. “When I came across the vegan leather I instantly started thinking how can we use it, what kind of designs can a I create it with it." An interest in sustainable production is also what drew footwear designer Sydney Brown to vegan options. “I began the brand because I loved great design but had very few footwear options that were sustainably made and animal-free,” Brown says of her eponymous label. “There was a definite void in the market, as there were so many others who also felt this conflict. This market is now growing exponentially, which is so exciting!”
Delving into vegan fashion is a personal journey and for those who choose to participate can also bleed into other areas of life or be connected to more than just clothing.
“After five years of navigating the food scene, I just woke up one day feeling like a hypocrite," explains stylist and brand consultant Rachael Wang about her choice to become fully vegan. "It was an important next step for me to be able express my values not only through food but with everything that I consume from clothes and accessories to home goods and furniture.”
In her own quest to part ways with animal products, Wang — who's worked with brands like Bergdorf Goodman, Bottega Veneta, Allure, and Nike — took an opportunity to hit reset and change her entire wardrobe, a challenge that opened her eyes into how much she would be giving up in the process.
“Right around the time I had started considering transitioning my wardrobe, I was preparing to move so it was a great opportunity for me to purge,” Wang shares. “I donated any work-appropriate leather handbags and shoes to Dress for Success, sold some pricier items, and dropped the rest of my leather goods off at Housing Works. I basically had two pairs of Vans, some vegan Birkenstocks, and a pair of satin pumps left. I decided to just try to survive in a more conservative and minimal way rather than letting the greedy consumer in me replace everything I just got rid of with new vegan things.”
To replenish the items she overhauled, it was more important for Wang to take her time and research brands with ethical and sustainable manufacturing processes which ultimately has led to her consuming at a much slower rate. “I really don't need as much stuff as I thought I did,” she says. “I'm really concerned with wearing things more and buying less.”
Still, for someone newly entering the vegan fashion game, it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. Not everyone may have the resources to find brands creating sustainable vegan products. And, many items from ethically made brands are more expensive as it’s costly to source and produce them in an ethical way. For Sandor, it's an evolving process, "as we are a small company, the process to transition to a full vegan leather range is slower as we need to absorb the extra costs that come with this commitment," says Sandor. "At the moment we are on this journey, trying to source the best materials to develop a full vegan accessory range."
Wang is understanding of the costs and challenges brands face when implementing ethical vegan guidelines, but through her own work she's discovered surprising sources of innovation. “I'm most excited about Piñatex, a leather-like fabric made out of pineapple leaves and the company Modern Meadow whose biofabricated materials will eventually change the industry." The fashion stylist also notes Nomadic State of Mind sandals and the shoe line Rafa are current favorites.
When price is a factor, Wang points out that many fast-fashion brands accidentally make a lot of vegan products, but they’re not her ideal in terms of ethics. “To be honest, I don't feel completely comfortable supporting that industry, buying things made from synthetics is not my ideal was to consume,” she shares, acknowledging that there is no easy solution.
As an alternative, Wang likes second-hand shopping as a sustainable way to consume — the practice keeps items out of landfills without negative manufacturing repercussions as items already in existence are simply being repurposed.
“I have been knocking around how I feel about buying leather goods secondhand for many months now and though I haven't bought anything yet, I have come to the decision that I feel better about the sustainability and lack of environmental impact of buying leather secondhand than buying a fast-fashion, synthetic version simply because it's vegan,” Wang says. “This is a very personal decision and ethical vegans will certainly disagree, but until brands start producing products that are both ethical and made from sustainable materials, people will have to choose what is most important to them.”
Ashlee Piper, a vegan eco-lifestyle expert and author of the book, Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet is also an advocate of shopping secondhand and says there are a lot of things that go into making the best wardrobing choices you can. “Veganism is one component, but it’s not the only one,” she says. “I've found [secondhand shopping] the most practical and environmentally responsible thing sometimes and environmentalism for me isn’t just in a vacuum of veganism. Veganism is a part of it, but it’s not the only part of it.”
Piper also explains how she has held on to certain items that might have animal products in them for the purpose of utility, like a down winter coat she’s had for ten-plus years. “I’m not a real advocate of indulging that impulse where, if you become vegan, you get rid of every single animal material in your closet,” she says.
“I wouldn’t want someone to feel like they’re any less vegan if they’re still wearing something or getting use out of something that they’ve had pre-vegan,” she says. “This is personal preference — everybody has their own special rubric. I just feel if you’ve already got it, there’s no point in stressing yourself about getting rid of it. You shouldn’t have to worry about what other people would say.”
Through her research Piper has become an expert in the vegan fashion space, curating a resource list of vegan-friendly brands from Matt & Nat to Nicora, a third-generation female shoemaker that has one of the only eco-friendly, entirely vegan ethical factories in the US.
“It’s opened up a whole new way I look at dressing and a whole new way I look at buying things,” Piper says. “It required me to embrace a more minimalist lifestyle, needing less and buying less and using what you have is one of the most eco-friendly things you can do.”
Piper looks at vegan fashion as a way for shoppers to move toward the trend of capsule wardrobing, too. “Your options are slightly more limited but the quality of the items that are within your reach, that you would want to invest in, are a lot of times so much better,” she says. “The ideological quality and the physical quality, too.”
Every vegan fashion journey is unique whether the goal is to transition to a vegan wardrobe like Wang and Piper or simply become a more mindful consumer. Both vegans agree that it's OK to go slow.
“Forget about being the ‘perfect vegan’ and focus on just consuming in a more mindful way one purchase at a time," Wang says. "Every conscious purchase is better than an unconscious one. Continue to shop at the stores you love but simply read labels and be choosier about what you buy from those brands and don't be afraid to give feedback or inquire about vegan options. Those simple requests, when voiced by thousands of thoughtful customers will eventually change the industry.”