Fashion

Vegan leather, it’s a meaty issue

In the first of BURO’s regular deep-dives into a fashion hot topic, Olivia Lidbury asks if animal-free alternatives can ever replace the sex appeal of a real leather jacket

Olivia Lidbury | 20.10.2019

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News of our world hurtling towards environmental destruction is hard to avoid, and many of us have been inspired to consume less animal produce. But it’s one thing ordering the Beetnik Burger at BYRON, quite another going vegan in our choice of leather jacket. You can’t replicate the sexy smell, or that distinctive patina real cow hide takes on over time… or can you?

Sandra Sandor, the founder of cult contemporary label Nanushka, thinks so. She has exclusively used vegan leather in place of animal skins since 2016.‘I like that it looks and feels like real leather, but it's kinder to the environment,’ Sandor tells BURO.

What is ‘vegan leather’?

As its name suggests, no animals are involved in the making of 'vegan leather'. Instead, a trio of synthetic plastics all starting with P, such as PU (polyurethane), polyester and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are most commonly used to get the much-admired look of hides. But that doesn’t mean all faux leathers qualify as vegan; some glues used to make bags and shoes contain animal gelatins, so it’s always worth checking. As the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled since 2014 (it’s now 600,000 according to The Vegan Society), it’s unsurprising that those excluding animal products from their plate are demanding the same from their wardrobes.

Guests seen outside Nanushka during New York Fashion Week Autumn Winter 2019 | GETTY

"IT WAS A NANUSHKA CHESTNUT PUFFER JACKET THAT EVERYONE WANTED TO BE SEEN WRAPPING UP IN AT THE SHOWS."

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Seeking hide alternatives

Motivated by a desire to ‘preserve our planet for future generations,’ turning her back on leather hasn’t done Nanushka's fashion cred any harm. It was the brand's chestnut puffer jacket that everyone wanted to be seen wrapping up in at the shows last year, and its vegan leather skirts and tailored trousers lend a luxe touch to any outfit.

Of the benefits of using a leather alternative, she adds: ‘It means we can cut out the tanning process which is usually achieved by harsh chemicals. The vegan leather we use is also produced with less water and doesn’t contain any toxic chemicals or PVC.’

And good news! Vegan leather is generally low maintenance: unlike a calfskin biker, its faux counterpart can, in most cases, be washed at home on a 30-degree cycle. So, if you’ve been put off buying leather leggings because of the need for a cleaning specialist, a vegan substitute offers a laundry-friendly alternative.

"TURNING HER BACK ON LEATHER HASN’T DONE HER FASHION CRED ANY HARM. IT WAS A NANUSHKA CHESTNUT PUFFER JACKET THAT EVERYONE WANTED TO BE SEEN WRAPPING UP IN AT THE SHOWS."

The ethical labels to love

A slew of new brands, including Georgia-based Matériel and NYC’s Orseund Iris have embraced vegan leather in their collections. In Los Angeles, footwear label Rafa creates most of its shoes using suede-effect fabric engineered from 80% recycled materials, such as plastic bottles.

These names are catering to demand from a more socially conscious consumer: Lyst, the global fashion search platform, reports that searches for vegan leather have increased by 50% this summer alone.

Stella’s star power

But the woman who paved the way for animal-free alternatives within the luxury market long before sustainability became a hot topic is Stella McCartney. The lifelong vegetarian has never compromised over her refusal to use leather and fur in her collections.

Instead, since 2013, the designer’s eponymous brand has used alter-nappa, made of polyester and polyurethane, for its iconic Falabella bags and shoes. They’re backed with recycled polyester and coated with 50 % vegetable oil, a renewable, natural resource.

image courtesy of stella mccartney

But is vegan leather actually better for the environment?

McCartney is the first to admit that synthetic alternatives to leather don’t come without their own environmental concerns. Polyester and polyurethane – which Nanushka’s vegan leather pieces are also composed of – are man-made. The former is derived from oil and polluting to produce, releasing plastic microfibers into the water system every time it’s washed.

According to McCartney’s calculations, vegan leather – once deforestation, tanning and water pollution from the chemicals involved to treat hides is accounted for – creates 24 times less of an environmental impact than Brazilian calf leather. Current iterations of vegan leather score highly where the welfare of animals are concerned, but it’s not setting the gold standard for sustainability just yet.

Future-proofing

Morgane Le Caer, a Fashion Insights Reporter at Lyst, says: ‘I wouldn’t be surprised to see demand for vegan leather decline in favour of other bio-based alternatives such as lab-grown leather, which, although in its early stages of development, is already creating a lot of excitement among designers.’

With apple peel, pineapple leaves, cork and other fruit waste all being billed as leather alternatives of the future, maybe now’s the time to slip on something more sustainable than a real leather jacket.

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