PVC, pleather, leatherette – faux leather has had many identities but its latest rebrand is as an agenda-setting material. The new moniker 'vegan leather' identifies its animal-friendly credentials, spurring renewed interest in the textile.
"Vegan leather has come a long way since the days of 'pleather'," confides PETA’s director of corporate projects, Yvonne Taylor. She points to Hugo Boss, which is making hide from pineapple (called Piñatex), and a lab in New Jersey that’s experimenting with growing its own animal-free skin. "New innovations mean that natural, renewable materials can be transformed into durable, high quality, stylish, eco-friendly fabrics," she says.
The research that Taylor highlights is paying off. Those butter-soft Nanushka puffer jackets have gone from being a street style hit to racking up searches on Net-A-Porter; in the space of one season, the retailer has increased its investment in the Hungarian brand by 200%. Likewise, sneaker label Veja, beloved by the Duchess of Sussex, is reportedly a constant sellout for the website.
It’s not just the production that’s changed, but the very feel of the product. Stroke a Stella McCartney bag and the differences between the label’s vegetarian leather and the real McCoy are imperceptible. "It took us a very long time to find our vegan leather that looked and felt just right," admits Brit label Kitri’s Haeni Kim. "We love the look and feel of supple leather but did not feel right about using real animal leather for our pieces." It took a great deal of research for Kitri to find a fabric made of 100% PU and polyester that mimicked the exact feel, weight and quality of leather but when they did, they saw the same success as Nanushka and Veja.
"Due to the high demand, the quality [of faux leather] is consistently improving," believes Selfridges' designer studio buyer, Sev Halit. "Vegan leather serves as a perfect alternative to the real thing, mirroring its luxurious and timeless aesthetic." Another notable point of difference between vegan leather and animal hide is the price. Kim puts it simply: "Good vegan leather is not cheap but it is nowhere near the cost of using real leather, so it is a much better price proposition for our customers too."
Arguably, leather is the clothing industry's last acceptable animal byproduct. Not long ago, fur connoted status and luxury, allowing for instant amplification in an item's price. Now, brands across the spectrum, from Gucci to John Galliano, Burberry to Michael Kors, are promising to phase out their use of fur altogether. It's no accident that this seismic shift in attitudes coincided with the increase in quality of alternatives, like those pioneered by labels such as Shrimps and Stand.
For the Gen Z shopper, animal welfare is an important topic. Business of Fashion’s 2019 retail report acknowledged that nine out of 10 Gen Z consumers believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues, and they aren't alone. Together with millennials – another generation fighting against animal cruelty and climate change – this cohort wields some $350 billion spending power in the US alone, meaning it’s in fashion’s best interest to provide attractive, sustainable, animal-friendly alternatives.
Once mocked, a vegan lifestyle has infiltrated the mainstream. Plant-based diets are now well served by the high street, from Greggs to Waitrose and Tesco, with the latter – the UK's largest supermarket – recently launching a range of vegan ready meals. Similarly, natural beauty is now a multibillion-pound industry. Identifying a product as vegan instantly aligns it with a moral compass and opens it up to a niche but rapidly growing consumer base.
"The new narrative of vegan leather [has it] viewed as a premium product," explains Petah Marian, senior editor at trend-spotting agency WGSN. She points to the rise in numbers of vegans increasing demand for leather alternatives, but also that it’s part of a larger debate that weighs up environmentalism against ethics. When it comes to vegan leather, sustainability and animal welfare don't necessarily go hand in hand.
"It signifies an interesting shift – it says more about ethical fashion rather than sustainability. Brands are looking to serve the emerging consumer who is keen to behave in a way that does not involve wearing animals," adds Marian. "It’s important to remember that a lot of vegan leather is being manufactured using plastic-based products, which aren’t great for the environment. Leather is a byproduct of the meat production process."
While tanning leather is by no means environmentally friendly, neither is the production of vegan leather, which is rarely biodegradable and involves a lot of chemicals. Leather may have a lifecycle of generations, while an animal-friendly product could be less durable. The only way to make vegan leather sustainable would be to produce it using deadstock materials. As Marian says: "It’s good that there is demand, it shows that people’s mindsets are shifting, but like everything, there is a real risk of jumping on the trend without thinking about the actual consequences."