If there's one thing I learned from the Ethical Writers Coalition's latest event on vegan fashion, it's that the vegan fashion world welcomes us all. As many people continue to mindlessly (and constantly) shop, vegan designers carefully navigate an industry that often times flaunts its disregard for animals as they carve out a place for their statistically niche market. Their aim (contrary to the conventional fashion industry) is not to remain exclusive. In fact, their aim is to make vegan fashion so undeniably cool and well-designed that even the celebrities on PETA's Worst Dressed List will want to be seen it in.
The discussion was moderated by Joshua Katcher, an adjunct professor at Parsons The New School, founder of Brave Gentleman, and editor of The Discerning Brute. The panel, organized by Jacquelyn of The Stylish Kind, included designers of menswear, womenswear, shoes, and accessories. Katcher and fellow vegan fashion designers Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart of Vaute Couture, Melanie Linehan of animal behavior, Sugandh G. Agrawal of Gunas, and Arti Upadhyay of Neuaura discussed the challenges and latest innovations of the vegan fashion industry.
Although they cover different areas of fashion, the panelists were united in their commitment to veganism, their compassion for animals (among other causes), and their faith that good design will trump tradition. Linehan lamented, "It's hard to be seen as a fashion brand that's also vegan, instead of a vegan fashion brand." Katcher questioned the designers on what can be done to address the belief that vegan design cannot be cool and fashionable. Agrawal believes that technology will up the coolness factor of vegan fashion in the future, 3D printing being one example. Mai-ly Hilgart was adamant in her belief that vegans are the rebellious and cool ones in the fashion world because of their convictions. An interesting point that came up in the discussion is how some brands now use the term "vegan leather" as a selling point. Mai-ly Hilgart dubbed this phenomenon "accidentally vegan" and clarified that it's not the same as intentionally building your brand from the ground up as vegan; she's also a big proponent of purposefully using the word vegan to market brands (some brands shy away from the label).
From the start of my search for sustainable fashion, I have considered vegan fashion to be an option under the umbrella of sustainability. After I became vegetarian, I decided not to buy any new leather though I have bought silk and alpaca wool. For the most part, I buy second hand clothing which is acceptable to me even if it is an animal product. If you only look at one aspect of the product (its vegan-ness), it's possible to buy vegan clothing made from toxic materials in a sweatshop. Vegan is not the same as sustainable. For this reason, I will always look at more than one ethical aspect before I buy. Not that these designers are in that camp at all — all of their brands take a holistic view of sustainability. Upadhyay said, "When you're on that vegan level, you're awareness is so heightened. You start to think about the larger impact of what you're buying." Vegan is but one aspect, but I am willing (and wanting) to promote it to the umbrella under which all of my other sustainable checkboxes reside. This transformation will be a process I'm sure, but another take away from the night was that no one is perfect and we should all do what we can. Mai-ly Hilgart prefers to see it this way: "This is not a sacrifice; this is a way to empower myself."
There are technological advances in materials that are making this an easier transition and an exciting prospect. Wood pulp, cork, coated canvas, 3D printing, Piñatex, and lab cultured leather are all on the horizon as alternatives to animal based products. I hope that fashion designers see these new products as an opportunity to refresh a tired and creatively bankrupt industry. I hope that they use them with ingenuity because they are excellent materials which also happen to be vegan. A caveat from Agrawal reminded us to give the new materials time to improve and to celebrate them as they are, rather than comparing them to the originals. Everyone agreed that as the unconventional choice, vegan aesthetics and materials have to be better than conventional ones and that poor design and materials reflect poorly on the whole industry.
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