6 Vegan Designers You Need to Know

Beth Greenfield
Senior Writer
Yahoo Style
Joshua Katcher, Leeanne Mai-ly Hilgart, and Stephanie Nicora
Among the new crop of cruelty-free fashion makers are, from left, Joshua Katcher, Leeanne Mai-ly Hilgart, and Stephanie Nicora.

When it comes to luxury fashion, there’s no doubt that items derived from animals — whether leather, wool, silk, or fur — are generally the most coveted. But that hasn’t stopped a growing number of vegan fashion visionaries from turning out stylish shoes, coats, sweaters, and bags for those who want to look amazing while also knowing they’ve not helped kill or torment any creatures in the process.

Nevertheless, vegan fashion can be a tough sell.

“This is the last frontier in the sense that, in fashion, people tend to think about fashion as an art and not a business, and not as something that has moral implications — it’s just self-expression,” Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, founder of the Vaute Couture vegan label, tells Yahoo Style. It’s why winning the most fashion-minded individual over to items made from alternatives to especially leather and wool can be tough, despite the great leaps that these materials have made over the years.

“It gave me a great challenge because I don’t wear animals, and I want the world to stop wearing animals, so I thought, how can I make a coat that would convince even someone who doesn’t care about animals at all?” she wondered. “I couldn’t make something that was sub-par. I had to make something that would make you say, ‘Why would we wear animals when this is warmer and prettier?’”

It’s the question all vegan designers strive to help answer — and we’ve found six, in an ever-growing field of cruelty-free creators, who do it particularly well through their offerings of on-point coats, jackets, shoes, and bags — perfect for ushering you into fall and winter.

Mai-ly Hilgart; Monster Parka; Classic Pea Coat
Mai-ly Hilgart (left), founder of Vaute Couture; (top right) Monster Parka ($647, current sale price $485); (bottom right) Classic Pea, $580 (current sale price $390)

Vaute Couture

CEO and Creative Director: Mai-ly Hilgart

What to get now: Wool-free and down-free winter coats

Where to buy: New York City flagship store; vautecouture.com

Vegan “aha” moment: I stopped eating meat officially when I went to my uncle’s dairy farm. It was kind of one of those moments where everyone expects you to follow the rules, but I had just played with the cows outside, and I came in and dinner was steak, and I just couldn’t swallow it. For my fifth-grade science-fair project I picked factory farming, vivisection, and the fur industry. I titled it “Being Cruel Isn’t Cool” and sent it to a T-shirt company that actually made it! I went from being really popular to someone nobody understood.

The problem with wool: While leather is obvious, because it’s actually someone’s skin, people assume that sheep need to be sheared and it’s just a haircut. It makes perfect sense as far as what we’ve always been led to believe — the same way we’ve been led to believe that cows make milk for us — but it’s not true. Wild sheep don’t need to be sheared and make just enough wool to keep warm. So we’ve bred them to make extra. Shearing is obviously a business process, and when you’re shearing for volume, and to get it as fast as possible, there are faces getting cut off, flaps of skin getting cut off, they’re getting dragged around — all while the sheep are living in factory-farm conditions. In addition, there’s [a process called] mulesing to get merino wool, in which sheep are bred with a lot of wrinkles in their skin so they can grow more wool, which makes sense profitability-wise. But there are bugs that lay their eggs in those wrinkles, and to get rid of the bugs they basically shave off the skin without anesthetic, creating scar tissue. And after a life like this, they’re killed in the end. With down, every time the bird’s down grows back they just pluck them again, which is a lot like getting your nails pulled out — and they do it over and over and over, and then when they’re not productive anymore they’re slaughtered. We’re looking at animals as machine parts, and they’re just not.

Novacas founders Erica and Sara Kubersky; Desmond Chukka Boot; Jessie Oxford
Novacas founders Erica and Sara Kubersky, (top right) Desmond Chukka Boot ($225), Jessie Oxford ($220)

Novacas (MooShoes store house brand)

Founders: Erica and Sara Kubersky

What to get now: Leather-free shoes and boots

Where to buy: MooShoes (New York City and Los Angeles locations) and mooshoes.com

Vegan “aha” moment (Erica): I was 8 and was visiting a kibbutz in Israel (my dad is Israeli) and they took me to see the cows, thinking I’d be so excited. The wheels started turning in my head, and I turned to my dad and said, “Wait, so hamburgers are made out of cows?” He was like, “Not this cow.” I said, “I’m not going to eat them anymore.” It’s the one thing I stuck to my whole life. I’m 37. In high school I went vegan … Then my sister was like, “You know your shoes are made out of cows too.” So around 9 or so I was like, “OK, I can’t wear leather anymore,” which made my parents nuts trying to find shoes. I wore a lot of Converse, and there were a lot of cold winters! We would say, “One day there will be a store where we can go in and buy whatever we want.” We founded MooShoes in 2001.

The problem with leather: I think a lot of people believe leather is just a natural byproduct, because what are they going to do with all these hides, right? But the factory farms make so much [profit] by selling those hides, so by buying leather you are supporting those factory farms that I think a lot of people try to avoid. Making that connection for people is important. Also, no one wants to wear the hide that comes directly off the animal, and for it to be treated and made into something that you actually want to wear, it has to go through a tannery process, which is terrible — for the environment and for the workers and to the towns they’re in. The workers are forced to work with chromium, which is one of the most toxic chemicals out there, causing a high incident of cancer for tannery workers. And after the process is done it won’t biodegrade, so you’re taking something that was once natural and turning it into something that won’t ever biodegrade.

How the shoes are made: It took us many years to perfect the product, and it’s something we’re constantly working on. Many vegan shoes over the years were made out of cheap plastic, and I think that’s unfortunately the image that people still have. But we found high-end Italian microfibers that are breathable and wear in like leather. They’re also a lot more biodegradable than leather.

Joshua Katcher; Denim-Style Jacket
Brave Gentleman founder Joshua Katcher in Future-Wool Twin Moto Jacket ($630, also top right), Denim-Style Jacket ($375)

Brave Gentle Man

Founder & Director: Joshua Katcher

What to get now: Men’s leather-free shoes and jackets

Where to buy: bravegentleman.com

How he transitioned into fashion: I started my blog “The Discerning Brute” in 2008. At the time there was really nothing discussing men’s lifestyle as it pertains to ethical fashion and grooming products and fine cuisine, which highlighted to me the interesting cultural phenomenon where we tend to association caring — caring about people, caring about animals, caring about the environment — with femininity. So I started the blog to contextualize it for mainstream guys to feel comfortable with being concerned about these issues and do something about them in a way that didn’t threaten their masculinity. The brand emerged from the website in around 2010, when I was doing more and more writing, covering fashion and food and lifestyle, and realizing there were things that didn’t exist that I wanted to buy for myself, like a pair of classic, well-made men’s shoes. So I set out to make them myself.

On ethical fashion: I studied art and environmental studies, and I always looked at fashion as being something really silly and trivial, and I think that’s how most of us are trained to see fashion. We don’t see it as very serious business as far as its effect and impact — like most people would never know it’s the second leading polluter in the world, or that it affects millions of workers and billions of animals and ecosystems everywhere. It is significant. It’s how we form our visual identity and establish power, class, gender — all these things that are so wrapped up in culture and politics in society. But you’d think it was all about finding a good sale or buying something that looks handsome or pretty, which is a dangerous underestimation of what fashion can do.

Why it’s so hard to kick leather: People say, “I need to have leather shoes,” and don’t really know why they’re saying it. It’s because of the effective marketing that has gone on for a very long time around leather. The leather industry owns words like “genuine,” “real,” “authentic,” “durability.” It doesn’t mean that nothing else can be durable and high quality and feel supple and all of those things. I use high-tech Italian milled microfiber, it’s high performance and high grade, and the materials are stronger, more weather resistant, they breathe, they break in, they do everything you want leather to do, but there’s no animal involved. I have customers who say, “I bought a pair of shoes in 2011 and I feel bad I haven’t bought more but they’ve lasted, I just had them resoled.” Why don’t people get their shoes fixed anymore? Because of fast fashion, they want you to wear it until it falls apart and then buy something else quickly. I don’t ascribe to that model.

VEGAN_DESIGNERS
VEGAN_DESIGNERS

Olsenhaus

Founder: Elizabeth Olsen

What to get now: Leather-free pumps and ankle boots

Where to buy: Olsenhaus.com, MooShoes

Anti-leather epiphany: I was working as creative director for Tommy Hilfiger handbags in New York City. At the time they just had a PVC line, plastic and fabric and stuff, but then we got this new CEO and she wanted to launch a leather line. I didn’t want to do it, but I had no choice and I was not 100 percent vegan at the time (I still wore leather). We went overseas to Korea, and at this one particular factory I had to go through a pile of lambskin. They’re smaller bodies, so the skins are smaller, and we had dyed it blue which is a difficult color to get correct. When you’re dealing with animal skins, they have scars and stretch marks and bug bites, so I had to visualize where the pattern would be. So I was going through a huge pile of skin and I had a moment: “What the hell am I doing? I don’t eat animals, and yet I’m sitting here throwing skins to the side?” I went outside, and truck came up with a pile of skins to be processed, and the smell was disgusting. Right then and there I asked to quit. I went through this whole series of emotions — I was literally ashamed of myself, like, how could I not have put two and two together? It’s a total disconnect. I get it.

The challenge in selling vegan fashion: The message that has been put into the mass consciousness is that leather is cool and sexy and luxurious and rich, and vegan is granola, crunchy, not stylish, not hip, not cool. It’s only really become at thing recently. [But beyond animal rights] there’s no reason to not be eco-conscious … When I talk about environmental damage that really gets people’s attention. I know I have to introduce information gingerly and slowly, because people will shut down — they are sitting there wearing leather and they think I’m judging them. But I’m not even looking at your shoes, I’m just trying to give you information. That’s why the shoes are such a good way to do it, because it brings people in. I’m not really a shove-it-down-your-throat kind of person. I’m like, “This is what’s happening and it doesn’t have to be that way so why is it?” It’s not just a byproduct of them slaughtering the animal — it supports the slaughterhouse, and with all the environmental damage, there’s nothing good about it.

VEGAN_DESIGNERS2
VEGAN_DESIGNERS2

Nicora

Designer & Director: Stephanie Nicora and Reyes Florez

What to get now: Leather-free boots and shoes

Where to buy: Nicorashoes.com

Why vegan shoes? (Florez): Stephanie was already a vegan-leaning vegetarian when she quit her job in finance and entertainment and studied under a master artisan shoemaker. She started off saying, “OK, if I’m going to use leather, then what’s the most sustainable? Can I trace this back and see how the cattle are raised and if there is at least humanity in the raising process?” But the more she read and researched, she realized it’s impossible when you’re raising cattle and the amount of waste and devastation that happens — you can only use 30 percent of a given hide because of scarring and other things on animal skin. Then the more she learned about how it’s tanned and how harmful it is to workers, it became a no brainer to say, “I’ve just got to find something different.”

What materials do you use? We have a vendor in the old textile belt in South Carolina and, given their challenge of competing with outsourced production, they’ve chosen to compete by adopting the latest technology, and recycled polyester and plastics, to create the fabric and uppers for our sandals. Then we have a manufacturer in New England that creates our leather substitute, a significant portion of which is recycled as well.

VEGAN_DESIGNERS6
VEGAN_DESIGNERS6

Matt & Nat

Founders: Inder Bendi and Manny Kohli

What to get now: Shoulder bags, totes, and weekend satchels

Where to buy: Various national retailers, Mattandnat.com

How was Matt & Nat such an early vegan-bag pioneer? (From a spokesperson, as founder Inder Bendi is no longer with the company): Inder was living and studying in Montreal at the time of the company’s conception. He tried to be vegan for a month, when at that time [early ’90s] being vegan wasn’t a very popular concept. He realized how limiting the lifestyle was and saw a real opportunity for vegan products. Inder began Matt & Nat right out of university, in 1995 … It was built on one of the principles of veganism, which are respecting life and nature, and meant that there was a lot of attention paid to the material and quality. The company slowly grew, and in 2001, he partnered with now-president and owner Manny Kohli, an experienced and established businessman. Matt & Nat aims to prove that accessories don’t need to be made of leather to be considered fashionable.

What materials do you use? Various vegan leathers are used in the production of our products, the scientific terms being PU (polyurethane) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride). PU is biodegradable, making it less harmful for the environment, and its use is preferred. Over the years, we have been experimenting with different recycled materials such as nylons, cardboard, rubber, cork, and rubber tires. Since 2007, we have been committed to using linings made solely of 100 percent recycled plastic bottles. Today, we are proud to announce that we have recycled over 2 million plastic bottles in the manufacturing of our bags.

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