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Is Faux Leather Even Better Than the Real Thing? These 3 Designers Say Yes

In fashion, politics, and virtually every corner of our lives, it’s deeply uncool to live in ignorant bliss. Fashion types in particular are expected to be “woke,” seeing as we work in the media and our industry is leading the conversation in diversity, inclusivity, and self-expression. We’re advocating for better standards for models; drawing attention to issues like racial profiling and mental health in fashion; staying up-to-date on the news (in 2018, how can you not?); and investing in the environment, from ditching plastic straws to promoting resale sites like The RealReal. Many of us have vowed to stop wearing fur, and others are phasing out all animal fibers (i.e. cashmere, silk, and wool), a concept boosted by Rooney Mara’s label, Hiraeth.

Even those of us with the best intentions have to make concessions from the to time, though. We’re sipping iced coffee though copper straws, but order daily to-go salads in rigid plastic bowls. Plenty of vegetarians and vegans still wear leather accessories. To be fair, there simply haven’t been a lot of options for animal-free accessories; during interviews with designers, many of them say they just can’t find a good-enough leather alternative. Aside from Stella McCartney, can you think of any brands doing truly luxurious, high-end faux leather accessories? Probably not. But as the conversation continues to grow, a few new designers are changing that.

Consider Vicki von Holzhausen, who launched her self-named handbag line in 2015 with minimal, high-quality, well priced totes, clutches, and cross-bodies. After working in automotive design for Audi and Mercedes-Benz, she already knew where to find the best leather suppliers—and how to create a durable, long-lasting leather product. (She pointed out how often you slide in an out of a car. It’s a lot.) Shortly after her launch, she also developed her proprietary “technik-leather”—an animal-free, sustainably produced material that’s just as luxe and durable as the real thing. It gave her customers the option to buy a real leather product or a vegan one—a compromise you rarely see from designers, who tend to pick a side and stick to it. Last year, Von Holzhausen made an even more radical decision: She dropped leather from her line, and now exclusively offers technik-leather bags, belts, and small leather goods. “From the beginning, my brand has had an ethical mission,” she told Vogue. “We make everything in Los Angeles and give back to the community, but when I started really drilling down on that mission and trying to be as honest and legitimate as possible, the leather kept getting in the way. I had to ask my tanneries some hard questions, and I wasn’t satisfied with their answers.”

Many designers and naysayers will argue that faux leather is “worse” for the environment than the real thing because it’s a synthetic that requires chemicals. But Von Holzhausen’s technik-leather is so smart and scientific, she actually prefers not to call it “vegan leather” at all, “because it’s a totally different type of material,” she explains. “PVC [which is found in some faux leather] is not good for the environment, but the polyurethane we use is made through a GreenGuard-, LEED-certified sustainable process where the water, resins, and solvents are recycled and used again, so it’s 99 percent waste-free.” In contrast, tanning animal leather can be polluting if the tannery doesn’t properly discard the water and chemicals. “Our products are expensive,” the designer continues. “We’re making them with the same artisan craftsmanship you’d find in a high-end leather bag. The edges are painted, and the material won’t crack if it gets wet or it’s humid, which can happen with other polyurethanes.”

An interesting point to add about Von Holzhausen is that while the bags are highlighted as “animal-free” on her website, she isn’t “leading” with the vegan angle. The word rarely comes up in her social media. “We’re not going after the vegans,” she said. “We’re going after the fashion community, and in order to change their perspective, you have to give them something cool—something that’s just as good, if not better, than what they’re used to. It’s about getting them excited about the product, and it’s just an added bonus that it has all of these great benefits. People love having that bragging right—that it’s not just good-looking, it’s smart.”

Another word she avoids using: luxury. “In our research, we’ve found that millennials really don’t like that word, because it makes the product seem like it’s not conscious and it’s wasteful. They value other things in a product.” Things like cool factor—something you find in M2Malletier’s bags, which are recognizable for their hexagonal silhouettes and gold bar handles. Since their launch in 2014, designers Melissa Losada Bofill and Marcela Velez have built a big business in leather handbags, but they receive constant requests from customers looking for vegan alternatives, so they created a line of velvet bags with faux leather linings. “We think all [accessories] brands should consider dedicating a part of their collection to sustainable and vegan options,” they wrote to Vogue. “We’re trying to choose as many sustainable suppliers as possible, and we just started working with a new factory that doesn’t use plastic.”

As for shoes, vegan leather options are ostensibly even harder to come by. Maybe it’s because we expect so much from our footwear: durability, breathability, and comfort, not to mention style. Hobes founder Georgia Hobart recently debuted a non-leather range of her signature, slipper-like boat shoes and saw near-instant success. “There’s very little to choose from [in the way of] vegan footwear,” she says. “We had many requests for vegan shoes throughout the years, [but] it was really the fact that I was able to secure such a great supplier and a material I felt confident about that I decided to move forward. Along with being animal-free, it’s breathable, water-resistant, and machine washable.” Her raw materials (mostly cotton and a little polyester) are Oeko-Tex- and REACH-certified, which indicates a highly sustainable manufacturing process, and the raw materials are solvent-free. “I’m still very committed to our core leather range, but in some ways, I believe this new collection offers a superior end product,” she continued. “It’s lighter than leather, and it’s very soft, yet incredibly durable, along with being washable and water-resistant. They’re the same price as our leather Hobes, but the materials are, in fact, more costly. There’s a big misconception that vegan materials are less expensive than leather—not true!”

Here’s hoping more designers join Von Holzhausen, M2Malletier, and Hobes. With Pre-Fall around the corner and the Fall 2019 shows not far behind—and the sustainable movement growing by the day—now’s the time for designers to experiment and get involved. And not just in accessories. The Budapest-based label Nanushka has grown rapidly thanks to its vegan leather dresses, pants, and puffer jackets, and designer Sandra Sandor included vegan leather bags and sandals in her Spring 2019 collection. Von Holzhausen, meanwhile, has plans to launch other technik-leather categories “that you’d normally see in leather.” Think: motorcycle jackets, pants, trenchcoats, skirts . . . the list goes on. As she put it: “We can pretty much make anything in this material.”

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