Vegan leather is a rising star in the fashion world. The animal-free alternatives to leather market is expected to reach $85 billion by 2025, according to recent data from management consultancy firm Grand View Research.
The report highlights increased awareness of the leather industry’s effects on animals and the planet, lower manufacturing costs, and new, innovative textiles as factors driving the market. But what is vegan leather, how do you use it, and is it all the same?
Alternatives to Leather: The Definitive Vegan Guide
What Is Vegan Leather?
Vegan leather is any plant-based material made to imitate authentic leather.
Most vegan leather you’ll find in stores is made of polyurethane (PU), a versatile polymer that can be made to order for any designer’s whim. PVC (polyvinyl chloride), once popular in the 60s and 70s, is still used in some applications, but it’s less popular due to its slightly sticky texture and lack of durability.
It can sparkle, have a nice glossy sheen, or be saturated in all kinds of shades, making it a popular choice for shoes, bags, clothes, accessories, and even furniture.
The most common way to make vegan leather like PU and PVC is to apply a coating to a fiber base, according to Science Times. The types of plastic used in these coatings vary and this is what defines whether or not it is eco-friendly.
The once-popular PVC leather is known to release dioxins, a group of toxic chemical compounds that form when incinerated. Vinyl Council Australia notes that PVC only emits dioxins when burned or exposed to high temperatures.
The more modern and slightly less damaging plastic is PU, which is constantly being technically developed to reduce flaws, such as the hazardous toxins it releases during manufacturing and the oil-based polymers it’s made with which make use of fossil fuels.
New innovations are always in the works. Researchers from Ohio State University used nano-technology to create a vegan leather that repels water and oil. A 17-year-old Australian designer created a vegan leather jacket from SCOBY, the slimy colony of bacteria and yeast that ferments kombucha.
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In this week’s #MeetTheDesigner series we’re introducing Martin from South Korea who was inspired by a video about Piñatex® to set up @maryspineapple, a vegan fashion and lifestyle brand offering card wallets and bags #MadeFromPiñatex 🍍💚 – "Caring about nature, animals and people is one of the most important attitudes for the future, and we believe the future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed. Now we are ready to show the future through our products." Martin Ko – #MeetTheDesigners on Facebook (facebook.com/pinatex) 🍍💚
Piñatex is a vegan leather made from the fiber of the pineapple plant. The company sources the leaves, which are typically discarded from the pineapple industry.
The innovation in technology not only results in a more sustainable, cruelty-free leather, but also an additional source of income for farming industries. Once the leaves are stripped of fiber, the leftover biomass is used as fertilizer or biofuel. The fiber is then “degummed” and processed to make an unwoven mesh, which is then shipped to Spain for specialized finishing. From there, it can be made into jackets, shoes, watch straps, and more.
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Vegan luxury shoe brand Veerah makes Appeel, a sustainable leather made from apple peels. The process starts with organic apples harvested from an Italian orchard that are then juiced. The peels are reserved, ground into a fine powder, then processed into a plant-based leather used to make shoes. Vegan “Harry Potter” film star Evanna Lynch has rocked Veerah heels.
Award-winning German brand ZVNDER makes vegan leather from mushrooms. According to the company, mushrooms are hand-harvested from a forest in Romania and then made into a soft, suede-like material in a studio in Berlin. It has been used to make wallets, hats, and sneakers.
California-based brand Bolt Threads makes a mushroom leather called Mylo, which it developed in partnership with Ecovative, the company behind IKEA’s sustainable packaging. Bolt Threads uses the root structure of mushrooms to make its vegan leather, which English designer Stella McCartney used to make a cruelty-free handbag.
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Flat pouch in dark grey malai made in our studio having its last moments of fame here at @designblok_prague Thank you designblok, it’s been a joy to exhibit here and we hope to come back soon! 🌴( when the winter’s gone ) #madefrommalai #designblok #bacterialcellulose #biomaterial #accessories #pouch #biodegradable #vegan #grown #material #coconuts
Malai is a completely vegan leather made from agricultural waste of the Southern Indian coconut industry. The company works with farmers to collect coconut water that would otherwise be discarded to feed the production of a bacterial cellulose. The result is a flexible, durable, leather-like material that is water-resistant and free from plastic coatings and synthetic ingredients. It’s capable of being produced with different thicknesses and can by dyed. Malai’s vegan leather has been used to make shoes, bags, and clutches.
Other Vegan Leathers
New types of vegan leather are constantly coming to market. French footwear brand Veja launched cruelty-free sneakers made from corn leather, made from 50 percent corn waste leftover from the food industry.
On a smaller scale, two designers on nearly opposite sides of the globe have developed vegan leather using SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), a slime-like ingredient used to ferment kombucha. Bulgarian-born designer Galina Mihaleva makes it out of a makeshift lab at the School of Art at Arizona. An Australian student made a vegan leather jacket using a similar method, which earned her a spot in the London College of Fashion at age 17 – the youngest-ever to be accepted into the school.
New innovations are always coming to market as technology improves and more seek to make their lifestyle cruelty-free.
How Is Vegan Leather Used?
Vegan leather has a number of uses, ranging from jackets, shoes, and accessories to furniture and car interiors. Innovations in the market means that companies are always finding new uses.
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With access to amazing innovations in positive impact materials like @pinatex pineapple leaf fibre, we are able to design garments true to our style while outperforming traditional counterparts. In this case animal leather. Check out our pieces at the beautifully curated @maiyet space in @harveynichols London x
A vegan leather jacket is a wardrobe staple; it can be worn over fluttery dresses or paired with an all-black ensemble. Colorful or metallic faux leather jackets can be dressed up for weddings and other events. There aren’t many situations where a vegan leather looks out of place. Italian fashion brand Altiir made gold and silver vegan leather jackets from Piñatex while James&Co Ethical Vegan Apparel opted to go with traditional black. Faux leather jackets can also be found at retailers from H&M to Nasty Gal. Check out these 7 Vegan Leather Jackets to Edge Up Your Wardrobe for more inspiration.
Shoes can make or break your outfit. Vegan leather can be used for luxury footwear or affordable kicks, heels or sneakers, boots or sandals. You can shop from all-vegan shoe stores like MooShoes or find alternative footwear from vegan-friendly brands like T.U.K.
For heels, try brands like Stella McCartney, Veerah, Beyond Skin, and Betsey Johnson. For boots, Doc Martens makes faux leather versions of its classic combat boots (it also comes in Cherry Red) and vegan leather Oxfords. Check out these 7 Vegan Leather Boots as well. If you want Ugg-style boots, try Bearpaw. For sandals, try Vegetarian Shoes or Birkenstocks’ vegan leather line.
Are there vegan leather sneakers? Last year, Stella McCartney partnered with Adidas to launch vegan Stan Smith shoes, which were worn by pop icon Madonna and Dame Emma Thompson. German brand nat-2 makes vegan leather sneakers from coffee grounds and mushrooms. Luxury shoe brand Veja made sneakers from corn leather. For men’s shoes, check out Brooklyn-based ethical vegan label, Brave GentleMan.
New options are showing up everywhere – whether you’re shopping a designer label or discount, it pays to check the label. UK-based high street retailer Marks & Spencer has a range of 350 affordable vegan shoes. You never know when that “leather” shoe is actually made from cruelty-free materials.
You can’t underestimate the importance of a good accessory, be it a belt, wrist watch, or jewelry. In addition to shoes, Brave GentleMan also makes vegan leather belts, which “Hunger Games” actor Liam Hemsworth rocked on the red carpet. You can also find affordable options from Corkor or in major retailers like Walmart and Target.
Baum makes watches with cork straps, which can have a leather-like feel. Folio makes both men’s and women’s wrist watches with vegan leather straps. UK-based brand Votch makes vegan watches with PVC-free synthetic leather straps. you can even buy a faux leather watch case to protect it.
Is there vegan leather jewelry? Recycled rubber and tires are surprisingly leather-like as jewelry- plus, it gives new life to materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Black Swan Bali makes a couple of pieces made from recycled rubber. Designer Laura Zabo makes jewelry and accessories for men and women from upcycled tires. Zabo even makes dog collars, so your furry friend can look sharp in a faux leather collar.
Wallets and Bags
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For some, an outfit is never complete without a complementary bag – and there are bags to match every style. You can opt for a chic, minimalist look with bags from ethical vegan brand Matt & Nat, from simple clutches to faux leather backpacks. But if funky, creative styles light up your life, go for Betsey Johnson. You can also turn to Lulus, Urban Expressions, and Stella McCartney.
If you prefer to just keep a wallet, Brave GentleMan makes vegan leather wallets and card holders using its Italian-made “future-leather” – but the men’s fashion label makes bags as well.
A number of affordable bags you’ll find in Target, Walmart, Marshalls, and department stores are also vegan – as always, you can find great things when you check the label.
As more people opt to make their wardrobe cruelty-free, even furniture companies are beginning to launch vegan leather home decor. Iconic British sofa brand Chesterfields launched a vegan leather range of couches and chairs recently, citing consumer demand for kinder, environmentally-friendly options.
Vegetarian French designer Philippe Starck also makes vegan leather furniture using waste from the apple industry. Called Apple Ten Lork, the innovative textile uses the fruit’s cores and skins. It’s manufactured by Italian firm Frumat, which upcycles biological waste into eco-friendly products.
There are even vegan interior design experts. UK designer Helen Winters was awarded for her use of faux leather in her work. It’s also a rising trend in Hollywood, with designers such as Deborah DiMare who are using ethical alternatives to traditional materials. You can even source your own vegan leather to re-upholster thrifted furniture. There is also a website, Vegan Design, which is dedicated to helping people connect with vegan-friendly brands and experts.
Will the cars of the future still have leather interiors? Once a nearly unavoidable part of buying a car, animal-free interiors are becoming increasingly popular as more consumers demand sustainable, vegan alternatives.
Electric car brand Tesla uses vegan leather for its vehicles. Other companies have followed in its lead. Tesla rival Fisker Inc. launched an electric car with a vegan leather interior in January 2018. Audi makes an electric SUV with animal-free seating. Luxury German car manufacturer BMW unveiled its electric SUV, complete with a vegan leather interior. Nissan’s newest electric vehicle is also friendly toward the planet and animals. Volvo’s new Polestar, toted as the new Tesla rival, has a vegan interior as well.
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