Vegan, Head to Toe
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Back in 1995, when mentioning the word "vegan" in restaurants only got her blank stares from waiters and cashiers, Shari Kalina had an even harder time keeping vegan when it came to her clothing.
"Leather was a big problem back then," said Kalina, now 33. "It was frustrating to have to constantly check on jackets and bags for leather parts. Often I'd find something that was mostly non-leather, but they'd have some little bit of leather in the trim."
Since she couldn't wear the leather shoes and jackets she found in her local stores, she decided to start her own store.
While vegan foods have crept into the mainstream over the intervening years, vegan leather is still an oddity. But a growing number of non-leather stores want to change that. They see offering non-leather alternatives as key to bringing more people over to the vegan way of life, as a way to send the message that you can be vegan without giving up style and sophistication.
"I wanted to make vegan living easier and more convenient," said Kalina, founder of Pangea Vegan Products in Rockville, Maryland. "More people would live this way if they knew how to go about it. You still find people today who think that if you're vegan it means you have to eat grass and go barefoot. We want to show that you can live a compassionate lifestyle without giving stuff up."
Pangea, the country's first one-stop vegan supplies store, carries groceries, body care products, and non-leather versions of everything normally made of leather – jackets, wallets, gloves, brief cases, cell phone covers, punk wrist bands, even guitar straps.
People choose to go vegan for a variety of reasons – health, environmental concerns, meat workers' rights - but for most at the heart of the philosophy is a desire to the minimize pain and suffering of animals by cutting all animal products out of their lives. Besides refusing meat, they don't eat eggs or dairy, and don't put honey on their toast. Veganism doesn't just end with the food you eat; it can also apply to the clothes you wear.
"I prefer non-leather because I don't want a dead animal on my feet," said "Rain," a 23-year-old vegan woman from Kansas City. "I don't want to touch animal skins when I put on my shoes. I don't want to know that animals suffered and died so that I could wear them on my feet."
Like Kalina, many vegan entrepreneurs went into business because they couldn't find the goods they needed to live a vegan lifestyle in mainstream stores. Erica Kubersky, co-founder of MooShoes in New York, first became vegetarian when she was eight years old, and converted to veganism several years later. Back then, she remembers, there weren't many choices for a conscientious vegan.
"At first, it seemed simple," said Kubersky. "Then someone in my family tried to challenge me by saying my shoes were made of leather. I drove my parents crazy trying to find non-leather shoes."
She searched out Converse shoes and anything made of canvas, and sometimes found shoddy non-leather shoes in discount stores like Payless. These were often made of non-breathable PVC and vinyl that would wear out quickly, crack easily, and make feet sweat.
Finding vegan shoes in New York was a struggle, but, on a visit to England in the '90s, she found that they were fairly common in Europe, using synthetic microfibers that are longer lasting and allow air to circulate. In the past, said Kubersky, vegans had to import shoes from England, where veganism was more widespread and shoe companies were more responsive to the vegan market. Stores like Ethical Wares in London and The Natural Shoe Company in Brighton inspired Kubersky and her sister Sarah to go into business for themselves.
"I was surprised and happy to see they had vegan shoe stores there, but I didn't see why New York didn't have something similar," she said.
In 2001, the sisters converted a former butcher shop into New York's first vegan shoe store.
MooShoes offers discounts for environmental and animal rights activists. Other non-leather stores also try to encourage activism. In Tucson, Arizona, The Vegetarian Site, an internet business that sells vegan shoes, belts, and clothing as well as informational books and videos, donates 10% of its sales to a different non-profit animal rights and vegetarian associations every month.
"Some people think that's a disadvantage, but that's what makes us different," said Dave Sudarsky, founder of The Vegetarian Site. "People like knowing that the way they shop makes a difference."
In the years since Pangea first burst on to the scene, vegan leather boutiques have popped up across the country. Some, like MooShoes and Pangea, operate storefront shops, but many more conduct their business entirely over the internet, selling both canvas and pseudo-leather shoes.
Sudarsky recommends shoes made of hemp, a plant whose environmental friendliness has made it a popular substitute for leather. The Vegetarian Site buys from a US company called Ecolutions, which grows and harvests hemp across the ocean in Romania.
But for people interested in keeping the classic leather look, synthetic microfibers like lorica and vegetan can better imitate the sleek polished look of fancy dress shoes or the rugged outdoors look of hiking boots. Pangea sells its own line of leatherless shoes, No Bull, as well as shoes from various outside manufacturers. No Bull shoes use a synthetic microfiber polyurethane-cotton blend that's 70% biodegradable and that looks and feels just like real leather.
"People, especially environmentalists, have a real misconception about leather," said Kalina. "They think that because it's a natural fiber it must be better for the environment, but leather is treated with harsh chemicals during the tanning process to make sure that it won't biodegrade. You need that to turn animal skin that would biodegrade in a few days into something that lasts for years."
Even vegans staunchly opposed to leather might still want that classic leather look. Some need it to adhere to office dress codes or just to blend in better with a non-vegan crowd.
"Synthetics sell well because some people still want a leather look, or it might be required for their work," said Sudarsky. "We also offer a black hemp office shoe."
Vegan leather is good for other things besides shoes, like belts, wallets, handbags, and sometimes even more exotic wares. Take VeganErotica.com, for instance, a Salt Lake City-based website specializing in non-leather fetish and bondage gear. Former goth Eric Waters, now on the board of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, founded the company to show that veganism didn't have to be about compromises.
"It's something we wanted to do to show that vegans can have fun," said Waters. "I would like there to be alternatives to everything, so that when people say, "I don't want to be vegan because ..." there'd be a vegan alternative."
"There's a certain look to leather as we saw in The Matrix ," said Waters. "Dark black leather has that bad boy feel. With vegan leather, we're showing that you don't need to compromise of that image to live a vegan life."
Waters explained that, while his gear could easily be made from traditional non-animal materials like rubber, using those materials wouldn't send the same message.
"For someone with a leather fetish, who really likes the feel of leather, rubber won't cut it," says Waters. "If we used rubber, it wouldn't send the same message, that there's an alternative to leather where you don't really need to give anything up."
The underlying message, according to non-leather dealers, is that being vegan doesn't necessarily mean giving up the things you love.
"There are vegan versions of most animal products," said Kalina. "You can still be a chocoholic, you can still wear shoes, you can still get the leather look."
In Salt Lake City, Waters agreed.
"Eventually," he said, "there should be vegan alternatives for everything."
Michael Rosen-Molina is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.