ANGELES — They called it "pleather" when
Michael Jackson donned plasticky, synthetic leather in
his early moon-walking days. Famous for clothing rock
stars and club kids in the 1980s and ’90s, the fabric
is now a hit with a new generation.
the help of science, new faux animal hides have arrived
with an appropriately hip name: vegan leather.
brands such as Stella McCartney and Joseph Altuzarra
have sent vegan leather jackets and bags with sky-high
prices down the runway. Major department stores are
increasing their offerings. And in Southern California,
where animal lovers in West Hollywood helped spur one of
the first citywide bans on fur sales, independent
designers cater to shoppers who want guilt-free
is a new phrase that has now become a catchword for
entrepreneurs to start new businesses," said Ilse
Metchek, president of the California Fashion Assn.
"It’s so acceptable even in fashion
has increased its assortment of vegan leather products,
said Caprice Willard, regional vice president of women’s
apparel. Sales have grown in recent years, especially
among fashion-forward Californians who can wear leather
year-round and are drawn to new formulations that are
supple and soft, she said.
had very few options maybe five years ago," Willard
said. "The appetite has always been there. We are
just doing a much better job of meeting it."
is especially strong among millennial shoppers. They are
more eco-conscious but also have been raised on fast
fashion in which style trumps durability, analysts said.
The popularity of real leather leggings and trims has
spurred interest in affordable mimics.
leather is still usually made by coating plastic on
fabric. But as textile technology has evolved, mills can
churn out materials that look and feel like close kin of
the real thing but with a greater array of colors and
the same time, more Americans are turning to veganism or
vegetarianism — about 30 million adults, or one-eighth
of the population over age 18, according to the Humane
Research Council. Two-thirds of vegans or vegetarians
say protecting animals is a big motivator for their
diets — a stance that is seeping beyond the
are seeing themselves more as conscientious," said
Leanne Hilgart, founder of Vaute Couture. "After
food is fashion."
made headlines in 2013 as the first all-vegan fashion
designer to show at New York Fashion Week. Vaute (a
mash-up of "vegan" and "haute")
specializes in stylish outerwear free of leather, wool
and all other animal products. One coat, which boasts
recycled fibers and "arctic explorer"
insulation, costs $580.
target customer is any trendy woman who would drop
serious cash on a coat at Bloomingdale’s, Hilgart
said. Sales grew 60% last year compared with 2013, and
plans are underway to open stores in Manhattan and
Toronto this year.
wealth of new options is a relief to Sarah Robles, 23, a
"pescetarian" who eats seafood but not meat.
Robles said she tries to avoid leather out of concern
for animal welfare. Plus, faux leather options tend to
be cheaper and require less maintenance, the West
Hollywood actress said.
leather stuff is getting better and better," she
said. "It used to be just ugly knockoffs, but now I
have so many cute shoes and bags, and they last longer
than my real leather stuff."
say it still takes work to lure shoppers who associate
faux leather with the poor quality and pleather eyesores
of decades past.
have all had the mind-set that it looks fake and shiny
and doesn’t feel good," said Ana Hartl, managing
director of creative at Free People, part of Urban
Outfitters Inc. "I remember the days of ’90s
plasticky polyurethane pleathers."
few years back, Hartl said, she began noticing that some
high-quality faux fabrics were virtually
indistinguishable from the real thing.
People has more than doubled its vegan offerings since
debuting its first collection in 2011. In the last two
years it has launched vegan shoes and handbags. Vegan
sales have surpassed leather in some categories,
including jackets and vests.
are genuinely shocked that it’s vegan," Hartl
leather has been a hit for Sole Society, a Los Angeles
retailer known for affordable fashions.
Society introduced vegan leather handbags a year ago,
which proved popular with shoppers, Chief Executive Andy
Solomon said. Now about half of its handbags are made of
vegan leather. Sole Society hopes to increase that to
65% this year and is also looking into vegan shoes.
a nice selling feature," Solomon said. "It
gets folks over the hump to press the buy button."
the term "vegan leather," manufacturers and
retailers have tried to piggyback off the image of
well-heeled shoppers who browse farmer’s markets and
Sewell, a fashion coordinator at the animal rights group
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said
consumers tend to "identify vegans with a little
bit higher class of people who really care about the
environment and animals."
want to show that being cruelty free doesn’t mean
wearing a hemp bag over your head," Sewell said.
"What better term to use than vegan? Unlike faux
leather, which sounds kinds of cheap."
hosted a pop-up event with 20 vegan designers in August
at its Echo Park offices. It drew hundreds of shoppers,
and Sewell says the organization is hoping to turn it in
to an annual shopping event.
with vegan fabrics is not without pitfalls.
Brannon, co-founder of Los Angeles brand James Payne,
said producing the company’s pricey vegan apparel is
more labor intensive and complex than working with real
tend to stick in a way leather doesn’t," she
said. Workers at the downtown L.A. facility where the
company’s clothing is made have to layer waxed paper
over fabric before sewing seams, something that real
leather doesn’t require, she said. The material costs
are also comparable to leather.
who founded the business with her ex-husband Mikey
Brannon, said they started the James Payne brand in 2011
to fulfill a void in the luxury market, which often
resorts to animal hides and furs for a decadent touch.
Their motorcycle jackets are priced up to $880. They
plan to roll out faux suede versions and also
customizable jackets that could sell for as much as
we first launched, people were really confused. They
were like, ‘Why don’t you use leather?’"
Mikey Brannon said. "But when you feel and see it,
it looks and feels like leather."