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Luxury Sneakers are Taking Animal Welfare, Sustainability in Stride

Vegan-friendly shoes have come a long way since the jelly sandals of yore. Gone are the days when “man-made” shoes were considered cheap, sub-par and mainly plastic.

Take Adidas’s first leather-free Stan Smiths, for instance. After teaming up with the sportswear giant for more than a decade, British designer Stella McCartney finally convinced the powers that be to give its best-selling sneaker the cruelty-free twist she’s long desired.

Speaking at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in June, McCartney described how she once marched up to the head designer of Adidas in a pair of vegan Stan Smiths her husband had custom-made for her.

“I was like the only person on the planet that had these Stan Smiths,” she said. “And I said to the head of Adidas one day, ‘Look, do you even know that my Stan Smiths are vegan?’ And he didn’t know, and I said, ‘Why are your Stan Smiths not vegan? Because they’re lasting as long if not longer than all the other Stan Smiths that my friends had.’”

McCartney finally got her wish on Wednesday, which was, not coincidentally, also her birthday.

Clad completely in white, except for the blue and burgundy bands on the heel, the sneakers feature a portrait of tennis legend Stan Smith, the style’s namesake, on the tongue of the right shoe and McCartney’s face and signature on the left. In lieu of Adidas’s signature stripes, three lines of stars swoop across each side.

“Having worked with Adidas for over 13 years, I thought it would be such an incredible opportunity for me to be part of such an iconic collaboration with such an iconic athlete; and create the first animal-free Stan Smith made with vegetarian leather and non-animal-based glues,” the designer said in a statement. “The Stan Smith sneaker is just an incredible design that has stood the test of time. I’m a fan of the original as much as almost everybody is.”

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McCartney, a lifelong vegetarian who famously eschews “leather, skin, fur or feathers” would surely approve of German company Nat-2’s own foray into vegan-friendly luxury sneakers.

Together with Berlin-based designer Nina Faber, Nat-2 has released a line of shoes using “leather” that Faber engineered from mushrooms, along with microfiber suede from post-consumer recycled plastic bottles, eco-cotton, cork insoles and natural rubber outsoles.

All materials used in the shoe are organic, cruelty-, gluten- and chemical-free, Nat-2 said. The fungus itself, a species variously known as the tinder fungus or hoof fungus, is hand-harvested by “peeling” it from dead or dying birch and beech trees. It might even have antiseptic and antibacterial properties, the company added.

“The mushroom ‘leather’ is unique in its vintage look and unbelievably soft in its feel as well,” Nat-2 wrote on its website. “By using the material from both sides interesting contrasts and combination become possible.”

Could going vegan be luxury casual footwear’s new trend? The proof is in the products: Reebok recently launched a shoe made primarily from cotton and corn to great success. And in June, Hugo Boss hawked a men’s sneaker made with Piñatex, a leather alternative derived from the fibers of the pineapple leaf.