For Joshua Katcher, proprietor of Brave GentleMan, a nearly decade-old luxury men’s wear brand that traffics in sustainable, animal-friendly materials, the search for the perfect vegan suiting might finally—mercifully—be at an end.
It wasn’t an easy journey. After experimenting with everything from organic cotton canvas to a recycled cotton-polyester blend he dubbed “future wool,” Katcher, who is based in New York City, felt his frustration mount. For a time, he even suspended his suiting line altogether. “I just wasn’t happy with what was coming out,” he said.
Then he came across what he describes as “some of the most beautiful suiting fabric that I’ve ever handled,” with a hand that felt like cashmere with the wrinkle resistance to match. The material, it turned out, was bamboo, milled in Italy to be nearly indistinguishable from high-twist wool.
“It definitely has a more substantial feeling than what the past bamboos that I’ve interacted with,” Katcher said. “It has a drape very much like a super-fine wool. It has a little bit of sheen to it, so it looks very luxurious.”
Luxury is important to the Brave GentleMan ethos. When Katcher founded the brand in 2010, it was with the desire to relitigate the definition of luxury, this time without the casual butchery and environmental damage that breeding animals for fashion can engender.
“A lot of our conception of luxury has to do with access to power, and often that power is a celebration of ruthlessness,” he said. “Even if subconscious, there is a popular belief that something truly magnificent must require great sacrifice.”
Embracing bamboo can be a double-edged sword, Katcher admitted. As the fastest-growing woody plant in the world, it’s capable of growing up to four feet a day with little irrigation or fertilizers, making it eminently renewable. But planting bamboo for rayon requires land, which can encroach upon old-growth forests or the habitats of vulnerable wildlife, like pandas.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission only classifies products made directly with bamboo fiber—often called “mechanically processed bamboo”—as “bamboo.” Most bamboo textile products, if not all, it has noted, should be more accurately labeled as rayon. (It has dinged the likes of Sears and Macy’s for suggesting otherwise, too, or for overstating bamboo’s purported antimicrobial properties.)
The most widely adopted way of making bamboo rayon is through the use of caustic solvents such as carbon disulfide and sulfuric acid, which dissolve the cellulose material and create a thick soup that is extruded through spinnerets to create strands of fiber.
Precisely how much of the solvent gets recovered depends on the facility. Patagonia, which eschews rayon or bamboo fabric made by the viscose process, estimates that most viscose factories have a solvent recovery rate of roughly 50 percent, “which means that the other half goes into the environment.” Because of this, the outdoor-wear company opts for Tencel, also a regenerated cellulose fiber, but one it says is processed with a nontoxic solvent in a closed-loop system.
Katcher is aware of bamboo’s criticisms, but he’s counting on his fabric’s European extraction as its differentiator. “I think that a lot of the problems that happened with bamboo are happening in places where there are not great environmental regulations,” he said. “I know that with the mill being in Italy and with European chemical standards [being what they are], they’re pretty stringent with how it’s being manufactured. So I know that it’s not coming from a place where chemicals are being dumped to make it.”
He doubts, in any case, that there can ever be a “perfect” fabric. In any case, as far as sustainability is concerned, bamboo trumps wool, the ne plus ultra of suiting.
“A lot of people don’t realize that there are a billion sheep on the planet and they’re our top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in places where the wool industry is a major industry,” Katcher said. “Even on supposedly humane-certified farms, where horrible cruelty has been revealed, those cruelties are considered business as usual or standard industry practices in the wool industry.”
Brave GentleMan will be the first company to offer complete two-piece suits made from 100 percent bamboo fiber. New York Fashion Week attendees will get the first official look in February. After that, the suits will go into production, in partnership with the Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, sometime mid-spring.
“We’re going to keep a small off-the-rack range, but we will also be doing made to measure,” he said. Ready-to-wear versions, available in solid navy, solid black, brown windowpane, blue windowpane and gray, will ring up at $2,500 apiece. In lieu of animal horn, they’ll be buttoned up with tagua nut.
While the cruelty-free nature of the suits is the point, Katcher wants them to stand on other merits, too. “I think once anybody sees these suits and feels the material, it’s definitely going to be considered meeting luxury standards from the standpoint of look and feel and durability and craftsmanship,” he said. “I have no doubt that these are going to be suits that can compete with any luxury suit.”
As happy as he with bamboo right now, Katcher isn’t counting out future innovations that may better reflect his vision of a sustainable, compassionate future for clothing. He’s especially excited about the rise in biosynthetics—man-made materials with organic origins such as mycelium-derived faux leather and yeast-engineered spider silk. In July, the Biodesign Challenge presented the PETA Prize for Animal-Free Wool to Woocoa, a plant-based “wool” composed of hemp and coconut fibers treated with enzymes extracted from oyster mushrooms.
“I’m still looking forward to the day when I can use like lab-grown wool, biofabricated materials like that,” he said. “I’m always looking for better and better technologies and solutions.”