Calling to mind the stiff, plasticky compound popularized in the ‘90s, “pleather” is not a word any brand wants associated with a product.
“It’s kind of a dirty word, with cheap connotations,” said Tori Alegria of Coalition LA, an outerwear line that specializes in vegan materials during the MAGIC tradeshow in Las Vegas last month. Semantics aside, imitation leather and furs are not what they once were. “There are so many new materials and manufacturing capabilities that bring a luxe factor” to the category, Alegria explained. Over nine years, Coalition LA has expanded its original offering of vegan leather to include faux suede, shearling, wool and quilted coats filled with synthetic goose down.
According to Alegria, brands like Coalition LA are leading the charge against animal-sourced materials. The shift, she said, helps save the lives of thousands of creatures bound for the slaughterhouse. It may also lead to more sustainable sourcing and manufacturing practices down the road, she added. It’s an assertion that’s still proving muddy, with most vegan brands only scratching the surface of what truly earth-friendly synthetics might look like.
“It’s really about opening up the conversation to understand what types of materials are out there,” Alegria said. “Recycling plastics is an ultimate goal.” At this point, however, the brand considers its products to be “conscious, cruelty-free, PETA-approved, ethical, kind and innovative. We do not consider them sustainable.”
Still, brands across the MAGIC showroom floor agreed that real leather, and fur in particular, are going the way of the mink stole—which is to say, fashionably extinct. Advances in materials have allowed brands to steer clear of animal products altogether while retaining a similar look and feel. The shift away from PVC (commonly known as vinyl) toward softer, more versatile polyurethane compounds can be credited with the improvements, Alegria said. Some might even argue that vegan furs and leathers feel better than the real thing.
Adam Suchin, a representative from Best Mountain, said the brand’s vegan fur offerings have been the most popular in the line because “they’re soft, lifelike and well-priced.” The Paris-based brand featured long and short faux fur coats in natural browns and beiges, as well as brightly-hued options that weren’t even attempting to masquerade as genuine. A bumblebee yellow cropped jacket was the brand’s bestseller of the show, he said. Best Mountain’s ultra-plush coats retail for less than $200.
Quality and price are also driving factors behind consumer interest for Molly Bracken, with many of the brand’s styles retailing for less $150 or less. “We spend time sourcing and developing fabrics that fit with customers’ needs and expectations,” said Justine Sidonio, the French brand’s vice president. Faux leather bombers, multicolored fox hair coats, suede military jackets and long mohair pea coats made up the brand’s diverse showing.
Sidonio credits Molly Bracken, a family-owned business with a “vegan sensibility,” with getting out ahead of the faux trend in the European market. In 2016, after eight years of sourcing mostly vegan materials, the brand made a full commitment to the movement. Sidonio said that much research and quality control testing goes into the formulation of the brand’s products. The demand comes from a population of consumers who are looking to “better behave and consume in all ways.”
The idea of “consuming better” is one that Coalition LA is also trying to promote with both consumers and retailers. Its latest collaboration with PETA launched in fall of 2018 with a single vegan leather jacket. It sold out quickly, Alegria said, and now the two organizations have turned their efforts to bringing vegan manufacturing capabilities to private labels.
This year, PETA x Coalition LA will work with brands and retailers to design their own outerwear capsule collections. “The goal is to educate,” Alegria said. The process of getting more ethical products into stores will begin on the business-to-business level, she emphasized. Working closely to inform the retail community of the benefits of vegan products will turn the tide, she hopes, and information will ultimately trickle down to the consumer.
Still, the quest to overtake animal products completely has a way to go.
“The retailers that visit our booth are excited because their customers respond well to the cruelty-free message,” Alegria said. “But we also get people who come and ask us, ‘What’s vegan? I thought that was just for food.’”