It’s no secret that vegan food products are a massive growth market. Even the US’s largest meat producer is jumping on the plant-based protein bandwagon. But the food industry isn’t the only area in which animal-free items are becoming in vogue. According to global research firm J. Walter Thompson Intelligence’s latest The Future 100 report, vegan fashion will be a major trend for 2018, particularly in the luxury sector.
This prediction has weight considering some of the major innovations that have come about over the past three years, including alternatives to leather made from pineapple waste, apple peels, mushrooms, kombucha and wine. In July this year British designer Stella McCartney partnered with Bolt Threads, a San Francisco-based biotech firm that has produced a vegan-friendly silk using yeast. In September Modern Meadow launched what it says is the first biofabricated leather brand, Zoa, which uses fermented yeast to grow collagen. It claims the tech, which is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’ in New York until January 28, 2018, is able to create durable and more eco-friendly alternatives to a variety of animal skins, without harming animals.
This is good news for the growing number of socially conscious consumers wanting high-end yet sustainable and cruelty-free style. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, more than a billion animals are killed in the global leather industry. In addition to suffering the horrors of being kept in squalid factory farms, many animals are brutalized and skinned alive. This includes reptiles and snakes, whose skins are used by brands such as Jimmy Choo. On top of that, the tanning process for the hides uses toxic chemicals, which have been shown to have a devastating impact on the environment as well as the health of leather workers.
While major luxury shoe brands, with the exception of McCartney, have been slow in embracing animal-free materials, vegan entrepreneurs have stepped in to fill the void and create a burgeoning market, demonstrating that ‘vegan’ and ‘sustainable’ doesn’t mean boring, ugly, canvas tennis shoes or cheap PVC sandals.
Rebecca Mink from Los Angeles is a pioneer in this field. She founded Mink Shoes 17 years ago while working as a celebrity wardrobe stylist. As an animal lover, she found herself in a quandary when it came to shoes. “I was spending up to $10,000 a month for high-end leather shoes for celebrities for their appearances on the red carpet,” she says. “I had no other options, so I decided to make a vegan shoe of the same quality as Prada, Gucci and Jimmy Choo.”
The problem was, as she told FORBES magazine back in 2007, none of the 16 factories she visited in Italy, which manufacture shoes for the majority of luxury brands, wanted to work with her. Eventually one factory agreed to take on the task of creating an upmarket vegan shoe, which resulted in a slew of challenges. “There are up to 20 components for each shoe and they all had to be vegan,” Mink explains. “In the beginning some of the fabrics were stretching out so we had to find ways to line them so they wouldn’t become a size bigger. We also had to put our shoes in the freezer to avoid the moulding machines melting the non-leather fabrics.”
Mink also had to create her own animal-free glue. “You should have seen the factory owner’s face when I said I couldn’t use their glue after they finally accepted me!” she laughs, although they soon became impressed after her rubber-based glue outperformed the standard solvents. [Article continues]
The challenges didn’t stop there though. Once the shoes were made, there was then the problem of convincing retail buyers to take on vegan footwear and sell them at the same price as their leather counterparts. It took eight trips to Zappos before they finally made a purchase. “I drove down to their offices in Las Vegas with the shoes in a suitcase because I was afraid to fly with my one-of-a-kind originals,” Mink recalls. “When I finally got there, they told me they had to cancel because the buyer was busy, but I refused to leave the building until I met them. You have to be like that in business. Within 10 minutes the buyer came in, looked at the shoes and bought 18 styles.”
Shortly afterwards Mink realized this wasn’t how she wanted to do business and started selling directly to consumers. “It’s a much higher profit margin, and you get connected to your clientele,” she says.
While Mink offers more affordable mid-range collections of footwear priced at around $175-$300, custom shoes, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, are the heart and soul of the business. Celebrities including Natalie Portman, Alicia Silverstone and Pamela Anderson were early adopters and in 2016 Miley Cyrus discovered the brand and asked Mink to create vegan versions of many of her designer shoes and boots. The company also created special shoes for Cyrus’s appearances as a judge on The Voice.