Responsible leather on the Celine runway. Image credit: Gorunway
From sumptuous trench coats to quilted motorcycle jackets, luxurious suiting and enormous woven totes, the autumn/winter runways were laden with butter-soft leather, worn head-to-toe. But with environmental issues now front and centre when it comes to how we eat, dress and travel, Vogue asks: how do you tackle 2019’s biggest fashion trend with a clearer conscience?
Responsible leather on the Chanel runway. Image credit: Gorunway
Buy animal-free leather
As a luxury brand, Stella McCartney is unequivocal about the vegetarian fashion credentials they established back in 2001: “We never use leather, skin, fur or feathers.” The material they do use is alter-nappa, made from polyester and polyurethane, together with a recycled polyester backing – an innovation motivated not only by concerns for animal welfare, but also to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution caused by the leather industry. It’s a stance that is now shared by a swathe of upscale labels who prioritise an animal-free route to leather.
New York-based Orseund Iris offers edgy, year-round street-style drops of club-ready ruched bralets and zip-through jackets that dismiss any hippified connotations of vegan leather. While Ukrainian designer, Iana Kuznietsova’s brand, Ochi (stocked at Net-A-Porter) has your workwear wardrobe covered with tailored faux-leather trench coats in sorbet and caramel hues.
For neat staples that work on and off-duty, Hungarian label Nanushka’s crisp shirting, midi-dresses and minimalist slippers (you can’t tell they aren’t real leather) come with an added perk. Not only are they cruelty free, but all of Nanushka’s vegan leather shirts and trousers are washable at 30 degrees. The label’s founder Sandra Sandor – a Budapest-based London College of Fashion grad – has prioritised the sustainability of her designs since she launched Nanushka in 2006, incorporating vegan leather in 2016. It’s a decision that paid off: the quilted vegan leather puffer jacket that you’ve probably spotted on your Instagram feed remains one of their bestsellers.
A Tenant of Culture jacket constructed of responsible leather. Image credit: The Artist
Seek out vegetable-tanned leather accessories
Caveat: Using vegetable dyes (rather than various toxic substances, including chromium, cyanide, mineral salts and formaldehyde) to tan animal leather improves upon just one stage of a heavily polluting process, but it’s a step in the right direction towards more eco-aware manufacturing. While searching the phrase “vegetable-tanned leather jacket” on Google doesn’t yield much, there are designers out there using the material for bags and shoes, with women leading the way.
Mansur Gavriel – the Glossier of the leather goods world, founded by Floriana Gavriel and Rachel Mansur – designed the vegetable-tanned leather Brandy bucket bag that went viral back in 2014. They now create countless styles, all in line with their adored minimal aesthetic – and it’s not just about bags, either. The New York-based label’s forward-thinking inventory has since expanded to include shoes – also featuring vegetable-tanned leather – and ready-to-wear. Meanwhile, over in Amsterdam, accessories label Wandler (founded by Eliza Wandler) is busy fashioning the next cult bag – pitching vegetable-tanned leather as the new premium choice, used to create their sought after Hortensia shoulder bag.
Stella McCartney uses a vegetarian leather-alternative. Image credit: Gorunway
The second-hand route
The return of full-look leather on the autumn/winter runways could be a positive thing for the luxury leather resale market according to Alice Hebrard Lemaire, head of vintage at luxury online consignment store Vestiaire Collective. “We expect, with the rising awareness surrounding sustainability, that [the pre-owned leather category] will grow,” she says. The site currently counts YSL, Balenciaga and Burberry among it’s top luxury brands that shoppers look to for second-hand leather pieces. There’s also good news for vintage aficionados who are hooked on Bottega Veneta’s revitalised woven leather designs. Hebrard Lemaire notes that between January and March 2019, 1,744 Bottega Veneta products were added to Vestiaire to meet a 12 per cent increase in sales (year on year).
Tenant of Culture cowboy boots constructed of responsible leather. Image credit: The Artist
Support a designer upcycler
The good news? For Gen Z’s fashion design stars, sustainability practices provide a grounding in thinking creatively. So, who are the new names set to change how the industry will operate in the years to come? “I use upcycled leather in my chalk bags to use up industry waste from some of the worlds top brands,” says recent Central Saint Martins graduate Patrick McDowell. “The leather industry is very harmful in terms of chemicals and letting those skins go to landfill creates even more toxic waste. Through upcycling leather we can aim to keep them out of the ground, while making beautiful products that don’t cost the earth.”
Dutch artist and graduate of London’s Royal College of Art, Hendrickje Schimmel similarly uses upcycled leather garments, shoes and bags to create revolutionary fashion pieces, which she exhibits under the pseudonym, Tenant of Culture. “I find second-hand leather pieces in charity shops, eBay and markets, and deconstruct them partially before stitching them back into new shapes and patterns,” Schimmel tells Vogue. The result is one-off wearable artworks, which stylistically upend what we think of as upcycling. “There are roughly four to five second-hand leather handbags that go into creating a single leather bag jacket,” she explains.
Responsible leather on the Bottega Veneta runway. Image credit: Gorunway
Donate your old leather
As much as we love to shop, there’s also happiness to be had by giving pre-loved clothing away (thank you Marie Kondo). If you’re sitting on a stack of leather biker jackets or skinny leather pants that don’t fit: donate. There might be a future designer who can repurpose your old pieces.