It was called “pleather” when Michael Jackson donned plasticky, synthetic leather in his early moonwalking days. It became famous for clothing rock stars and club kids in the 1980s.
Now it’s back with a new target audience and a new, appropriately hip name: vegan leather. And it’s a hit.
Demand for guilt-free faux animal hides is especially strong among millennial shoppers. They are more eco-conscious but also have been raised on fast fashion in which style trumps durability, analysts said.
Luxe brands such as Stella McCartney and Joseph Altuzarra have sent vegan leather jackets and bags with sky-high prices down the runway. Major department stores are increasing their offerings.
“Vegan is a new phrase that has now become a catchword for entrepreneurs to start new businesses,” said Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association. “It’s so acceptable even in fashion magazines.”
The science of fake leather has evolved, too. It is still usually made by coating plastic on fabric. But as textile technology has evolved, mills can churn out materials that look and feel like close kin of the real thing but with a greater array of colors and patterns.
At the same time, more Americans are turning to veganism or vegetarianism — about 30 million adults, or one-eighth of the population over age 18, according to the Humane Research Council. Two-thirds of vegans or vegetarians say protecting animals is a big motivator for their diets, a stance that is seeping beyond the supermarket.
“People are seeing themselves more as conscientious,” said Leanne Hilgart, founder of Vaute Couture. “After food is fashion.”
Hilgart made headlines in 2013 as the first all-vegan fashion designer to show at New York Fashion Week. Vaute (a mash-up of “vegan” and “haute”) specializes in stylish outerwear free of leather, wool and all other animal products.
The target customer is any trendy woman who would drop serious cash — $500 or more — on a coat, Hilgart said. Sales grew 60 percent last year compared with 2013.
The wealth of new options is a relief to Sarah Robles, 23, a “pescetarian” who eats seafood but not meat. Robles said she tries to avoid leather out of concern for animal welfare. Plus, faux leather options tend to be cheaper and require less maintenance, the actress said.
“Fake leather stuff is getting better and better,” she said. “It used to be just ugly knockoffs, but now I have so many cute shoes and bags, and they last longer than my real leather stuff.”
Retailers say they are still battling the stereotypes of shoppers who associate faux leather with the poor quality and pleather eyesores of decades past.
“We have all had the mind-set that it looks fake and shiny and doesn’t feel good,” said Ana Hartl, managing director of creative at Free People, part of Urban Outfitters Inc. A few years ago, Hartl said, she began noticing that some faux fabrics were virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. “People are genuinely shocked that it’s vegan,” she said.
Free People has more than doubled its vegan offerings since debuting its first collection in 2011. In the past two years it has launched vegan shoes and handbags. Vegan sales have surpassed leather in some categories, including jackets and vests.
Vegan leather also has been a hit for Los Angeles retailer Sole Society. It introduced vegan leather handbags a year ago, Chief Executive Andy Solomon said. They proved so popular with shoppers that now about half of its handbags are made of vegan leather. Sole Society hopes to increase that to 65 percent this year and is looking into vegan shoes.
“It’s a nice selling feature,” he said. “It gets folks over the hump to press the buy button.”
For more information check out our source, Star Tribune / LA Times / Free People