The radical rise of vegan menswear

Menswear brands are harnessing new technologies to mimic the luxury qualities of cashmere, silk and leather – and with huge environmental benefits. Benjamin Zephaniah, one of the UK’s most celebrated vegans, wears them well. Words by Marc Abbott. Portrait by Richard Grassie

Benjamin Zephaniah, one of the UK’s most celebrated vegans, wears Brave GentleMan double-breasted suit, $2,500, produced from 9oz Italian-milled bamboo with tagua nut buttons; organic-cotton shirt, $245. Noani eucalyptus-fibre/recycled polyester Bigbuc belt, €69.95. Boss limited-edition, pineapple-leaf-fibre Piñatex sneakers, £219. Beside him, HoodLamb Nordic Parka, €499, lined in Satifur and packed with Thermore Ecodown, both manufactured from recycled plastic bottles
Benjamin Zephaniah, one of the UK’s most celebrated vegans, wears Brave GentleMan double-breasted suit, $2,500, produced from 9oz Italian-milled bamboo with tagua nut buttons; organic-cotton shirt, $245. Noani eucalyptus-fibre/recycled polyester Bigbuc belt, €69.95. Boss limited-edition, pineapple-leaf-fibre Piñatex sneakers, £219. Beside him, HoodLamb Nordic Parka, €499, lined in Satifur and packed with Thermore Ecodown, both manufactured from recycled plastic bottles | Image: Richard Grassie

“I believe we’re on the brink of a new industrial revolution,” says Joshua Katcher, founder of luxury vegan menswear brand Brave GentleMan. “There’s a centuries-old mythology built around the idea that animal-derived materials are the pinnacle of quality, but now exciting fabric innovations are setting a new luxury agenda – one that also limits environmental damage.” For according to the 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, leather, wool, silk and cotton are the top four materials whose production most damages the environment.

Brave GentleMan “future wool/silk” recycled polycotton/polyester coat, $599. Yatay recycled polyester/polymer Neven high-top sneakers, £260
Brave GentleMan “future wool/silk” recycled polycotton/polyester coat, $599. Yatay recycled polyester/polymer Neven high-top sneakers, £260

Katcher launched the ethical lifestyle website Thediscerningbrute.com in 2008, driven by a passion for high-end clothing that eschewed animal products – not just animal skins and fur, but also silk (which can involve boiling or gassing around 6,600 silkworm larvae per kilogram), down (which is often plucked from live geese and ducks) and wool (where processes can include anaesthetic-free castration, and mulesing – the removal of skin from the rear quarters of a merino sheep to prevent fly strike). But his desire to write about vegan clothing was thwarted by a paucity of material. Two years later, he stepped into that gap by launching Brave GentleMan, a range of high-quality, well-designed menswear that was desirable in its own right, not just for its vegan credentials. His brand chimes with the times. In 2006 there were 150,000 vegans in the UK. The number nearly quadrupled over the next 10 years to 542,000; now it is 3.5 million. In just two years the number of vegans has grown from 1.05 per cent of the population to seven per cent.

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In 2015, Brave GentleMan opened its first store, in Brooklyn, and the current collection, available online internationally, features designs that blend sharp, classic style with technological acuity and animal-free fabric innovations. Double-breasted coats ($595) in office-ready grey, navy and brown tweed, or a more showy white/red/blue houndstooth and plaid ($599), use what Katcher calls “future wool”, created from 100 per cent recycled fabrics including EU Ecolabel-certified recycled polycotton blends diverted from the waste stream and spun into yarn. They are lined with vegan “future silk” produced from a variety of recycled polyesters, including plastic bottles. “The Brazilian mill we work with is literally pulling T-shirts and bedding out of the waste stream before it hits landfill,” says Katcher. “They process it back into fibre, to create new tweeds and twill. The mill is also closed loop, so no waste is released into the environment; it’s all recycled back into the process,” he continues. Corozo buttons on duffel coats, carved from the tagua nut, stand in for animal-horn fasteners. Suits available for pre-order ($2,500), meanwhile, include four styles made from bamboo. 

Stella McCartney “alter-nappa”/recycled polyester Chelsea boots, £540. Noani eucalyptus fibre/recycled polyester Bigbuc belt, €69.95
Stella McCartney “alter-nappa”/recycled polyester Chelsea boots, £540. Noani eucalyptus fibre/recycled polyester Bigbuc belt, €69.95

Debonair monkstrap and seamless Oxford shoes (both $640) with sleek silhouettes replete with steel heels and toe caps use uppers milled in Italy from weather-resistant “future leather”, a high-tech, biodegradable PU-based microfibre that is EU Ecolabel-certified and tested for durability; the same material is also used for the Faunus tote bag ($399) and portfolio case ($200). “I’ve encountered a lot of people who believe that if you put leather on something, that means it’s high quality,” Katcher ruminates. “I’ve worked hard to push back against that in a creative and intelligent way.”

Stella McCartney “alter-nappa”/recycled polyester Liam blouson, £865
Stella McCartney “alter-nappa”/recycled polyester Liam blouson, £865

“The style, cut and sensibility of Brave GentleMan’s collection stands on its own,” says actor Alan Cumming, who is such a fan he offered to front the campaign for the autumn/winter collection. “But the fact that it manages to do all this and be completely dedicated to animal-free products is huge, not just for the fashion world but for the public’s perception of what vegan clothing can be.” But Katcher isn’t resting on his laurels. “I didn’t get into fashion to be a one-store company,” he asserts. “I want to change the industry. I’m considering a few investor partnerships, and want to expand the brand. I want to change the fashion landscape.” The future of Brave GentleMan holds further advances in technology to make Katcher’s vision a reality. “One thing I’m incredibly excited about is looking forward to the day I can use lab-grown leather in our collection,” he enthuses. “I’m in talks with some bio-fabrication startups, deciding which to work with. Materials grown in this way will be a big solution to a great many problems. Lab-grown, as well as fungi- and plant-based materials such as those from mushrooms and pineapples, are the future.”

Boss pineapple-leaf-fibre Piñatex sneakers, £219
Boss pineapple-leaf-fibre Piñatex sneakers, £219

Californian tech company Bolt Threads is at the vanguard of innovation in lab-made leather and silk. After studying natural silk proteins, originally from spiders, it inserted genes into yeast and used fermentation to produce an animal-free silk, which is spun into fibres. This process resulted in the company’s first commercial product in 2017, the limited edition Boltspun tie, which swiftly sold out. April saw the production of Bolt’s first consumer synthetic leather, called Mylo, created by studying mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, to grow a mushroom-based leather-like material in a laboratory. This “fabric” is initially being used to produce the unisex Mylo Driver bag ($400), available for pre-order now. “The textile industry at large hasn’t achieved major innovation in decades,” says Bolt CEO and co-founder Dan Widmaier. “Our bio‑engineering technologies present an opportunity to revolutionise an old-world industry.”

The Workers Club polycarbon-mix parka liner, £360
The Workers Club polycarbon-mix parka liner, £360

But to make that impact, a company such as Bolt needs a champion. “From the day we founded Bolt Threads in 2009, we’ve dreamed of partnering with Stella McCartney,” continues Widmaier. “Not only does she have an unparalleled aesthetic, but the way she has pioneered sustainable fashion aligns perfectly with our vision for the future of the industry.” As head of the world’s most well-known and successful animal-free fashion brand, Stella McCartney finds herself in a position of responsibility and confidence. “When I started, it was unheard of not to use leather, fur, even PVC,” she remembers (the latter releases harmful dioxins during production, and is not biodegradable). “But we’re still one of the few luxury fashion houses providing non-animal clothing without sacrificing design. I’m constantly working on changing things that are conventional in this industry. Fashion needs to modernise, and challenge history.”

Nemanti recycled polyester/PU-fibre Alcantra Vezio boots, €259
Nemanti recycled polyester/PU-fibre Alcantra Vezio boots, €259

Her current partnership with Bolt Threads in womenswear is poised to translate into future menswear offerings. Though the brand forest-sources and hand-harvests silk after the silk worms have hatched, when it can, “I’ve always struggled with the use of silk, and finding Bolt has been a life-changing and career-changing moment for me,” she says. McCartney’s current menswear collection showcases items made from water-based PU “alter nappa”, a leather-effect material that uses renewable vegetable oil for its coating, and recycled polyester for its backing. Standout examples include the Liam blouson (£865), Chelsea boots (£540), Lewis shoes (£450) and a host of accessories including a wallet (£265), card case (£145) and envelope case (£380). 

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And while Katcher, Widmaier and McCartney arguably represent the holy trinity pioneers of animal-free luxury, behind this trailblazing trio is a burgeoning number of brands offering exciting new alternatives to traditional animal products. Feather-free lining, for example, can be found at Italian brand Save the Duck, which has collaborated this season with famed US streetwear designer Christopher Bevans to present a Dyne x Save the Duck outerwear capsule collection employing Plumtech insulation, made from recycled polyester, which Save the Duck claims to be warmer, more breathable and waterproof than traditional down. Headline pieces, made from 50 per cent recycled polyester and 50 per cent nylon with the Plumtech insulation, include the tailored Recy overshirt ($330), winter-ready Plumtech Bark full-length coat ($675) and sumptuous Fury coat ($380), which uses a poylester/jersey mix with PU-based vegan fur. Dutch brand HoodLamb, which has the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) seal of approval, also aims to insulate cruelty-free with its three-quarter-length hemp Nightwatch coat (€529) and Nordic Parka (€499) lined with Satifur and packed with Thermore Ecodown; both materials are manufactured from recycled plastic bottles.

Chic shearling-effect pieces can be found at UK-based The Workers Club, which has a reversible parka liner (£360), perfect for winter layering, made in Portugal from a polycarbonate mix that works to strict pollution and waste limits, and crucially without recourse to killing any sheep. And accessories brand Noani has a comprehensive range of belts that resemble suede – yet are made from eucalyptus fibres and recycled polyester. A standout is the Bigbuc belt (€69.95) in a variety of colours.

Indeed, as Bolt Threads’ Widmaier attests, natural materials are the avant-garde foot soldiers of this brave new luxury world, and perhaps the most interesting innovations can be found among companies, many of them footwear brands, using fibres from trees, fruit and fungi. Piñatex, a material created from pineapple-leaf fibre, has appeared in a number of collections in recent months, notably in that of Boss by Hugo Boss, which has produced a pair of limited edition Piñatex sneakers (£219), and that of boutique brand Bourgeois Boheme, whose Casey Piñatex black trainers (£165) also feature sustainable cork and PVC-free vegan suede. 

Apple cores, discarded by agribusiness industries, meanwhile, are used by Italian footwear company Nemanti for a range that includes a monkstrap weekend shoe (from €409). Also rather stylish is the Vezio ankle boot (€259), fashioned from Alcantara, made from 68 per cent polyester and 32 per cent PU, a micro-fibre more commonly found as a seat covering in luxury motor vehicles to emulate the look and feel of suede. And compatriot company Vegea has enlisted emerging designer Tiziano Guardini to create a number of pieces from vegan leather that’s produced from grape marc, the fruit flesh that remains after pressing, including a pair of formal men’s shoes, though for now they are only prototypes. 

More prototypes pushing the boundaries and hopefully soon to hit the high street include trainers fashioned by Belgian shoe designer Kristel Peters from MuSkin, cultivated from the Phellinus ellipsoideus fungus in a similar style to Bolt Threads’ Mylo. Peters worked with Dries Van Noten between 2002 and 2008, and highlights how shifting perceptions are creating a new industry: “Back then, it was very hard to make luxury shoes without using any leather and still have them perceived as a valuable product.” Changing habits may be slow and steady, but it’s happening visibly – Yatay’s recycled polyester and bio‑derived polymer Neven sneakers with hemp laces have recently been seen on the feet of Benedict Cumberbatch, a personal advocate of cruelty-free clothing. These are available in a high-top (£260) and low shoe (£220) in a range of colours from white to forest green, and the company promises to plant a tree for every shoe sold. 

While significant changes to the landscape of luxury fashion may rely on retail behemoths and conglomerate forces larger than the owners of these burgeoning, largely independent companies, that day may not be so far away. Bottega Veneta’s CEO Claus Dietrich-Lahrs recently raised eyebrows by stating, “One day, all leather will be animal-free.” Joshua Katcher believes it will only take a few big-league champions to accelerate change: “If they are willing to say something like ‘leather will be obsolete’, just imagine what that could do to perceptions,” he says. Imagine also what influence it could have on the mainstream adoption of these many emergent technologies, and the chances of that 21st-century industrial revolution becoming a real reality…

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