Once you have invited the extended family to dinner; once you have decided that you can accommodate three vegetarians, two vegans, and a horde of committed carnivores at your table; once you have seen how well you handled your prep-time meltdown by whiteboarding the menu; once you have found a way to avoid contaminating the vegan dishes with a spoon that touched butter and a way to not confuse the couscous sautéed in garlic, onions, and peppers with the couscous sautéed in garlic, onions, peppers, and fish broth; yes, once you have survived the chef experience of the multi-enlightened dinner party, the concept of dressing vegan seems quite easy.
Or, at least, sort of easy. When it comes to accessorizing, leave the cows alone. Do you like shiny suits? Find a way to give silk worms a break. And, unless that sheep is sitting on the couch knitting you a sweater as a gift, no wool. Got it? As much as you can, avoid animal exploitation. Yes, vegans draw some hard and fast lines: nothing that comes from animals. Nothing. It is like other fashion rules, such as no white after Labor Day, only less arbitrary or shallow.
It may help your effort to be vegan if you whiteboard fashion’s raw materials. To do this, write "Raw Materials" at the top of the board. Now, under the heading, divide the board in into two classes, not Natural and Manmade, as you’d expect, but Natural and Super Natural. You’ll see why. On the Natural side of the Raw Materials chart, there are only two options: plants and animals. From plants, we get textile fibers. For example, we spin cotton into fibers that we knit or weave. From animals, we get textile fibers and hides. We spin wool. We tan leather. That is it. Plants and animals. Write this down.
Switching over to the Super Natural side, the big category options are just as limited. Again, there are only two options, either cellulose or synthetic polymers. Cellulose comes from tough plant exteriors like tree bark. It is natural in its raw state, but requires a mutation if we want to wear it, like going from cardboard to rayon (literally). Synthetic polymers come from oil (not olive, but petrol), and arrive at the manufacturing plant as pellets. The pellets are heated up into a liquid goo that is then extruded through tiny holes, like Play-Doh through the Play-Doh Fun Factory. Out of the press comes synthetic fibers that are woven into the material for gym pants and polyester shirts.
It is amazing, actually, to think that our closets can be broken out into four basic options: plants, animals, bark, and oil. (I had a friend who once made a vest out of soda pop pull tabs, but in life there are always exceptions.) Some fabrics, like satin, are made by blending animal-based natural fibers and synthetic super natural fibers. This means our closets and store shelves are full of hybrids, too, but if we at least get the four basics down, we can feel more confident trying to read labels.
To be vegan-worthy, cross out one of the four options. The production fabric cannot contain fiber or hide from an animal source. Oil is okay. The linen from flax is fine. But no aspect of garment production can involve the exploitation of animals, and any animal involvement is considered exploitative because animals cannot sign consent decrees or authorization forms. No matter how wide afield they can travel on a range, animals have zero free choice in whether to work for us, so the philosophy goes. If we share these concerns to any extent and we want to dress in a vegan frame of mind, how do we start?
I recommend starting with a concept expressed by Alabama Chanin. Alabama Chenin holds itself out as a leader in slow design, a counter to fast fashion practice that, regardless of raw material class, can be tough on the environment. Buy clothes that will last, clothes that you love, clothes you can share. To do this, begin by believing that vegan can be beautiful. The designs at Alabama Chanin offer stunning examples of how we can reconsider plant-based textiles more than T-shirt fodder. The clothes are made of 100 percent organic cotton that is embroidered or appliqued or otherwise adorned by hand, by artisans. These garments cost, but consider the slow design, slow production concept, and if it helps, AC offers sewing programs and sewing DIY kits that allow customers to learn to think and sew the AC way at home. I want to be in class the week they teach how to make the Donovan Coat.
Brave Gentle Man offers pants and suit jackets with that pedigreed wool look. I found a seriously powerful tweed blazer during my hunt. But rather than wool, the material is milled in Brazil out of 100 percent recycled cotton and polyester, and fully lined in something called future silk, made from recycled plastic bottles. (There is so much packed into the idea of future silk, but I have to let it go for now.) The fabrics are cut and sewn in New York City, and I love the fabric of the blue-black blazer so much that I’m considering whether I could carry the look myself—if I got a man size small enough. But more to my point, vegan does not mean we have to feel limited. We can turn to Vaute, which was the first vegan label to show at New York Fashion Week. Creator Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart and her company received the Rising Label vote of confidence from Vogue, and convinced Oprah that the label "proves animal-free fashion can be cute, chic, and sexy." I’m stuck on Vaute for a different reason. They offer puffy coats that look city professional.
I shouldn’t make vegan couture sound too easy. In some seasons, it can be. For example, plant-based fibers work very well in summer. Bamboo (aka cellulose) sandals can be summer staples. There are times of year, however, when the only thing that keeps me warm is a house I can wear outside. A house is not an option when you want to be outdoors. I need warm layers to get me from hither to yon. Then there is the heating issue when I’m indoors. Wool blankets and down-filled duvets keep the thermostat affordable. Life can be tough in the northern climes, and wool, feathers, and fur became popular at these extreme latitudes precisely because the animals bearing them inspired us. Hey, if their protective outer garments work for them in February... . Synthetic substitutes are touted as being as good as if not better than the traditional animal-based alternatives for mountain climbers "and such," but I am neither a mountain climber nor an "and such." When I go outside in the chilly days of fall, winter, and spring, I mostly walk. Sometimes I just meander. There are days so beautiful and formidable, I just stand in place and observe. Without a pounding heartbeat, I need puffy. I need to be encased in a whole lotta synthetic stuff and air. Puffy works as a great insulator. Puffy, however, can be a harder sell for poise and panache. I applaud companies like Vaute who recognize our real weather insulation needs and find a way to combine protection with animal-friendly style.
I am not a vegan. I am not even a vegetarian. Not yet. I am, at best, a hesitatian. I hesitate more and more when deciding what to buy. I still have a long way to go. I have become ecologically aware enough to hate plastic bottles, yet I spring at the chance to buy Spandex. The thought of animal cruelty turns my stomach, but I suffer no nightmares falling asleep under a down comforter. It is tough not to be spoiled. It is tough to think that silkworms should have a labor union. But, at least my ears are hearing vegan words now, and I know they are listening because when I discovered that Birkenstock has developed a synthetic that feels like super soft leather, my instant reaction was not about their perplexingly popular niche sandal market, no. Instead, my brain smiled. It went straight to, "yes, better imitation leather!" Maybe this is because I am excited about lower price points. Or maybe it is because more and more, when someone asks me, "Who are you wearing?" I do not want the answer to be "a sentient creature, like me."
Longtime Spree writer and former Buffalonian Catherine Berlin lives in Sweden.