For years, dressing vegan meant nubuck Birkenstocks and hemp sack dresses or message tees with slogans such as "Cow Hugger." Options were limited, especially for shoes, accessories and cold-weather clothing.
They've given up eating burgers. And bacon. And anything else that used to have a pulse or came from something with a pulse.
But just because they're vegan doesn't mean they're unfashionable — only more selective. If an animal was harmed to make a material that goes into clothing, that material is off limits. So wearing leather isn't an option. Neither is wool from little lambs eating ivy — cruelty to the animals in factory farm conditions is a concern. Silk, which destroys the worm to harvest the thread, is a no-no. And so, of course, are fur and fluffy down.
For years, dressing vegan meant nubuck Birkenstocks and hemp sack dresses or message tees with slogans such as "Cow Hugger." Options were limited, especially for shoes, accessories and cold-weather clothing. But thanks to a growing crop of clothing lines that allow style-conscious individuals to align their attire with their cruelty-free beliefs, it's now possible to defy the stereotype. Vegan and high fashion? They're no longer mutually exclusive terms.
"I didn't want to be the brand that only hippies wear," said Elizabeth Olsen, founder of olsenHaus Pure Vegan footwear in New York. OlsenHaus, which has been in business one year, makes strappy stilettos, ultrasuede ankle boots and colorful ballet flats using a mixture of manmade, plant-based and recycled materials. These are shoes that could easily stroll a red carpet and raise eyebrows — not so much for their ethics but for their stylish ingenuity.
Olsen, 36, has been a vegetarian since she was 15 and "saw some PETA literature on factory farm animals and animal testing" that prompted her to "have a conniption." She was a creative director for Tommy Hilfiger until she decided to step into the vegan void with a shoe line that filled the gap between style-free polyurethane flats from Payless ShoeSource and $800 heels from Stella McCartney, the most high-profile vegan designer.
"We try to show people you can still be really fashionable and not wear animals," said Jackie Horrick, owner of the Alternative Outfitters vegan boutique in Pasadena, Calif.
As the store's glancing reference to a more famous "outfitter" would suggest, the looks at this petite boutique are more urban than homestead, with its puffy, faux-fur trimmed jackets, cork-soled sandals, pleather handbags and message tees that read "I eat carbs" and "Real women wear fake fur."
Those fake-fur wearers, by the way, are staying stylish for a lot less money; the prices at Alternative Outfitters are generally less than $100 per item, with shoes averaging $40 to $50 and T-shirts about $20.
"I've been trying more and more to go cruelty-free," said Holly Miller, who was shopping at Alternative Outfitters for the first time on a recent Monday. Miller, 40, was vegetarian for 15 years before becoming vegan last summer.
"Why wear something that comes from an animal when I can get something else?" said Miller, who was shopping for a belt. "People say, 'Well, the animal's already dead and you're just wearing the leather, so what difference does it make?' You vote with your dollars. When you buy something that comes from an animal — an animal that lived in captivity and probably suffered when it died — you're implicitly saying that's OK."
Miller's fellow vegans are a small but influential community. According to a 2008 study published by the Vegetarian Times, 7.3 million Americans are vegetarian; of those, just 1 percent are vegan. But vegans' ethics are finding traction in the mainstream because veganism overlaps with environmentalism, which has become a cultural juggernaut in recent years. Almost half of the vegetarians polled in the Vegetarian Times said they followed such a diet because of environmental concerns. (The cattle business, according to a 2006 United Nations report, creates more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry.)
"People that are concerned about the environment spill over into the animal rights community. Being vegetarian alone would cut down on the amount of pollution we have. Some of the products we carry, such as organic cotton, don't pollute, so the two go hand in hand," said Melanie Packer, co-owner of the Humanitaire vegan boutique in Costa Mesa, Calif., which sells Macbeth "rock 'n' roll" athletic shoes, Neuaura high-fashion heels, Herbivore T-shirts and Matt & Nat handbags to a customer base that ranges from "children to ladies with blue hair."
At Matt & Nat, a fashion-forward, socially responsible accessory maker based in Montreal, the linings, as well as the shells, for many of the high-end "vegan leather" totes, laptop carriers and wallets are made from recycled water bottles.
But as Inder Bedi, Matt & Nat's founder and creative director, sees it, style is key. "The product/design has to be there first. At the end of the day, when it comes to fashion, people still buy the product first and then the story."
And that impulse is helping move vegan style forward. "The new look of vegan fashion doesn't look any different from any new fashion. Period," said Rachel Sarnoff, founder-owner of EcoStiletto, a Web site (ecostilleto.com) that promises to unleash the "secret to smart and sexy green living." "It's indistinguishable from what's on the shelves in non-vegan fashion. You don't have to look like you're wearing green just because you are," said Sarnoff.
According to Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, 26, founder and creative director of Vaute Couture in Chicago, "There used to be this idea that to be vegan is a sacrifice, and one thing you'd sacrifice would be style — that people who are vegan don't care about expressing themselves through clothing or their looks," the vegan Ford model said. "A lot of vegans really exemplify a new standard."
Hilgart makes her case with the Vaute Coat she's debuting this fall. Setting out to make a fashionable winter jacket that was "cute and warm and animal-conscious" to get her through the brutal Chicago winter, she came up with peacoats and dress coats made from a 100 percent recycled Polar Tech fabric that offers thermal insulation but also a "pretty flirty drape" and an "elegant texture." The coats are made in Chicago by seamstresses who Hilgart said make a "living wage."
When she shops for vegan clothes, Hilgart said, she paws through the racks like everyone else at boutiques, department stores and vintage shops. She's just careful to read all the labels — even "the little tiny labels on the bottom side" just to make sure no animal products were involved.
"It's not a sacrifice to be considerate of others. You can have everything," said Hilgart, who's contributing part of the proceeds from her new coat to the animal advocacy organization Farm Sanctuary. "You just have to be more careful about it, but you can be conscientious and have style too."