Wills lifestyle fashion show
by Georgina Safe
Cathryn Wills was working as the managing and creative director of accessories brand Mimco when she watched Cowspiracy, a documentary about the impact of animal agriculture on the environment.
"I realised I'd been closing my eyes to a number of issues so I did a lot of reading about animal welfare, then I became vegetarian nearly three years ago," she says.
"The fact that I was heading up a large leather accessories business progressively became incongruous for me."
So Wills quit her job.Cathryn Wills, founder and creative director of Sans Beast. Vien Tran
"When I walked away in mid 2016 I needed to take some time out to think about what was next – but I knew that it had to be creative and it had to be non-leather," she says.
The result is her new vegan accessories brand Sans Beast, born of the Melbourne-based designer's twin passions for good design and the ethical treatment of animals.
"I'm very committed to animals and the more I learn about factory farming, the more I want to make a difference to their situation," says Wills.
"But even if you don't care about the animals, with the environmental damage that mass farming inflicts, the excessive water usage and health impacts of consumption of these products, it seems clear to me a change is needed."Canadian brand Matt & Nat stands for Material and Nature. The name says it all. Supplied
Featuring strong geometric shapes, bold colours and eye-catching hardware, the clutches, bowling bags, cross-body bags and "totepacks" (a cross between a tote and a backpack) that comprise the debut Sans Beast collection are about as far from the hippy dippy vegan fashion stereotype as you could get.
More importantly, they are part of a global movement towards animal alternatives products that will see the vegan "leather" market reach $US85 billion (8 billion) by 2025, according to a 2017 report by business consulting firm Grand View Research.
The increased popularity of veganism and a greater focus on sustainability in the fashion industry are the key factors driving the trend to faux leather accessories and other "animal products without the animal".
Chris Sanderson, co-founder of London trend forecasting company The Future Laboratory, says: "Veganism continues to be the fastest growing alternative lifestyle trend across all developed economies and it lies at the heart of people wanting products that don't use any animal products or by-products."The demand for alternative, non-animal leathers will continue to grow," says Ethical Gallery founder Drieli Roveda. Supplied
"Then you have the fact that fashion is increasingly under the spotlight regarding ethical and sustainability questions. It's one of the most unsustainable industries in the world, both in natural resources and human resources, and the manufacturing of leather is a particularly harmful manufacturing process with a very high carbon footprint – from the methane produced by the cows to the amount of toxic chemicals and water used in the fabrication process."
Stella McCartney, LaBante, Matt & Nat (that's Material and Nature, not a design duo) and the aptly named Beyond Skin are just a handful of the brands proving animal ethics and sustainability do not preclude style, with Angela Roi, Gunas New York and Melie Bianco among the labels stocked by Australian vegan accessories e-tailer Ethical Gallery.
Ethical Gallery founder Drieli Roveda says: "Until recently cruelty-free fashion was a conversation strictly limited to vegan circles, but with the rise of conscious consumerism this is no longer the case.Modern Meadow grows collagen in the lab to create synthetic leather through a process called biofabrication. Supplied
"The shopper at Ethical Gallery is style-conscious, independent minded and actively seeks information about social and environmental issues that empowers her to make choices that are aligned with her values."
Since Roveda founded her company in July last year, business has increased exponentially, with 150 per cent growth in the second quarter as part of a global movement that shows no sign of slowing.
"A shift is happening towards ethical, cruelty-free fashion and the demand for alternative, non-animal leathers will continue to grow," she says.
While the majority of vegan accessories brands stocked by Ethical Gallery use synthetic leather alternatives, the most exciting innovation in the vegan market is lab-grown leather, or bio-fabrication. As the field of synthetic biology and genetic modification expands rapidly, it has entered the realms of fashion, with New Jersey biotech company Modern Meadow creating the world's first bio-fabricated leather.Modern Meadow's team includes more than 60 experts in molecular biology, material science, engineering and design. Supplied
The company grows collagen, a protein found in animal skin, to create a bio-leather material it calls Zoa, which is tanned and finished, it says, "through an efficient, ecologically mindful process to give the material its final character". Unlike genuine leather and other leather substitutes such as PVC, this process leaves a far lighter environmental footprint.
Sanderson says: "By bypassing the large-scale livestock industry entirely, Modern Meadow presents an alternative that's sustainable at both ends of the supply chain and taps into the consumer demand for more ethical products."
Another alternative to synthetic leather is Fumikodata, a new material from Japan that replicates the function and structure of animal leather. A three-dimensional, fine density non-woven material with a structure resembling that of collagen tissue is used as a base, upon which a polyurethane permeated synthetic resin is applied to create an appearance that mimics animal leather.
The material is used to make the Fumikoda range of designer handbags, which cleverly blend the cutting-edge fabric with the allure of Japanese tradition – each one is handmade by a single craftsperson – to sell the company's "High Fashion, Zero Cruelty" message to the world.
The next big dilemma
The ethics of bio-fabricated materials is likely to be the next great dilemma, however. If genetics is becoming a toolbox to create organisms for new materials developed in labs, it raises questions about the sacredness of life, and ownership of the animal genome.
One argument is that humans shouldn't play god in relation to nature.
"The only way you can truly challenge the hegemony of leather is to go one step further and synthesise its qualities and actually improve on nature," Sanderson says.
"So we start to move into a new ethical and moral dilemma, which is about fabrication and synthesisation, where these products may ultimately be deemed to be as unethical and unpopular to vegans as leather and other animal materials."
Whatever happens in the future, the sustainability and animal alternatives debate is not going away.
"This is not a fad or a seasonal trend," says Sanderson. "This is a change in attitude that redefines how we think about managing resources and what is acceptable and unacceptable in the fashion industry over the long term."