Meet the Vegan Designer Who Brought Luxe Cactus Leather to London Fashion Week
It may sound like an oxymoron, but “vegan leather” is gaining popularity in the fashion industry.
Previously, vegan leather involved the use of materials made from plastic polymers, often considered cheaper and less luxurious than conventional cow-derived leather. Materials like these are popular in fast fashion, and they’re often criticized for being environmentally destructive.
But the way we view vegan leather is changing. Designers now often use sustainable leather alternatives, such as recycled plastic and materials made from pineapples, apples or cork.
Vegan leather takes the runway at London Fashion Week
Sarah Regensburger, a German designer based in London, uses cactus leather in her all-vegan designs. She unveiled her new collection at a London Fashion Week show in September.
“What I love is that you wouldn’t notice,” she said Plant Based News (PBN). “It looks like leather, it looks even better. It’s also biodegradable, which is amazing.
Jessica Ping, American Regensburger model, added: “I was amazed by the quality of the leather. It was solid, heavy and beautifully finished.
“As a woman with a disability, fashion cannot only be stylish and durable, but it must also be functional,” added Ping, who was born with a genetic condition called CHILD syndrome. “If I can’t comfortably wear an item of clothing while using my mobility aids, then it’s not really a practical purchase.”
Animal leather has long been synonymous with luxury. Most brands use it for bags, shoes and belts, and the public has little understanding of its cruelty and environmental costs.
Regensburger’s Cactus Leather Coat retails for £1,500; she is one of the few high-end designers to create such animal-free clothing.
The designer, however, claims that many of her customers are not vegan. Often they have no idea that they are even buying non-animal leather.
“They just love the outfit and they love that it looks expensive and feels good and powerful,” she says. “It’s amazing, I think. You don’t need to convince vegan customers, you need to convince non-vegan customers.
Cruelty in the leather industry
Unlike fur, which is now banned at London Fashion Week, the inherent cruelty of materials like leather and wool is much less understood.
The material is usually made from hide or cowhide, and is often justified as a “by-product” of the beef and dairy industries.
Farmed cows tend to conjure up images of pastures and fields, but a growing number of them are raised on factory farms in the UK. It is believed that around 20% will never see the outdoors, and even those who do will spend much of their time in dirty, cramped barns.
While it is true that the majority of leather comes from cows slaughtered for food, it is a booming industry in its own right.
The leather industry was valued at $407.92 billion in 2021. If the world stopped enjoying hamburgers and cheese tomorrow, that market would still be here. Farmers started selling leather like they sell beef. And it’s sold for profit, not to minimize waste.
The rise of sustainable leather
The leather industry also has a monumental impact on the environment.
Animal agriculture is responsible for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the majority of which come from cows.
Cows are also responsible for about a third of the methane produced by humans, which they emit through their belching. Cattle ranching is also responsible for around 91% of deforestation in the Amazon and is one of the main causes of water pollution.
Research suggests cactus leather has a 500% lower eutrophication impact than its cow-based alternative and 10% lower than polyurethane.
But Regensburger is not the only designer to opt for sustainable vegetable-based leather.
Stella McCartney uses plant-based materials in her collections and recently launched the world’s first luxury mushroom leather bag. Non-vegan brands like Hermes and Tommy Hilfiger have also incorporated sustainable leather into their collections in recent years.
The global bio-based leather market is estimated to skyrocket by 47.5% between 2021 and 2027. It may well be embraced by more mainstream designers in the future.