As veganism moves into the mainstream and becomes a booming consumer segment, savvy brands are stocking up on animal-free product.
Once a fringe movement, veganism is now a trend that extends far beyond food choices, and affects all aspects of consumer habits. Fashion brands and retailers taking note as a more conscious shopper continues to emerge.
The number of full-time vegans – those who choose not to use any products derived from animals – is rocketing in the UK. The Vegan Society estimates that there were more than 600,000 vegans in the UK in 2018 – a number that has been steadily doubling every year since 2014. More than 250,000 people – a record amount – took part in “Veganuary” in the UK during January 2019, where participants adopt a vegan diet for the first month of the year.
Food is by no means the only focus of veganism. Materials such as leather, wool and silk are out of bounds for vegans – so fashion and clothing is also a focus. In the three years from August 2015 up to September 2018, consumer insights company Hitwise reported a 39% increase in web searches for vegan fashion or vegan clothes in the UK.
Keen to appeal to the growing market, big-name retailers are beginning to expand their offers as a result – keen to appeal to the growing market. But as they introduce new items to satisfy demand, they must remember that “vegan” and “sustainable” are not interchangeable terms and carefully consider where their priorities lie.
In January, Marks & Spencer vastly expanded its line of vegan footwear, offering more than 350 vegan footwear styles for spring 19 across men’s, women’s and children’s ranges.
Stephen Lawson, footwear and accessories product development technologist at M&S, explains that the decision was made after M&S observed a 200% spike in searches for vegan products on its website.
“We decided to go the extra mile to ensure our synthetic products were free from animal derivatives and make it easier for customers to make their own choice,” he explains. “Over the last nine months, we have analysed our products and worked with our suppliers to form a process that ensures that all the components used in our synthetic shoes are free from animal derivatives and therefore offer a clear alternative to leather.”
Consumers are evaluating all aspects of their lifestyles and attitudes towards consumption
Emily Gordon-Smith, Stylus
Emily Gordon-Smith, director of consumer product at trends intelligence company Stylus, says M&S has tapped into the trend at the right time: “It’s a savvy move. M&S has no doubt been tracking the broader lifestyle shift towards veganism through its food business – insight another fashion brand might not have.
“In a year when sustainability truly goes mainstream, consumers are evaluating all aspects of their lifestyles and attitudes towards consumption.”
The impact of the demand for vegan-friendly product can be seen across the fashion spectrum, and vegan products and brands are experiencing huge growth.
Luxury etailer Net-a-Porter has reported “exceptional” sales from Hungarian brand Nanushka, driven by its luxury vegan leather items, which include a shirt, skirt and midi-dress. Many lines sold out within a few weeks of launching on the site for autumn 18. The response was such that Net-a-Porter has upped its order by 200% for the pre-spring and spring 19 collections, and has focused on vegan leather and sustainable styles.
As the success of vegan styles continues, Net-a-Porter is also launching the new vegan outerwear brand Ochi and vegan jackets from the New York brand Oresund Iris for spring 19.
“Vegan fashion is developing – becoming something that can be luxurious and cool,” explains Amber Chapman, founder of Emslie Creative, agent for Canadian vegan bag and accessories brand Matt & Nat. “People’s mentality towards veganism has changed so much in the last few years. It feels like it is not just a niche movement any more – it’s something that’s being talked about widely.”
She notes that veganism has become an “added selling point” and a point of difference for Matt & Nat when retailers are seeking to take on new brands.
“When we used to sell the brand [Emslie has handled Matt & Nat’s UK sales for four years], buyers wouldn’t always know or care what it stood for, and bought it for the shapes and practicality. That has now changed in some cases.
“The vegan market is still lacking a little in quality and variety, so good product stands out,” she notes. Recent new stockists for the brand include John Lewis, which picked up the brand for autumn 18 across 10 stores and online.
As Cora Hilts, co-founder of sustainablity-focused multi-brand ecommerce site Rêve en Vert explains, the rise of vegan fashion ties into the increasingly conscious and connected consumer: “There’s a huge ethical aspect for people buying vegan fashion,” she says. “People have seen videos of [animal] cruelty in the supply chain. With the rise of social media, stories are now being shared a lot – that’s a huge component. There’s also an environmental element and a huge health element that goes hand in hand with the rise of the more conscious consumer.”
For brands seeking to make the vegan switch, sourcing fabrics can be a challenge. Womenswear ecommerce brand Kitri had huge success with its vegan leather shirt dress, which launched for autumn 18 and sold out twice, but the development process was far from simple.
“It took us a long while to get the quality of vegan leather that we wanted,” founder Haeni Kim explains. “Vegan or fake leather has a bad reputation for looking cheap or being brittle. It took us a good year to find the quality of leather that we wanted. We found that many options were just not a high enough quality.”
She also notes that finding the right fabric can come at a cost: “It’s more costly than other synthetic fabrics that we use, but that gives us a fantastic-quality material and we feel that our customers really notice the difference.”
It’s definitely one of the most exciting areas within fashion at the moment
Agatha Lintott, Antibad
Hilts, meanwhile, makes the important distinction between vegan brands and sustainable brands, as many vegan products include fake leather or fake fur derived from plastics – particularly PVC or PU – which are not sustainable.
“I’ve really pulled back on plastic-based leather alternatives, and I won’t go back to that area until brands can tell me they’re investing more sustainable materials,” she says. “With our stance on plastic, it’s really difficult to bring on any vegan brands.”
However, Agatha Lintott, founder of sustainable London-based etailer Antibad says that recent developments are leading exciting new materials to emerge, thus making it easier for retailers to source vegan products.
“Because it’s such a contentious area and has been environmentally damaging, there has been a lot of investment going into the development of these materials,” she explains. “It’s definitely one of the most exciting areas within fashion at the moment.
“It’s not just an add-on. It’s a lot harder to make good products and develop these materials, so it makes you think outside the box,” she says. “People are looking for exciting alternatives [to traditional fabrics]. Vegan fashion is definitely a huge movement and generally people are thinking more carefully about their lifestyles.”
Innovative new fabrics include “leather” created from natural sources as diverse as pineapple leaves, fermented yeast, wine-industry by-products and mushrooms (a material now used by vegan brand Stella McCartney). Alternatives to wool and silk, made from cellulose fibres are also being developed to offer good-quality, sustainable and vegan options for designers.
Lintott highlights the footwear brand Rafa, which creates shoes using a suede alternative, as a perfect example of a brand that combines style, sustainability and quality in its shoes, which are priced at the premium end of the market from £240: “They stand alongside really high-quality suede styles and I think in many ways they’re actually better than suede. They’re made of recycled PET [plastic] bottles, you can clean them quite robustly and wear them in the rain. It’s not just about being vegan – it has to be a really good-quality item as well.”
As the demand for vegan fashion seems set to grow, fuelled by a conscious and connected consumer, providing and signposting suitable options is a smart choice for retailers and brands alike. Although the sustainablity credentials of some vegan products may be questionable, the market is developing quickly, and there is innovations and creativity across the spectrum. Vegan brands are an area to watch, even for the most sceptical buyers.
Sandra Sandor Founder and creative director, Nanushka
Tell us about the vegan leather you use
Our vegan leather is certified under REACH [the European Union Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals regulation] and doesn’t contain any PVC. By using vegan leather, we can cut out the tanning process which involves toxic chemicals. The vegan leather we use comes from an Italian supplier and it has a buttery soft texture.
How do you include the fabric in the collection?
It’s such a new material that we are still exploring it a lot. I only use vegan leather for ready-to-wear and we are slowly converting our accessories line [to vegan leather]. This will take longer as I really want to find the right types of vegan fabric from every perspective.
Is there strong demand for the vegan leather products?
People are more interested in vegan leather than ever before. The fashion industry is more vocal about sustainability and the changes needed ito save our planet. The positive response – from both consumers and our wholesale accounts – has confirmed to us that we made the right decision in terms of using more vegan leather. Styles such as the Hide jacket or the vegan leather dresses are our bestsellers.
Are retailers asking for vegan products?
Yes, I think they are more interested in the range. That’s also connected with the customers as well, as they are looking for these products. Consumers are more aware of how clothes are made and how we use them, and also want to make changes that will have a positive impact on the economy and environment.
Will you extend your vegan offer?
We would like to be [fully vegan] one day, but we have a long journey ahead, as it’s not just the product itself, but the methods and procedures around them need to be considered. It is a step-by-step process that doesn’t happen overnight.