Vegan fashion is a term that once called up images of burlap-like fabrics and unflattering shapes. But the world of ethical apparel has grown significantly in the past decade, shaking its “crunchy granola” reputation and attracting some of the biggest names in fashion. As style expert Stacy London tells us, the industry can’t afford to ignore the movement.
Stacy is probably best known for her role as co-host of What Not to Wear, a TLC reality television series that ran 10 seasons. She made a career trashing the closets of fashion offenders before building up their wardrobes—and confidence—by the end of each episode. But Stacy’s impact in the fashion industry extends well beyond that gig. She is a former fashion assistant for Vogue, and she has added celebrity stylist, fashion editor, and published author to her ever-growing résumé.
We caught up with Stacy in New York while she was previewing a collection from the pioneering vegan fashion brand VAUTE, created by activist-turned-designer Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart. In this interview, Stacy shares with us her take on how some founders have helped shift the perception of consumers—and big brands—toward more ethical fashion.
How is public perception of vegan fashion evolving?
Stacy: I think we used to see vegan fashion as something unfashionable—that the material was something that you could be proud of, but the cuts were kind of awful. It’s very similar to what happened with plus-size fashion. It used to be you could buy a nylon or polyester muumuu tent and be the woman who’s a larger size who didn’t feel pretty at the wedding.
But now that there’s a real switch in this industry, the way people are talking about plus-size fashion is exactly the way they’re talking about average-size fashion. It’s the exact same thing with things like vegan fashion. It’s going to become almost a non-issue, and it really is a question of where you want to throw your money and your support as a consumer.
So what changed?
Stacy: There was a real shift after 2008, after we really saw the economy crash. People were sick of bullshit, and they wanted whatever they bought to have a real-use value and to be worth the money that they were paying for it. The biggest problem was that vegan clothing was expensive to make because it was hard to find the fabrics to make them. Much less so now, where you have more people thinking about this responsibly and consciously, and also what are we doing to the world in terms of the oceans or landfills? It’s what’s happening in the world and in this industry right now, where having a conscience has been so much a part of being a consumer, like we’ve never seen in history before.
There has to be something that these brands stand for other than just making money.
How do founders of vegan brands reach a mainstream audience?
Stacy: To go further than [the vegan] community, you have to figure out a way to market to people who may have a problem with the word vegan. To me, it’s always about talking about the clothing as just great design. The P.S. is that you’re doing something wonderful for the world, because the minute people can say, “Wow, not only did I buy something that’s chic and I look fabulous in, I’ve also saved a whale,” that’s just an added benefit.
What else can these designers do to nudge consumers?
Stacy: If you make it easy for them to do good, they’ll do it. It’s like why people recycle now, because now we have different garbage bins and you throw the cans in one, and that’s it. You’re done. It’s easy. So we want to make vegan fashion easy and fashionable and stylish so that people don’t feel like they’re sacrificing anything in order to have it.
We want to make vegan fashion easy and fashionable and stylish so that people don’t feel like they’re sacrificing anything in order to have it.
What challenges do they face?
Stacy: Saying that vegan is cool or that it’s something that is trendy, we run the risk of exterminating it. So it’s got to be part and parcel of the way we look at the industry, and not simply a trendy movement.
Large and mainstream brands seem to be picking up on this movement. Do they even have a choice?
Stacy: Whether it’s animals or if it was something else, I think just in general millennials have really moved the needle on where brands need to be, and even more so in this political climate. I think that brands need to think about what side of history they want to be on—this is a turning point.
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It is a decisive moment, I think, in what fashion history is going to look like and what fashion brands will and won’t stand for. The bigger the brand, the more responsibility they have. So whether it’s saving our oceans, saving our animals, working with LGBT youth, whatever it is, there has to be something that these brands stand for other than just making money. Because to do well, you’re going to have to do good.
While luxury fashion labels are catching up with the shift to ethical consumption, independent labels like MooShoes, Noumenon, and Hoodlamb have been leaders in a space that’s no longer fringe.Feature image by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images