When Did Fake Leather Become So Expensive?
For most of my childhood, my mother carried the Patricia, a classic black leather Coach bag with simple but chic gold hardware. The contents of the bag were orderly and sparse: a red leather wallet, an Estée Lauder or Clinique lipstick, and car keys. You'd rarely find a gum wrapper or an old receipt buried at the bottom. The bag was something to be cared for; my mother didn't have the money to buy herself a new purse whenever she wanted, so when she did get a new bag, it had to last. And for her, that meant it had to be leather — a textile that awakened all five senses, that was a precious commodity itself.
I can still see her on Christmas morning, tidily unwrapping the present she had purchased and wrapped for herself days before, carefully lifting the bag from the box, running her hands down the side, holding it up to her face, and saying, "It's real leather ... I can smell it." There were no visible labels (we were not a Louis Vuitton or Tory Burch family), nor airplane tickets for a tropical vacation tucked inside. The leather itself was the statement, the status, and the ultimate luxury.
So it wasn't surprising that when, as a teenager, I'd come home from the mall with $12 fake leather combat boots from Payless; a $15 fake leather baby backpack from Express; or, when I was feeling really rebellious, $25 fake leather pants from Contempo Casuals, my mother would look at me with disgust and say, "ew, it's pleather" — a totally accurate description. She hated the look, the feel, the sound of the fake thing: the swishy noise the pants made when I walked down the stairs in the morning, the cracks the boots would get after one Boston snowstorm. It didn't matter to her that this was what every girl was wearing in the '90s — inspired by The Craft or The Spice Girls, or if you were really cool, Riot Grrrl — to her it just seemed like a cheap substitution.
But fake leather is no longer a consolation prize. In fact, vegan leather (we don't call it pleather anymore), is a status symbol, with up-and-coming brands like Gunas, Matt & Nat, Von Holzhausen, and Sole Society offering bags that look and feel almost exactly like real leather, without any of the associated guilt that many people now feel while wearing animal hide. These brands offer a wide variety of wallets, clutches, handbags, and luggage, at price points averaging around $250 — roughly what my mother paid for her Patricia bag in the 1980s. On the designer end, Stella McCartney, Comme des Garçons, and Maison Margiela offer vegan options that can easily swing over $1,000. What all these brands have in common is that they have tapped into a very millennial take on what makes a bag special. And when it comes to luxury leather handbags, it's no longer about having the real thing, but making a conscious decision not to.
My mom's notion that fake leather was synonymous with garbage was not wrong, per se. A 2009 report from the Center For Environmental Health found dangerously high amounts of lead in a number of faux leather bags from leading retailers, such as Forever 21, Aldo, and Kohl's, just to name a few. Historically, the majority of fake leather was made by coating a fabric such as canvas with polyvinyl chloride, more commonly known as PVC, which Greenpeace once dubbed "the most environmentally damaging type of plastic," for the toxic chemicals that go into it. Also, it's impossible to recycle. Even though real leather seems more durable and long-lasting than its imitators, those pleather baby backpacks and mini-skirts will sit in landfills long after we're gone. Quite literally, the '90s are never going away. (Not exactly the kind of longevity one associates with a top-dollar investment piece.)
Despite this horrifying fact, leading environmental experts tend to agree: With very few exceptions, synthetic leather is absolutely better for the environment than the real thing.
In 2017, The Pulse Of The Fashion Industry (which was funded, in part, by designer and environmental crusader Stella McCartney) released a monumental report at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit condemning leather as one of the biggest contributors to water depletion and global warming. In 2014, Gizmodo wrote that as well as leather factories drastically harming the ecosystems in which they're placed, tannery workers face hazardous conditions, including exposure to "noxious chemicals; injury from heavy machinery or flaying knives; drowning, being boiled alive, or buried in lime." And that's not even touching what the cows go through.
It's no wonder that a 2015 Nielsen report surveying 30,000 consumers from 60 countries found 66 percent willing to pay more for products that are ethical and sustainable. This demand is driving much needed innovation. While most faux leather bags are still made out of PVC or PU, a polyurethane-based alternative, brands and scientists are putting their heads together to develop increasingly eco-friendly leather replicas, using materials such as recycled nylon, cork, rubber, and even pineapples. Matt & Nat, a Montreal-based company founded in 1995, uses recycled plastic bottles to line its bags.
This kind of sustainable fashion comes with its own set of challenges, including changing the perception of words like "fake" and "vegan," so customers feel like they're making an aspirational purchase, and will spend considerably on something they were raised to see as a cheap second choice. "We want to reinvent people's perceptions of vegan handbags and accessories," says Naeme El-Zein, Matt & Nat's content marketing manager. "No one should have to compromise their personal style for their values or vice versa." Fans of Matt & Nat's designs include Natalie Portman, Mena Suvari, and Alicia Silverstone, which certainly helps.
To be sure, values are a major part of the appeal. The luxury vegan leather handbag brand Angela Roi can be found in hip boutiques like Bulletin, sold alongside T-shirts that read "Matriarchy Now!" and "Hoes 4 Health Care," and online at the posh Amour Vert. The bags themselves aren't flashy. The best-selling Cher Tote, for instance, is a classic everyday bag with light, textured pebbling, offered in black, Bordeaux, crème (pictured, $240, angelaroi.com), ash brown, and light gray. Its vegan leather is a bit stiffer than regular leather, but it feels substantial in a way you wouldn't expect from a knockoff. Quite simply, it feels expensive, like something that will last. The Cher can be worn across the body, over the shoulder, or carried by two sturdy handles. There is a sewn-in zip pouch in the center, and a metal clasp to keep the bag closed. A gold "Angela Roi" monogram sits at the bottom; its subtlety is almost a wink. Like any aspirational luxury good that doesn't announce itself in a million logos, you only know if you know, and that's part of the allure.
Angela and Roi Lee, the married couple behind the brand bearing both their names, actually raised their price point in 2016 because customers essentially asked them to. "We're communicating with a lot of our customers, and a lot of them actually told us that they are willing to pay more for higher quality," says co-founder Roi Lee. "That's why we changed the factory, changed the materials, and positioned ourselves at the $200 to $250 range handbags, which are actually higher quality and more luxurious." The higher prices and an increased emphasis on luxury branding led to an increase in sales for the Lees. While they couldn't provide an exact number, Roi Lee says that they are doubling their revenue every year. This is especially meaningful considering the brand maintains environmentally friendly manufacturing processes in its South Korea facilities, and ensures that its artisans and workers are paid and treated fairly.
"We don't kill animals, and we're more eco-friendly than the $300 to $500 leather bags that people are buying just because of the name," says Lee.
Not wanting to compromise her style for her values is also what inspired Bridget Brown to start her own line of luxury faux leather handbags. In 2011, after watching the documentary Vegucated, she adopted a vegan lifestyle when it came to food and beauty products, but she found shoes and purses much harder to let go of. "I knew how I felt about animals, and then I'd be carrying this big leather bag … it just didn't match up," says Brown. And that's where she got the idea for Filbert, a line of cruelty-free, faux leather handbags that look and feel as luxurious as real leather.
While her own veganism was the driving force behind the brand, Brown doesn't prosthelytize about animal rights to would-be customers. "The majority of the women who are buying our bags are not vegans," she says. "But they want that feel-good factor, they want the bragging rights. The new look of luxury is bags that are made ethically, where no harm was done to humans or animals."
Allison Medina, 35, the CEO and founder of Tech Ladies, a company that connects women to jobs in tech, came across Filbert when she was looking for a sturdy, elegant bag she could carry all year. Though she has been a vegetarian for over 20 years, Medina chose Filbert's Pixley bag ($275, shopfilbert.com), not just because she loved that the bags were cruelty-free and that the company was founded by a woman, but also because the bags were beautiful and remarkably well-made. She bought it in white and in black.
"When I saw the quality of it, I almost couldn't believe it was vegan, and ordered a second in another color so that I can carry the same bag for all seasons," says Medina. "People sometimes ask where it's from, and I always have them touch it so they can see the quality of it, even though it's not real leather."
This doesn't surprise Elizabeth von der Goltz, the Global Buying Director at Net-A-Porter. Searches for the words "faux" and "vegan" have nearly doubled on the site in recent months, and according to von der Goltz, customers are willing to pay just as much for a designer faux leather handbag as they are for bags made of real leather. "We have not seen customers deter from purchasing high-quality vegan or faux leather handbags due to price," she says.
"There are many long-standing brands that are embracing the trend and slowly moving into a more sustainable approach. This is not a trend that will be leaving anytime soon."
But for some people, there is no substitution for the real thing, no matter the cost. To be sure, real leather handbags are still selling well, especially those on the higher end. In fact, there aren't enough quality hides available to make all the luxury handbags in demand. This is because the hides used to make a five-figure Hermés Birkin bag, for example, aren't the same hides used to make $400 or even $700 leather bags. Hermés uses hides from calves who were raised entirely indoors, thus avoiding risk of injury or even mosquito bites. As Don Ohsman, publisher of Hidenet, told Bloomberg earlier this year, "a calf is raised in a pen and never goes outside, so its skin is blemish-free."
If the thought of a baby cow never feeling a breeze on her nose saddens you, but the pull of a designer name is too strong to avoid, you're probably already a fan of Stella McCartney. The inescapably popular Falabella line, which can retail for over $1,300 depending on the style, is a staple among the fashion-conscious. "[She] was a pioneer in this movement, and proved a fully vegan line could be luxurious, sought-after and successful," says von der Goltz. It's true, no one has done more to educate the public — and perhaps more importantly, other designers and their companies — about the need and demand for more sustainable, earth-friendly luxury fashion than McCartney. And it's paying off. Not only are sales on the rise for the brand, but just last week, McCartney launched a new nonprofit, Stella McCartney Cares Green, which will educate and fund NGOS focused on environmental causes and sustainability.
Looking back, my mom's devotion to her once-every-few-years Patricia bag wasn't really about the look (and smell) of leather, but how having that bag made her feel about herself and her choices. I have no doubt a beautiful, sustainably-manufactured vegan leather bag can do the same thing. After all, real luxury isn't a one-time purchase, or even the nod of respect from another woman who recognizes the style slung over your arm; it's a lifestyle that demands quality above all else, a notion of having accomplished something you aspired to. And as someone who has carried one of these luxury vegan bags, I can tell you — the feeling is 100 percent real.
Photographers: Jiaxi & Zhe. Set design and prop styling: Margaret Macmillan Jones. Art direction and production: Emily Shornick. Editorial direction: Laura Norkin.