“You’re vegan? And you want to work in fashion?”
The lady on the other side of the table looks mildly bewildered. Her wool coat, leather shoes, calf-skin bag and what look like fur-lined gloves all seem to be judging me. But I’m not on this job interview because I “want” to work in fashion – in fact, I already have several years of industry experience under my belt. And yes, I am a vegan. Which, when it comes to fashion circles, is “so unusual,” as that lady continues to point out. I don’t get the job.
I went vegan in 2012, after decades of being a pescatarian with an ever-present voice in my head whispering “you could do better.” I knew veganism was available to me. But it took Jonathan Safran Foer, and his devastating Eating Animals, to push me over the edge – I read that book nauseated and in tears, and to this day when I see it sitting on the bookshelf it sometimes brings up feelings of unease. Simply put, what we do to sentient animals is inexcusable, and once I fully realised the scope of it, there was no turning back. Fish was off my plate, wool was out of my wardrobe, and anything tested on animals had to stay the hell out of my house. It was a lifestyle change that made me feel lighter, more comfortable and at ease. My life seemed to have levelled up.
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I was working in fashion as a journalist and copywriter. I had just moved to London, after two years of working in Milan. As a fashion writer, any job I could find, in any country, seemed to involve swooning over leather, marvelling at the wonders of cashmere, and otherwise celebrating things that I would never wear myself. And as I left the office each day, that little voice was back again, this time asking why I was spending all my days doing something I didn’t believe in, and would, in fact, like to fight against.
At the same time, other people were making change happen in fashion – and I’m not just talking about Stella McCartney (who is a huge hero of mine, but she is not the only one). Forward-thinking entrepreneur Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart brought her brand Vaute Couture to New York Fashion Week, making it the first 100% vegan brand to do so. Joshua Katcher, a professor at NYC’s Parsons School of Design, launched the first-ever vegan menswear brand, Brave GentleMan, along with men’s vegan fashion blog The Discerning Brute. Celebrities wore Beyond Skin shoes and carried Jill Milan bags on international catwalks. Change was brewing.
Since I was old enough to buy a magazine, I’d had my nose constantly buried in one. I used to save my pocket money to buy international editions of ELLE and Glamour – and when I got older, it logically followed that I would start writing for magazines. But my passion for the glossy pages was marred with dismay as I leafed through them and failed to see one single thing that didn’t come from the body of an animal, or hadn’t been tested on one. So I started my own magazine. Digital, yes – my dream of printed pages never quite materialised, but in the six years that Vilda Magazine existed, myself and my team of freelancers around the globe built it up to a respectable publication that was nominated for awards, mentioned in international press, and, I like to think, helped put vegan fashion on the map.
When my freelancing contract for one of my full-time copywriting clients ran out, I found myself wondering whether I wanted to go back to fashion at all. Recruiters were calling with interview opportunities similar to the position I had just left, but I finally mustered the courage to put down the phone. I followed my heart and instead fought – with many interviews, repeated applications and stubborn persistence – for my dream job at an animal rights organisation. My fashion knowledge came in handy: since joining, I’ve taken journalists shopping for vegan fashion on the high street, watched fashion writers embark on challenges where they only wore vegan clothing for a week, and helped persuade Helsinki Fashion Week – the first sustainable fashion week in the world – to drop leather from the catwalks. While sitting in the front row at HFW, admiring the cutting-edge leather-free garments, I knew it. Vegan fashion was finally here to stay.
My days were spent immersed in the vegan fashion revolution – leather made from apples, mushrooms and pineapples started to emerge, and fur fell out of favour with designers such as Gucci, Chanel, and Prada. As a result, the terrified fur industry targeted university students, offering them free pelts and paying for their collections in exchange for fur being used. To counteract this, I toured around fashion universities in the UK, offering guest lectures on vegan fashion and material innovation. Always exceedingly well received, the lectures remain my proof that vegan fashion is the future – students were not only fully on board, but eager to learn more.
I was learning a lot more myself, and I was putting it all down in what would become my first book, Vegan Style: Your Plant-Based Guide to Fashion + Beauty + Home + Travel, which was released on Murdoch Books and then on Simon & Schuster imprint Tiller Press in 2019. The first-ever book dedicated to vegan fashion, it won a PETA Fashion Award and has been featured in national fashion publications. Two years after its release, I already feel like it needs an update – because at the time it went to print, things like cactus leather, orange silk, and flower down were inexistent. Innovation has come a long way, and more great things are to come.
At our best, humans are creative beings, and we can improve, innovate, and revolutionise broken systems. But killing animals can never be made better – it will always be cruel and unethical. And thankfully, fashion is realising that.
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Cover image of DJ Tigerlily via Animal Liberation.