- Over the last five to ten years many of fashion’s most lauded brands have shifted from using “genuine” leather and fur to plastic-based replacements.
- Vegan skins are posed as a more ethical alternative, but is it more ethical in an era of plastic overload?
- The mainstreaming of fake leather and faux fur demonstrates the complicated way authenticity is at play in fashion and in culture more broadly.
“Life in plastic, it’s fantastic,” squeaks Lene Nystrøm, the singer playing Barbie in Aqua’s 1997 Barbie Girl, the earwormy bubblegum pop song that restages Barbie’s and Ken’s forced romance in something approximating an ecstasy-laced social commentary. “Imagination, life is your creation.”
Plastic is—was—fantastic. When synthetic polymers began entering the mainstream, trickling in over the end of the nineteenth but flooding the market post-WWII, they were heralded as a revolution, and a potentially democratizing force. This was no less true in fashion, where, according to an industry propaganda site, “plastics are behind... many of the latest trends, hottest styles and innovative clothing designs.”
Rayon, polyester, acrylic, GORE-TEX, polar fleece, elastane, nylon—they’re all made with plastics. And, increasingly as athleisure is for everyday and technical brands like Arc’teryx and The North Face become fashion mainstays, plastics are finding their way into high-end showrooms, while their microparticles whisked off at the cleaners or in washing machines finds their way into seas and streams and even back into the food we eat. The hubris of the idea that, as Susan Freinkel put it in her 2011 book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, “plastics freed us from the confines of the natural world,” has come back to haunt us. There is no world apart from “nature,” no boundary that itself isn’t synthetic. Long after we’re gone, plastics—most of them derived from petrochemicals—will still reside spectrally on the earth.
However, apart from its use in holding up socks or its more clearly high-tech applications, plastic in fashion had often been seen as cheap. Pleather, faux fur, polyester ties, synthetic fills, acrylic “wool.” They were second-best. Downmarket attempts to approximate the real thing. Fake.
Yet, with concerns around the ethical and environmental impacts of using animal products like leather, fur, silk, down, and wool being taken seriously by luxury labels who had once never given non-human skins a second thought, there’s been something of a high-end plastic renaissance. Givenchy walked a faux fur coat, shimmery and vibrating with an arrangement of deep black and toasted-blonde hairs, down its runway two years ago. Gucci may print tigers on its goods, but fur is no longer used on their measuredly tacky wares. Versace, Burberry, Coach, Prada, and other heavyweights have gone fur free. Fur hasn’t been allowed on London Fashion Week catwalks since 2018.
Whereas pleathers and faux furs once used to mean “cheap,” now nothing can so easily be called high or low. In a neo-dadaist, post-Vetements world where a cotton t-shirt jacquard woven with Mickey Mouse retails for $725 (courtesy TAKAHIROMIYASHITA TheSoloist.), it can seem material is almost, well, immaterial.
What rules is signification. Meaning is itself plastic: flexible, moldable, transmutable. It shifts without rupture. The signs might be recycled, or buried for a bit or sent adrift, but they won’t decay, they’ll always wash ashore. Pleather can become vegan leather and not only retail for five times as much but assure you you’re doing something good, ethical, special. Or, it might be less about playing pretend and embracing the truth of a material’s more democratic pricepoint. Vegan leather is also a mainstay in Telfar’s blockbuster tote—New York’s most popular plastic bag now that the more commonplace variety is officially banned everywhere from bodegas to takeout counters. When it comes to furs, fake was given the Continental upgrade to faux, an appellation embraced even by Gucci so wearers can say, “Oh it’s not real, I would never.”
For some, though, it’s hard to justify the creation of animal-free alternatives with materials whose manufacture poisons the very animals they claim to save, as well as the human animal they clothe. Segments of the industry are looking towards a plant-based future. There are the classics. Cotton, obviously, the plant-derived fiber in chief—sometimes waxed as a material for bags or shoes. But high fashion is feeling less three-bean grain bowl and more Boca Burger when it comes to replacing its animal products.
Stella McCartney—long leather and fur free—is attempting to make the switch to using plant-based polymer yarns in their fauxs and seeking out less toxic pleathers and pleather alternatives. Pineapple is standing in for cowhide thanks to products like Piñatex, used by Hugo Boss. The French sneaker brand Veja has released some shoes with corn-derived outers. Mushrooms and castoffs from the wine industry also show some promise of taking on a bovine texture and skin-like grain.
It begs the question why call it “leather” or “fur” at all? Can we not imagine some future where we don’t clothe ourselves in animals or something like them? Can we not be honest? Perhaps that time will come. Tortoiseshell is now more a description of a pattern and color and almost no one expects a comb of horn or a chess piece of ivory, even if they come in a creamy offwhite. Why all this make-believe while we slather on organic skincare and eat raw vegan lunches and drink biodynamic wine? Because, in our era after nature, these “synthetics” hold a truth: When all dressing’s become drag, the most authentic choice is playing pretend.