PurseBlog Asks

How Much Would You Pay for Alternative Leathers?

Does non-leather equate to non-luxury?

Earlier this year, when the singular madame Cate Blanchett appeared wildly flailing her arms in the highly entertaining music video of the Sparks hit single, The Girl is Crying in Her Latte (a title that, admittedly, hits dangerously close to home), sustainably-minded fashionistas all over rejoiced.

Her outfit? A startling canary-yellow Stella McCartney two-piece suit that Blanchett was first spotted wearing at a press conference for Ocean’s 8, and subsequently, at the Sparks tour in Glastonbury, UK. There was a celebrity-brand pairing that went beyond the usual rut of creative conundrums, bolstering the narrative that sustainability is, at the end of the day, at the discretion of the wearer.

Of course, it’s all very well as far as ready-to-wear is concerned (clearly, fast fashion is the enemy). But when the question is one of the accessories, the lines get blurred, sides are taken, and violence ensues. All to make a rather simple point: which is superior – leather or vegan leather?

And does vegan leather – if there is truly such a thing as a fully “vegan” leather – possess the ability to command luxury leather prices?

The Annals of Alternative Leathers

Vegan leather, not to be confused with faux leather, polyurethane (PU) leather, or pleather, has long existed in its own category. Championed by brands that extend beyond the usual list of suspects, such as Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Nanushka, and more, to include more mainstream luxury houses, like Bottega Veneta, Givenchy, and Gucci, recent times have seen a major uptick in the use of the material, driven by the more sustainable trend towards consumption. 

The most eco-friendly /vegan variants have been developed from mushrooms, such as MycoWorks’ trademarked creation, Reishi, reportedly said to match the tensile strength, feel, and durability of calfskin — the gold standard for leather.

Hermes Mushroom leather
Hermès mushroom leather Victoria Bag

However, the vast majority of alternative leathers, ranging from Piñatex, derived from pineapple leaves, Desserto® formulated from cactus fibers, and apple and grape-based leathers, are generally composed of between 50-75% PU or polylactic acid-based bonding agents. So, it is not much better than pleather at all.

Of course, aside from the recent breakthroughs in alternative leathers, leather alternatives have been a staple in the luxury realm. Prada’s historic nylon was recently revived as the ecologically conscious Re-Nylon extracted from regenerated ocean plastics. But the classification can be further extended to include monogram canvasses from the likes of Louis Vuitton – one we’re all too familiar with.

Is Customer Perception to Blame?

Then again, at the end of the day, the business of fashion… is still a business. And like it or not, the idea of sustainable leathers, no matter how lucrative it is on paper, isn’t likely to fly if customers aren’t prepared to drop luxury prices on them.

In fact, therein lies the dilemma inherent to sustainable capitalism. Despite the fact that producers like MycoWorks have attested to the viability of the large-scale production of the ostensibly 100% vegan variant of Reishi leather, can brands like Hermès charge top dollar for non-leather handbags? 

The buyer response to Stella McCartney’s Mylo Frayme Bag, and Gucci’s Demetra, (both priced above the $3,000 price-ceiling), seems to suggest otherwise, more so in light of the fact that their durability over the longer term remains uncertain. 

Billie Eilish Black Gucci 1955 Horsebit
The Gucci Demetra

Furthermore, the sel-described vegan brand, Freja New York, conducts a price-analysis that places their true cost of production at a mere $128, with a 2.3x premium for their selling price. What if this premium was five, ten or even twenty times higher? 

As humans, we’re hardwired to think what’s expensive is automatically better. But in our efforts to justify exorbitant purchases, we also try to reconcile the price-tag with its constituents. And assuredly, no iteration of vegan leather in the past has managed to do so. So, it’s only fair that brands today are hesitant to take the next step, in fear of devaluing their historically high-status perception, if nothing else.

Nonetheless, in their constant competition to stay in the “now”, it’s also likely that more fashion houses will begin to experiment with sustainable materials, albeit at a much slower pace compared to their contemporary counterparts. And each new development will likely continue to be divisive, until we can all finally agree on one leather that’s truly vegan. Is Reishi that? Only time will tell.

But what we can be sure of is that it will be pricey.

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Stella McCartney Frayme Chain Bag
Stella McCartney Frayme Bag
$2,650 via Neiman Marcus

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Thefashionableteacher
Thefashionableteacher
6 months ago

I don’t mind leather alternatives, but they are not for me. I don’t count nylon as it’s not pretending to be leather. My question is always…what chemical processes are being used to get a non-leather to look, feel, and behave like leather? How much energy is used to convert these non-leather alternatives? Are trading one for the other so they end up cancelling each other out?

Colette
Colette
6 months ago

You would rather carry a reminder of unbearable cruelty?

Irene
Irene
6 months ago

Statement with no basis. However, you said “chemical processes”, which are used btw in everything, including treating real leathers. So you must be so official .
7 sheep gave you thumbs up though ,so give yourself a pat on the back.

Thefashionableteacher
Thefashionableteacher
6 months ago
Reply to  Irene

Thank you for giving me permission to give myself a pat on the back. You go ahead and keep being a sheep without questioning the fashion industry and simply following along with whatever they say. You are their ultimate consumer.

Becky
Becky
6 months ago
Reply to  Irene

A lot of sustainable alternatives (not speaking exclusively to leather, but literally anything) often just shift the burden somewhere else, so it’s not actually a statement with no basis. (Example, replacing plastic with paper may result in less plastic in the oceans, but the process still uses water, fuel for transportation, etc. And when trees are cut down, it releases all of that carbon into the air, while also eliminating one more carbon-removing tree).

But companies don’t want to highlight that. They want our money, and we want them to tell us there are easy alternatives to climate change that don’t require us to change our consumption habits so we can feel better about ourselves.

Thefashionableteacher raises reasonable questions, we’re just not going to be getting the answers to them very often.

JetQueen
JetQueen
6 months ago
Reply to  Irene

Irene, yet another pitiful person who posts in an effort to be relevant. You have exposed yourself for the nasty, smug, juvenile that you are with your useless reply. Are you 12 ..?

Donna Bowers
Donna Bowers
6 months ago

I do not pay good money for plastic. ‘Vegan’ leather is plastic and it’s a no.

Colette
Colette
6 months ago
Reply to  Donna Bowers

No you pay too much to display animal cruelty.

Eos
Eos
6 months ago

As always Sajid, a big fan of your articles. You always go beyond superficial discussion and your style and language are really enjoyable to read.

Thank you for covering vegan leather and sustainability. I personally own one Stella McCartney (flagella box) and it has aged very well. Bags from vegan brand Alexandra K also.
It would be so much better for the planet if people could stop hating on sustainable alternatives and realise most of the time, they get fooled by brands.

Susana
Susana
6 months ago

Thanks for this interesting article.
There are many aspects to evaluate specifically calculating the life cycle of the materials in the product. In the best scenario now with the mycelium-based products the answer is still not so clear. The raw materials, production of thread-like hyphae is a pretty straightforward process, very efficient and sustainable. However, the process that is required to transform the raw material into a material that looks like leather and feels like leather is a bit more obscure. They likely use green chemistry and this transformation also transforms the raw material into not degradable at least for Mylo (Stella McCartney) and Reise (Hermes). It is possible that in a few more years, those companies could develop materials that would be sustainable in production, degradable, and durable while maintaining a beautiful appearance. In the meantime, the capability to be degraded, and the durability of animal leather are unbeatable. It is difficult to evaluate also if those processes will be easy to scale up to the tonnes of raw materials that are required for the leather market. It would require the installation of fabrics or long-distance transport of the final products which would also increase the CO2 footprint of the starting material before processing. We should not forget that leather is a by-product of animal production and the utilization of leather is a process or valorization of by-products and it is a sustainable strategy by itself.

Christina
Christina
6 months ago

Sajid ftw, this is solid reporting/opinion. Thanks for highlighting the truth behind vegan leather and how it still uses PUs.

For me I’d just not buy new. Plenty to go around in preloved. And nostalgia, if played right, is always in style.

Colette
Colette
6 months ago

Non leather is best. I don’t think it means non luxury. Does luxury need to be about cruelty?
Hurting animals for style and consumption? I can’t look at leather bags anymore without thinking what suffering the animal went through.
And also when is enough enough? People having Birkins in every colour, excessiveness is like having too much sugary treats and it makes my teeth ache. It’s just too much and honestly not worth the money.

Yazi
Yazi
6 months ago

Plastic/Vegan leather shouldn’t be priced at above 4000 USD. I’m not convinced it’s worth the asking price or that it’s environmentally friendly either.