The fashion crowd has always kept non-leather ones somewhat at arm’s length when it comes to handbags. When Guccio Gucci devised the Bamboo handle due to post-WWII leather shortages, it took a while for the world to adapt to its novelty. And when Miuccia Prada released a utilitarian nylon backpack with a luxury price tag in 1984, it sent fashionistas into a veritable shock!
In hindsight, though, the fact that these were so different from what was the norm, what was traditional, is what made them primarily so appealing to the trendsetters of their generation. And hence, we saw the Gucci Bamboo quickly become a favorite of the likes of Sofia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, and more recently, Lady Gaga and Harry Styles; while the Prada Nylon (also known as the Vela) earned its position as one of the very first It-bags in modern fashion, remaining popular enough to warrant revivals and spinoffs to the present day.
Today, the non-leather revolution still shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, if anything, it has gained more traction than ever. As a result, two important contenders have emerged in the market besides the ever-present canvas, nylon, and other fabric options – faux leather and vegan leather.
Now, with the ongoing search for a suitable alternative to animal hide, the discussion surrounding whether or not to go faux has been going on for a while, with both sides having their proponents. Vegan leather, however, has been a much more recent development and one that is mired in a lot of confusion. Is it the same as faux leather? What makes it “vegan”? Are there designer options available? Is it really sustainable if it’s made from the same synthetic materials as faux leather? Or is genuine leather the best in the long run?
Therefore, the numerous questions surrounding faux and vegan leather make it considerably difficult for sustainably-minded consumers to make the right choice. Plus, there’s a mall sector within the field of vegan leather itself that is still under development. Established and young brands alike are experimenting with various materials to recreate the feel of genuine leather as closely as possible. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t any options available for buyers; on the contrary, there are quite a few, from industry heavyweights like Stella McCartney to pop-culture hits like the JW Pei Gabbi and the Telfar tote. At the same time, there have been vegan offerings from more mainstream luxury brands like Givenchy and Saint Laurent as well.
Most importantly, though, we must distinguish between faux, vegan, and genuine leather – and debunk the various misconceptions surrounding them if we are to make a definitive choice as to which we would like to purchase. And to draw a fair comparison, we must judge them by some standard parameters, like their respective histories, aesthetics (or in this case, texture), durability, and value. So, without further ado, let’s get into it!
The first faux leather was invented in a Connecticut rubber plant in the 1920s. Because it was composed of polyurethane or PU for short, it became known as plastic leather, alternatively, pleather. Cheap to produce and easy to mold into various styles, faux leather became a popular alternative to real leather. However, with the ease and economy of production came a cost to the environment – not only is PU not biodegradable, but it also, until recently, contained elements like PVC that are toxic to the environment. Modern production methods of PU have thankfully moved towards using less harmful products, but the fact that they’re inorganic remains a major roadblock in the path towards sustainability.
Vegan leather is, oftentimes, very much the same as faux leather. In its simplest definition, a material can be called vegan as long as it’s made without animal products. For example, the Telfar Tote, which is touted as being made from vegan leather but is produced using PU as well. However, there is also a new and developing sector of the vegan leather market, one that seems to deserve its name. It is produced from various materials, but with one major difference – all of them are naturally degradable. So, while the Italian piñatex leather makes use of recycled pineapple plants, contemporary brand Fossil has adopted cactus leather from the Mexico-based company Desserto®. Pangaia, whose ads are currently infiltrating all of my feeds, source the leather for their sneakers from grape residues that are a waste product of the Italian wine industry. In contrast, Hermès’ recent news of producing the Victoria bag with mycelium (mushroom-based) leather and Salvatore Ferragamo’s Earth bag that features a suede-like texture made of cork, all deserve mention.
And what about genuine leather? Well, having actively been in use since prehistoric times, leather really needs no introduction. But it is worth mentioning that Loewe’s the Surplus Project and Mulberry and Jill Milan’s sustainably-sourced leathers are all breaking grounds in defining leather’s identity as well.
Aesthetics & Texture
Now, this is often an issue of preference – whether we choose pebbled or smooth or patent leather or suede is a culmination of our tastes, functional requirements, and lifestyles. However, our focus here is how closely faux leather and vegan leather have replicated the look and feel of genuine leather.
At this point, I would generally go off on a tangent and whine about the fact that oily-textured PU purses with metal zipper ends should stop existing. But limiting faux leather to only one of its variations (albeit the most despicable one) wouldn’t do it justice. There are plenty of nicer-looking smooth and pebbled options out there. In contrast, faux Saffiano and patent leather can be nearly indistinguishable from genuine leather ones, although they tend to be slightly stiffer. There are also exaggerated pebbled ones from Matt & Nat, the smooth Telfar, as well as the very chic-looking Stella McCartney Frayme. So, you know, options for everybody.
This is where we get to see the most differences. Here at PurseBlog, we’ve often discussed the justifications for purchasing a genuine leather luxury purse, and many arguments for them are centered around their durability. Indeed, leather is one of the few materials that seem to look better with age, whether Balenciaga’s distressed Chèvre, Louis Vuitton’s Vachetta with a gorgeous patina, or the buttery calfskin of the Chloé Marcie. Plus, storing leather tends to be pretty easy too – just put them in the dust bag and take them out for a spin at regular intervals!
But this is also where faux and vegan leathers lose the most points. When subjected to a specific amount of use (and might I add abuse?), or even if just stored somewhere with an irregular climate, it can start peeling. And living in a country where most people are using the most sub-par version of PU imaginable, as well as plenty of fakes, peeling faux leather seems to have reached the level of an epidemic everywhere around me! I’ve also tried storing them in aerated dust bags, airtight containers, or just leaving them out in the open – but simply nothing seems to halt the peeling! This faces us with another sad truth about PU – if you’re as picky about peeling as I am, they’d inevitably end up in landfills, where they’d remain for millions of years.
Now, what about this new sector of vegan leather? Are they durable? Most of the newer editions haven’t faced the “years of abuse” that we tend to subject to our leather carryalls, so the jury is still out on that. But lovers of Stella McCartney, whose newest bags are made from Mylo, a mushroom leather, have attested that their purses have stood the test of time and still look chic.
Price + Value
The other side of the equation of durability is the price tag, and as we have recently discussed, the cost-per-wear. Genuine leather is an impressive scorer here, as commenter Anna’s experience with her two YSL Niki’s have shown! So, luxury brands have the leeway of charging a pretty high margin for genuine leather in exchange for the guarantee of getting ample use (for the most part). And this also tells us why faux leather almost exclusively remains among the lower price points of brands. And while non-leather materials like nylon and canvas too can last a pretty long time with proper care, PU is bound to end up aging poorly.
On the other hand, Vegan leather is still hovering in uncertain territory. Of course, Stella McCartney has been able to justify paying the premium for the look as well as the quality, but with the others, only time will tell.
So, as we see, vegetable leathers are largely uncharted territory for the world – they hold promise, but whether they end up having the same characteristics of genuine leather we are so accustomed to is yet to be seen. Perhaps we’ll soon have a vegan version that’s virtually indistinguishable from the real deal. Or perhaps those who’d claimed so boldly that vegan and faux leather are one and the same might end up remaining right.
For now, though, we have the assurance that some brands are out there trying to make a difference, and others are trying to recycle genuine leather and provide us with the best of both worlds. And it is with these numerous attempts that we’ll eventually reach something mutually beneficial (and not to mention chic) for both humans and the environment.