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?

JW Pei Gabbi Bag
via Amazon
$79

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!

History

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.

Durability

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.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
18 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Fabuleux
Fabuleux
3 months ago

Wanna make a meaningful difference? Stop buying bags and clothes until what you already own is damaged beyond repair. The truth is, the fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters on the planet and if we really wanted to do something about it, we would stop buying. Everything else is just value-signaling and tricks to feel better about our own destructive behaviors.

Lydia
Lydia
3 months ago
Reply to  Fabuleux

And how do you suggest the hundreds of millions of people whose income come from the textile and leather industry support themselves?

Actually it’s people in developed countries who should stop their consumption, stop using electricity (10x the electricity of people in poor cou tries in per capita terms), cars, heating, stop eating meat, flying, etc. Then we will save the globe.

Teemav
Teemav
2 months ago
Reply to  Lydia

Industries change, they do not have to exist forever particularly if they are killing the planet. Coal factories will close just the same way that steam-trains went out of business, and everyone realizes the workers will need all the help they can get to shift to other jobs, particularly because many are regarded as unskilled miners (this is a much, much discussed effort). The people working in textile and leather industries are skilled – they could be working in luxury or non-luxury repair shops, garments made to order (instead of pushed out by the masses hoping to flood the market with clothes no one needs). In fact the entire world would be better off if people had more opportunities to work in education, health, arts and wellbeing services instead of working in factories dependent on perpetual consumption of goods. Craftsmanship can endure, consumption cannot. The trouble is, people find it hard to visualize one without the other.

Fabuleux
Fabuleux
3 months ago

Well, I disagree. It is, in fact, the exact solution. It’s just that most people don’t have the will and selflessness to actually carry it out.

kang504
kang504
3 months ago

Used to be in shoe biz and have been to vegan leather factory and real leather tannery in the late 80s. Beyond environmental impact, both were full of chemicals and fumes, and seemed like dangerous polluting places to work. Hopefully things have improved. Especially for vegan leather. We don’t want to endanger human workers while protecting animals. (FYI polluting tanneries were a reason zoning laws came to be.)

scbarragan
scbarragan
3 months ago

I appreciate your effort to understand this issue but it is not easy even if you have studied chemistry. The article contains many factual errors that you should consider to check and correct. I would start with a few key errors:
1. PU is organic ( you wrote inorganic).
2. PU and PVC cannot blend (you wrote that PU contains PVC).
3. Organic or inorganic is related to the composition in elements not related to sustainability as you wrote.
4. Something that is biodegradable is probable less harmful as waste but only if the the ammount of product as residue is not alterning the environment. Biodegradable is not the same as safe for us and the environment.
5. Bio-based product, such as biobased PU, it means that it is used extract from a natural raw material, (cactus, pinapple) to produce polyuretane so it is still PU for vegan leather. Those materials had not eliminated yet all toxic processing. Most of the latest research in the field has not reached the market. It is an use how to introduce flame retardant, for example in biobased PU to avoid the risk of get in fire.
6. The vegan leather that use Biobased PU do not use waste residues rather compite for raw material with food chain. It is not a way to valorization of residues of biomass.
7. Life cycle and durability is important as you explain and there is not yet studies that support that should new material would last. The properties (less flexible, intranspirable, etc) suggest a short life cycle.
8. Recycling material is not just positive for sustainability. Recycling require complex and not environment friendly processes. The final new product obtained is around 20% of intial material. The new product do not have the same properties and quality as the original, more fragile, not transparent, etc. It cannot be used as replacement and it is very expensive.
9. We in science and toxicology have studied some alternative and biodegradable chemicals that ended up being more toxic than the original chemical.
This and more aspects are not well understood in general. It is not as easy as it is described by companies. The only true sustainable strategy is reduce consumption of new products.

Candi
Candi
3 months ago
Reply to  scbarragan

Thank you for this informative response. I learned a lot!

londoncalling
londoncalling
3 months ago

If it doesn’t come from an animal, its PLASTIC.
Vegan “leather” is plastic.
At least animal leather is biodegradable.

Nemo
Nemo
3 months ago
Reply to  londoncalling

We do not live in the 50’s anymore. Where a thick slab of animal hide turned into a gorgous bag that lasts forever. Go into a Michael Kors, Furla or Coach store now and it is all coated in plastic. What do you think epsom and saffiano leathers are? All treated with plastic. So unless you do not own any contemporary mid tier brands you can stop screaming and start educating yourself.

Cat
Cat
3 months ago
Reply to  londoncalling

Did you read the article? There are non-plastic vegan leathers.

scbarragan
scbarragan
3 months ago
Reply to  Cat

If you check the definition of plastic, you would realize that vegan leathers are also plastic. Those discussed here are made of biobased- PU (polyurethane).

Definition of plastic: a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers , that can be moulded into shape while soft, and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form.

In those case the vegetal material is used to extract polyols.. Then the polyol should go through synthesis ( as the plastic definition) to produce organic polymers , here polyurethane, that is molded into shape.

If we would like to talk about direct material from nature to produce handbags, we can find traditions in Portugal. I have seen in trips decades ago, very delicated handbags made of liminated cork. They look great pieces of artesan work but it is a very fragile material, not made for many hours of handbag manupulation, made just to admire. On the other hand the classical raffia basket are also vegan handbag.

I mean that there have been vegan handbag for ages around us. The difficulty is if we are looking for imitatation of a material from animal origin as leather and produce with monomers from vegetal origen. Then we are talking about organic synthesis. I would go for truly vegan baskets if you are interest in just material from nature with demonstrate durability. Those ones will be a sustainable choice as “vegan handbag” and we do not need to invent the “wheel” but there are not soft and moldable.

May
May
3 months ago

The environmental impact of real leather is pretty huge, too. Not just on the animals, but us humans since the leather industry is responsible for a lot of rainforest deforestation. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/nov/29/fashion-industry-amazon-rainforest-deforestation

(To be fair, it’s not just handbags in this industry.)

May
May
3 months ago

Yeah, ultimately people have to demand changes — not just local exploited people, but consumers abroad, too. It’s good if it’s changing for the better in your country.

There is this romanticized idea that real leather is a totally natural thing and anything else is plastic, but as you know it’s not that simple. Both are highly manufactured products with good and bad trade-offs. The person above who suggested the only way out is to stop buying so much is right, but human nature suggests that isn’t happening. So maybe things like Stella McCartney’s mushroom leather and some other fashion experiments with kombucha Scoby leather are a good alternative.

CShell
CShell
3 months ago

Sajid Bin MohammadI love your writing!

Most Discussed This Week

More Marmonts