Clothes and Cosmetics Can Be Vegan Too

Jessica Lapidos displays her collection of vegan outfits at the NYC Green Festival. (Asha Mahadevan/NYCityLens)

Jessica Lapidos displays her collection of vegan outfits at the NYC Green Festival. (Asha Mahadevan/NYCityLens)

Did you know that the wool used to make your coat is sheared off sheep in the winter, at a time when they need it the most? Or the red lipstick in your pocketbook gets its color from crushed shells of beetles?

Veganism, for most people, is associated with what people eat not what people wear.  But many vegan entrepreneurs in and around the city are looking at the practice of abstaining from animal products in other areas beyond food.  Vegan cosmetics and vegan clothes are popping up, as are websites designed to help vegans sort out which products are acceptable and which are not. Even a phone app is on the way. Part of the reason for this surge in vegan products stems from the emergence of more and more vegan customers that are demanding cruelty-free products, even if it means they have to pay a little more for them.

“When you don’t sacrifice your principles for the fabric, it can be more expensive,” said Jessica Lapidos, a Brooklyn-based fashion designer.  “But there is a growing appetite for vegan products.”

Lapidos has centered her whole business on the concept, asking at every step of the way: why do animals have to die to make the clothes we wear. She has found a fabric replacement for silk, called cupro which is a byproduct of cotton. “I am learning to ask more and more questions to ensure that every part of production is infinitely renewable. That is the goal,” she said.

A graduate of University of Delaware’s Apparel Design Program, Lapidos turned down a lucrative offer from an established fashion house to work with fur because that would mean the death of many foxes. “It brought an awakening, made me realize that I don’t want my company contributing to the death or unfair treatment of animals,” she said. She founded her own company, called Tilly and William, and in February 2013, showed her first full collection of unisex outfits that can transform into many shapes.  Her outfits are only made of materials that come from plants. She does not use fur, silk, wool or leather in her designs.

Of course, her approach makes it difficult to keep costs low. An outfit, that can be worn as a cape, a skirt, a dress or even a shirt, costs $425.

Wool is a particular problem for vegans, says Sherry Colb, author of the book, Mind If I Order The Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans, who turned vegan eight years ago. “For a long time, people thought the best thing you can do to help animals is be vegetarian, but now they are learning that wool is not just hair,” she said, explaining the cruelties involved in the wool industry. “Marino sheep are bred to have extra folds in their skin so they will have extra wool, but they end up getting maggots. So the farmers cut off part of the skin on their back, and they are left with these open wounds. When they stop producing wool, they are sent to slaughter.”

Tracey Spiritus and her sister Jill sell wallets, shoes, handbags and other “stylishly sustainable” items for “people who are becoming more conscious of where their products are coming from,” says Tracey. The products are made of faux leather and faux suede (which are both types of polyester), hand woven textiles and other biodegradable and recycled materials.

The duo founded the online store Compassion Couture in 2011 after they faced difficulties finding stylish fashion accessories that lined up with their values and were of high quality. She admits that often, the products are more expensive than their non-vegan counterparts and that’s because the manufacturers use vegan materials that are more expensive, pay fair wages, and produce in green factories, said Spiritus. A vegan evening clutch can set you back by $90 at least ,while a pair of vegan riding boots can cost $155. “Those who are looking for such products are willing to spend more,” said Spiritus.

It’s not just your clothing and accessories, but also your beauty products that contain animal derivatives. “It is unbelievable what goes into a lipstick or a moisturizer,” said Marisa De Sa, founder, Cosmetic Concierge, a personal styling service based in Manhattan. The red, orange or brown tones in lipsticks often come from the crushed shell of a beetle while moisturizers have squalene, which is derived from shark liver oil.

While De Sa works with all types of cosmetics, she said, that in recent years there has been a surge in demand for vegan, cruelty-free cosmetics, now that people are shying away from harmful chemicals and towards sustainable practices. She has even had clients who specify they want cosmetics that have only botanical extracts. “People are willing to pay premium for these cosmetics, and a lot of them are comparable to luxury brands,” she said.

Of course, says Michelle Cehn, of the website, very often consumers who are aware and want to support companies that are in line with their values unknowingly use products with animal byproducts in them. “There are so many names for the same animal byproduct that you won’t recognize them unless you have done a lot of research,” she said.

There are resources out there, such as PETA who certify products as being vegan and cruelty-free, but finding the correct product is still not easy. “Sometimes, a company may advocate being cruelty-free or against animal testing, but their parent company does not have the same values,” she said. “It is complicated. Ultimately, it is for the individual to decide to what degree they are willing to compromise.”

Dory Kurowski, a Hoboken resident, is trying to make the process easier with her website Started in 2012, the site gives visitors cruelty-free alternatives to popular beauty and wellness products. Most of the products on the site, she said, are vegan (the presence of beeswax in some of them being the exception) while all of them are cruelty-free, sustainable and natural.

While choosing her products, she often calls up the manufacturing company and asks them about their ingredients. “Sometimes it takes a month, sometimes it is quicker. It’s more difficult if the company is new,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, but I give myself the time.”

To make it easier for consumers on the go to make the right choices, Kurowski is raising funds to develop a smartphone app to launch next year. She turned to the public through an Indiegogo campaign, instead of looking at the more lucrative option of product advertisements. “I may advertise books about veganism, but not advertise products as it would be against the integrity of the site,” she said. “I have always tried to maintain the integrity.”

Brooklyn-based Debbie Miller, who is a vegetarian, believes “it is not right” to use animal products. That’s why all the beauty products of her brand Anna’s Potions and Lotions are purely plant-based, an approach she says is “better for your soul and better for animals.”

Miller doesn’t even use beeswax; her lip balms (priced at $6 to $8) are made with candelilla wax, which is derived from the candelilla shrub native to Mexico, and her candles (priced at $22) are made of soy wax.

“I have been a life long gardener and environmentalist,” she said. “It matches my philosophy.”