02 março 2007

Uncruel Beauty


Published: January 11, 2007, NYTMagazine

HADASS KANTOROWICZ is on the fence. "I eat less meat than I used to," said Ms. Kantorowicz, a self-described tantric healer who stopped in last week at Organic Avenue, a vegan general store in downtown Manhattan. "I'm definitely a lot more conscious than I used to be." While she appreciates the virtues of a meat-free diet, she stops short of embracing a vegan way of life, one that would ask her to forsake a croc-embossed bag or patent leather pumps. "And I'm not ready to wear hemp," she confided.

CLOTHES WITH A CONSCIENCE A cotton sweater coat by Stella McCartney, with Ecoganik organic cotton pants that are available at Organic Avenue.

VIRTUOUS Top, cotton Stella McCartney sweater, Ecoganik pants, tank made of corn fiber by Moral Fervor, Stella McCartney cotton purse, natural stone pendant by Cole Lopez. Above, a denim dress made of hemp and recycled polyester by NaturevsFuture and a woven cotton and wood bag by Stella McCartney.

But a proliferation of vegan-friendly fashions and stores that ban animal products outright from their shelves may tempt her to change her tune. If she has yet to adopt the zero-tolerance approach advocated by the most militant vegetarians, she typifies the customer that many vegan marketers are now courting.

National chains like Whole Foods; boutiques like MooShoes, a New York outlet for imitation-leather wallets, belts and bags; online stores like Pangea; and eco-minded labels like Moral Fiber, Real Fake, Novacas (no cows) and Matt & Nat are encouraging shoppers, even those merely flirting with a "cruelty free" diet, to embrace its precepts not just in the kitchen but in their wardrobes. To their minds, vegan chic, once an oxymoron, is a glossy new marketing handle. Clothes and accessories once shunned for their aura of hair-shirt deprivation have acquired a hint of luxury.

Vegans, who may be thought of as extreme vegetarians, strive for a diet and way of life that is noninjurious to both animals and the environment, directly or through the processing of materials like leather, wool or silk. From motives of conscience or health, most reject shoes and clothing made from hides, even those made with animal-based glues and dyes.

"People are more conscious today of what they're wearing, why they're wearing it and how it affects the environment," said Robert Burke, a fashion retail consultant in New York. To ignore such issues "is not sexy today," he said.

Six months ago Denise Mari opened Organic Avenue on the Lower East Side. "At one time being vegan meant focusing on what you had to give up," she said. "Today we're stepping beyond the mundane what-you-need-to-survive approach" and concentrating instead on "how to make this a fun lifestyle that other people can relate to."

"We'd like people to say, 'Wow, look how fashionable this is! I want it for its style.' "

At her shop Ms. Mari sells hemp and bamboo tanks and shirtdresses, and even men's suits made from ahimsa silk, a fiber processed without injuring silkworms ($700).

Certainly Ms. Mari and other merchants are beneficiaries of a spike in the vegetarian population. As of last year, there were an estimated 4.8 million vegetarians in the United States, one-third to one-half of them vegan, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit educational organization. That number has nearly doubled since 1997.

But today retailers and designers are aiming at potential customers identified in a survey last year by Mintel International, a consumer research company, as "occasional vegetarians." They shop vegan selectively, as the Mintel study pointed out, but their "purchasing power is paramount."

This health- and eco-conscious population has contributed most visibly to the growth of a $1.2 billion market for vegetarian goods (primarily dairy, egg, cheese, meat and poultry substitutes and tofu), according to Mintel, one that jumped 63.5 percent between 2000 and 2005.

Just a half-dozen years ago, shoppers searching for cow-friendly wares had to resort to shoes from Payless, "vegan" by virtue of their synthetic materials, or to utility plastic or canvas boots, wallets and backpacks sold through Vegan Essentials, one of a handful of online stores. Now even a few mass marketers are incorporating stylish vegan products into their lines. Vans promotes its Geoff Rowley vegan skateboarding shoes, made from synthetic nubuck and rubber. Rampage, a mall brand, is advertising "cruelty free" imitation leather styles.

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