The use of animals in the fashion industry has elicited outrage and protests for decades – but not many activists know the full history of fashion’s use of animal skins, hair and feathers, something that they will now be able to learn thanks to the first book of its kind, Fashion Animals. The richly illustrated, informative and unique work will explore the different ways that we have used animals for clothing throughout history.
The author, Joshua Katcher, has led the way in ethical menswear for over a decade: in 2008 he launched The Discerning Brute, the world’s first men’s vegan fashion blog, and subsequently launched Brave GentleMan, a revolutionary menswear brand that experiments with innovative materials to offer a range of contemporary ethical apparel and accessories to everyone who is interested in a menswear aesthetic with as little impact on the planet as possible.
We spoke to Joshua about the hurdles of getting men interested in vegan fashion as well as breaking down the barriers in the traditional image of masculinity – and of course about some of the tremendous amount of research behind his book.
You started your site in 2008 and launched the first vegan menswear brand shortly after – how has the vegan menswear market changed in the decade that The Discerning Brute has existed?
It’s evolved quite a bit – I can’t believe it’s been a decade. Just the number of options out there for people who like menswear aesthetics and high-quality goods, whether that’s a well-made shoe or a garment that’s sustainable and fairly made and vegan without compromising on style or performance, there is more and more happening. I actually recently re-launched and updated TheDiscerningBrute.com with a section where I highlight many of my favourite brands that meet the criteria of being vegan, sustainable, ethically made and good design – the last part is what is going to lead the charge for making the sort of changes that we would like to see in the systems that we are trying to either change or replace.
Since you speak primarly to a male audience, do you feel that the current climate around masculinity and what is perceived as masculine can be an obstacle for persuading men to choose ethical and vegan fashion?
When I started The Discerning Brute, the premise was very much in line with that – I observed and experienced a cultural phenomenon of masculinity being so narrow, limited, fragile and tied to the fantasy of brutality and strength – I think that the notion that brutality is strength is pervasive through our culture and it’s completely false. I think that being a hero and a protector, defender of those who are weaker, and being compassionate and kind requires great strength, values and consistency. There’s no reason why that can’t be seen as masculine, even through a traditional lens of masculinity. I write about and confront the idea of masculinity through my brand to challenge what masculinity really means. My brand is not just for cis men – it’s for anyone who likes a masculine aesthetic. Some of our customers are masculine-presenting, some are trans men, others are nonbinary or cis women who just happen to like our designs.
That’s a great point about masculinity and strength – and that’s not really something that gets discussed very often.
I believe there is a need for it because we still live in a very patriarchal culture, and because masculinity is still so tied to these ideas of destruction and brutality it becomes a real roadblock on a macrocosmic level to sustainability and a more compassionate world in general. Our society rewards behaviours that are destructive to the planet, animals and other people. This is one manifestation of a way to confront, to just get to talking about it. One thing I found is that people who identify with or aspire to ideas of masculinity feel that they can’t participate in certain things like veganism, because it threatens their identity and how they see themselves. I hope to provide tools that can become part of that identity, reinforce and strengthen a resolution to be compassionate and make kind choices in a way that can be empowering and not be seen as a compromise or an abandonment of identity.
Why do you think there haven’t been that many websites or blogs to follow yours? There has been a rising wave of outlets across the media spectrum – blogs, news sites, Instagram accounts – that are aimed at a female vegan audience. In your view, why hasn’t that happened with male-themed outlets?
Even though there are more brands and more representation of mainstream men going vegan – look at all the athletes going vegan for example – I still feel like the ideology of mainstream masculinity is kind of intractable when it comes to control and domination over animals, nature and women. Especially animals – if you look back into history, some of our most foundational beliefs around how the world works and what our place is in the world have to do with controlling animals and nature, and feeling entitled to those things. We still live in a world that overwhelmingly identifies masculinity with meat. It’s symbolic, the idea that a steak is where men get their power. There is a notion that when you consume the animal, you take on the power of the animal. As silly as that sounds, that idea is pervasive. I think that in the very near future we will see more and more men create platforms to discuss and confront the destructive definitions of masculinity – one piece of evidence is all the sports that are traditionally considered very masculine, like football, basketball, boxing and MMA, and the vegan athletes in those spaces who talk proudly of their veganism. It’s becoming something that’s seen as as an advantage when it comes to strength and performance, and it won’t be long before that trickles down into popular culture. Sports is a very central place where masculinity is defined, controlled and celebrated, so hopefully this new attitude will permeate within that culture. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do. I have a limited voice in the realm of masculinity, for several reasons – for one, I am just one person with a brand, I don’t have a media empire behind me. Another reason is that as a gay man, I will still be regarded as a ‘compromised man’ in that sense by some mainstream men. My defining masculinity still comes with caveats for the men who feel threatened by the supposed feminity of compassion.
Fashion is still largely viewed as a traditional ‘women’s’ pursuit – it’s not only about men choosing ethical fashion, it’s also about men showing an interest in fashion overall.
There are a couple of forces at play here – we still subscribe to a myth that says that to enjoy a great pleasure you must first make a great sacrifice. When you look at food, some of the most cruel foods such as foie gras and veal are considered the most luxurious. There is this fictionalised idea of cruelty in a sexy and mysterious Hollywood villain way, where the ideas of power get attached to the pleasure of the food. And you can also see that in fashion, where items like fur, calfskin and rare skins connected to very cruel processes is seen as desirable. This is counterintuitive to what a lot of animal activists think – that if you tell people that something is mean, they will want to do the kind thing instead. This often isn’t the case. Often people want to relish and bask in this fictionalised cruelty that makes them feel powerful.
You can really see this with items such as the Birkin bag that takes three crocodiles, three animal lives, just to make one bag, and it’s perceived as so high-end and luxurious.
It’s rooted in medieval royalty where kings and the court would have access to skilled hunters and labourers who would be able to get these animals and showcase them. The wearing of these garments and eating of those foods was in itself a display of royal power and the elusive access these royals had to difficult trade routes and skilled craftsmen – a control of labour and in a way, a control of the world. What we see as fashion today really has its roots in the medieval – this is connected to why fur, for example, is seen as such a high-status item today. In hip-hop culture, for example, owning fur is a sign of having “made it” – access to money and status. In most fashion circles, having a fur coat is the ultimate symbol of power.
Your book, Fashion Animals, deals with the way animals have been used in fashion throughout history – this must have been such a research-intensive project. What’s the most shocking and surprising thing you learned while working on it that the average fashion consumer might be unaware of?
I started writing this book after some observations I made after I noticed the presence of animals in the fashion media – especially when they were alive and being used as props alongside other animals that had been killed for clothing, which presented quite a troubling and upsetting disconnect. We have a culture that overwhelmingly identifies as animal lovers – the most popular videos on Instagram and YouTube are animal videos, yet within fashion advertising we put an animal who is supposedly being cherished next to another who has been completely invalidated and turned into an object, usually through a cruel process. The premise of the book was, how do we as a culture deal with this disconnect? I started looking for evidence and explanations – where does this come from and how do we understand it? One of the underlying themes of the book has become that humans are walking contradictions: we have the ability to be both compassionate and cruel, to make very helpful and constructive choices and to make harmful and destructive choices, and all of this can happen within the same person. It’s about understanding that if we want to help animals and have a sustainable fashion system, then we need to abandon these symbols that serve no purpose and need to become symbols of indifference. One of the most shocking facts I found was the number of species that had been driven to extinction for fashion trends. I didn’t realise the history of extinctions and the ongoing extinctions, whether it was birds whose feathers were used in the millinery trade, or animals hunted to extinction for the fur trade, or animals considered pests who were driven to extinction in the wool trade. There are so many heartbreaking, compelling stories and each of them deserves a documentary as it’s such fascinating cultural insight. An example is the huia, a bird that was native to New Zealand. In 1901, the Duke of Cornwall visited New Zealand – at that time a colony of imperial Britain – he was given a huia feather to put in his hat as a symbol of good will from the Maori people. A photograph was taken and circulated in London newspapers, and within six years the bird was driven to extinction due to the trend for feathers. This is an example of how a fashion trend could so quickly decimate an animal population. It’s an example of how something that now would be a celebrity photograph can create a demand where people would have that aspiration for fashion that represents power and want to emulate powerful people through dress and go do any limit to gain at least a symbol of that power. It can completely overwhelm rational thinking.
As a book that’s critical to animal use, do you find that there is a barrier to presenting a message of stopping animal use rather than just paying attention to how animals are used while they are being exploited?
In the book I do make the point that it isn’t about how animals are being used, but that they are being used at all. Factory farms originated from small family farms. Many “humane” farms have been investigated to find abuse and cruelty. It isn’t a matter of how we are using animals, it’s about confronting the idea that animals are units of production and we should be profiting from their confinement and their death. That is unacceptable to me and there is no rationalising that, especially in a profit-driven industry where so many things are about cutting costs, which could mean further crowding, no veterinary care and animals getting injured in the process.
It’s always difficult to ask people to abandon something, but in fashion we have the advantage of the many innovations coming out right now that are superior to animal materials. They won’t only mimic animal skins biologically, but they will also outperform them from a design standpoint. It’s already happening – we already have companies that grow leather and silk in laboratories and we will soon be able to print bio-fur with a 3D bioprinter. We will be able to grow any keratin fiber whether it’s a strand of hair, a feather or wool. This technology is already available and it’s up to us to decide how we will scale it and market it. This will make animal materials completely obsolete, so the conversation needs to be on innovation, on getting young designers and professionals to embrace these new materials and technologies and inspire the public with them. So soon it won’t be a question of giving up leather or fur, but rather what kind of leather do we want to create in a laboratory to match the exact requirements needed for a design? And there won’t be a living being enduring suffering attached to it.
What developments in vegan fashion innovation are you most excited about?
I think biofabrication is the next industrial revolution – growing something like mycellium (mushroom fibres) to make materials, or engineering yeast cells to make proteins that are identical to fibres that we would find in silk, hair and skin are realities that I am so excited about – just think of the problems they will solve. There are obstacles – people’s hesitations around genetic modification is one and there will have to be a lot of education around that, to highlight that this use is not dangerous. I’m also very excited about the advancements happening in recycling and diverting waste into materials. And of course plants like mushroom leather or pineapple leather, as well as companies making leather from apples, wine grapes and orange waste. People are so creative: we can not only solve any problem, but we can make the solution superior and more exciting. Even knowing all of the horrible and gruesome things that I know after researching this book, I’m still optimistic – I’m incredibly excited about innovation and ideas that are going to be breathtaking and awe-inspiring.
Fashion Animals will be released in March. Pre-order it here.
All photos by James Koroni