(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn)
Some people, like me, give up leather because they don’t fancy the idea of wearing animals’ skin. Others are trying to go a bit easier on Mother Earth in general (even as a byproduct of the meat industry, leather has a massive carbon footprint and the chemicals used to process it are just as nasty as — and often much nastier than —the stuff that goes into faux leather).* For all I know, there may be a third, kinky group that’s just really into wearing plastics. Who can say?
One constant: We all have to work a bit harder to find good-looking accessories. I’m no hippie, and I’m not especially interested in filling my closet with pleathery fast-fashion pieces that fall apart after a few wears. So what does a girl have to do to get some solid non-leather shoes around here?
Consider a pair of high-fashion jellies.
For the last two summers, I’ve lived in a pair of black Melissa x Jason Wu “Artemis” sandals, and I’ve gotten compliments on them in Hawaii, Istanbul and everywhere in between. The Brazilian-based company has been making jelly shoes for three decades and counting; in the last several years, they’ve tapped designers like Wu, Vivienne Westwood and Karl Lagerfeld for high-fashion collaborations. The good news is that their shoes are on-trend, inexpensive (a full-price pair could set you back $150, but they turn up on discount sites like Gilt and Yoox all the time), and virtually indestructible. The bad news is that they’re still jelly shoes, and even the 30% recycled (and fully recyclable) PVC Melissa uses isn’t all that eco-friendly. Bottom line: Pick a favorite pair and wear ‘em forever.
Kill your television (and turn it into shoes).
If green is your new black, chances are good that you’ll fancy Olsenhaus, an NYC-based vegan line that’s stocked at Barneys and makes appearances in magazines like Vogue and NYLON. Its founder, Elizabeth Olsen, is fond of making shoes with a durable polyester microfiber recycled from a Japanese television factory (a detail I find relentlessly badass). Olsen features production details and photos of Olsenhaus’s family-owned manufacturing sites on her website (ditto); all of her materials demonstrate her commitment to sustainability. Phrases like that usually translate to shoes you’d wear to a renaissance faire; in this case, not so much. These stylish kicks look and feel like genuine leather; whether or not you decide to brag about how cruelty-free and eco-friendly they are is up to you.
The biggest name in leather-free design, of course, is Stella McCartney: her products use no leather, skins, or fur, and since 2010, they’ve been PVC-free as well. A second-generation vegetarian with impeccable taste, Ms. McCartney favors power clashing, bright colors and heels that don’t fuck around. She also, alas, favors price points that make me afraid to touch her handbags when I see them at Saks. Fans who lack a Beatle’s budget can find Stella McCartney accessories for half price at The Outnet. If you know your Italian shoe size and are prepared to cross the personal-hygiene Rubicon of purchasing footwear from random people online, get thee to eBay, where fortune favors the bold (and I find all my best stuff).
Go forth, intrepid shoppers! Know that genuinely great leather-free goods are out there, if you take the time to look for them, and that friends don’t let friends wear ugly shoes.
*As far as leather substitutes are concerned, polyurethane is far gentler on the environment than petroleum-based PVC, or polyvinyl chloride; check the material in the “vegan leather” you’re considering if you want to know how comparatively eco-friendly it is.
More fashion-friendly non-leather shoes:
Arden Wohl x CDC Marceline sandal, $245
Chuck Taylor All Star Rubber sneaker, $65
Faryl Robin + Free People Noveau Vegan sandal, $128
Novacas Kelsey clog, $130