On Tuesday, I ordered my first vegan suit. Well, my first suit that might be vegan. Law, like many professions, has an unspoken uniform. Conservative business dress involves numerous animal products. Shoes must, of course, look like leather, but that is just the start. Once a month, or more, a friend will ask where I buy my shoes. However, most of the animal products involved in the suit-and-tie ensemble are less obvious than leather.
And they’re harder to avoid. I have made excuses about the wool and silk in my wardrobe for the last two years. Most of those excuses were rubbish. It is possible to get mostly vegan work attire without too much effort, and without wearing a hemp suit ordered online, which – alas – would not go down well at a law office. However, looking carefully at each item reveals that it is fairly easy to get very close to a vegan wardrobe, but very hard to guarantee absolute freedom from animal products. Unless you’re ordering a bespoke suit that costs as much as a small car, the risk remains.
In this entry, I will discuss the difficulties and solutions for developing an animal-product free business wardrobe. Each element – suits, shirts, ties, socks, shoes, and accessories must be addressed in turn. I will not be making any moral judgements about what animals products are or are not ethical, or attempting to criticise or defend their use. My goal is simply to provide a guide as to what is and is not vegan, and where and how you can get vegan alternatives. Sometimes, this is easy; sometimes, this is not.
As I am writing from my own experience and I know almost nothing about women’s clothing, I have to apologise for focusing exclusively on menswear. I expect, however, that women’s businesswear involves similar problems.
The vast majority of business suits are woollen. Traditionally, aside from the odd summer-weight linen suit (acceptably worn while sailing the Caribbean in your yacht; probably not acceptable at the office), men’s business suits were made of navy and charcoal wool. Other exceptions tended to be other animal products; that is, other fabrics made from the hair of other animals. This rule holds true for almost every suit I’ve seen for sale off-the-rack in Auckland.
Most sales assistants will try to persuade you to buy woollen suits. One urged me not to order a synthetic suit (very persuasively), saying that it would look worse and be less comfortable. Another told me that cotton suits were great, but New Zealanders just don’t understand them, so I shouldn’t dream of wearing one to work. Others just stared at me in confusion. The owner of one successful NZ menswear company outright mocked me for being vegan and wearing a non-vegan suit.
If you’re vegan, my only suggestion is simple: Ignore the sale assistants’ suggestions. I find most of the woollen suits that I’ve worn uncomfortably hot in the office. Cotton is, of course, cooler. Synthetics, well, I don’t know, but vegans don’t order the fish because the waiter tells them it’s fresh and tasty. Fabrics should be no different. The trick, I suggest, is to focus on the fit, the colour, and the cut, because most junior lawyers in this country dress poorly. If your suit fits, is a conservative colour (navy, charcoal), is not obnoxiously patterned, and is a classical cut (so probably two buttons, two vents, and notch lapel), I doubt your employer will notice or care that it doesn’t look quite like wool.
But that’s only the outer layer. A suit is made of two or three layers of fabric – and has buttons. Let me explain a little about jacket construction. Although a very few jackets are unlined, most jackets have two visible layers: The outer shell, and the inner lining. The good news is that almost all jackets today are made with synthetic linings, such as viscose. The same goes for lined trousers. Apparently, they breathe better than silk.
The bad news is that there’s another layer that you can’t see. The jacket takes its shape from the middle layer – the fusing or the canvassing. Traditionally, the middle layer was a floating horsehair canvas. The canvas layer floated between the two other layers, slowly adapting to the wearer’s body. The canvas, as it’s name tells you, was not exactly vegan (although, as I understand it, often standard wool). Apparently some may use cotton – I don’t know. Very high-end suits today still have a floating canvas, but, as far as I know, nothing in the High Street stores is made that way. One or two brands at Smith and Caughey’s do, apparently. You can tell if a suit is canvassed by grabbing the outer and the lining on the chest and pulling them gently apart, then rubbing them together. If you can feel a third, rough layer between them, it’s canvassed.
Most suits today aren’t. Instead, the third layer is something called fusing. It is fabric fused – that is, stuck with an adhesive – to the other shell. I do not know what most companies use for the fusing material. Chris, at Crane Brothers, last week told me that theirs is cotton, as wool is too hot and heavy for the Auckland climate. The problem is, of course, the adhesive. I have not been able to find what it comprises, but the sad fact is most glues aren’t vegan, so this probably is not. When I said before that my suit was probably mostly vegan, that’s what I had reservations about.
Additionally, suits almost always have some shoulder padding. I simply don’t know what fabric this is. It may not be vegan, even on cotton and other ‘vegan’ suits.
Finally, there’s the tricky question of buttons. Most suits don’t have plastic buttons. They have horn buttons, which are made of exactly what it sounds like: Animal horns. On the plus side, these are – I’m told – the collected discarded horns of wild animals. However, they are – of course – not vegan. White, ivory buttons are obviously no better.
So, what do I suggest you do? First, give up on buying suits off the rack. If you have a summer-clerking interview tomorrow, you won’t get a vegan suit (or a suit that fits). Order your suits made-to-measure. That way, you will get better fit, and can choose fabrics and buttons. Most of the High Street stores – RJB, Farrys, Working Style, Crane Brothers, etc – have a made-to-measure service, and a very wide selection of fabrics – including vegan options.
The suit I ordered last week, I ordered from Crane Brothers. Chris and Robert there have been extremely helpful to me in discussing vegan options. While I cannot guarantee that every aspect of the suit’s construction is free of animal products, they do their level best to accommodate vegan customers. Ronald, at RJB, also has vegan clients, and I intend to order a synthetic, horn-free suit from him at some stage. I haven’t discussed this with the staff at other stores, but I expect that other made-to-measure options could create equally vegan alternatives – subject to the caveats about fusing and shoulder-padding. These suits will, I’ll admit, be more expensive than woollen monsters from Munn’s or made-in-China options from Barkers, Hallensteins, or Country Road. But they’ll fit, and they’ll be probably mostly vegan.
I haven’t discussed ordering suits online from dedicated vegan retailers. I never have, and am very suspicious of the fit, the styling, and the fabric. I have not seen anything that would go down well in a conservative law office online, and it’s hard to get a suit that fits in person, let alone online.
This is a simple point. Shirts are cotton, which is vegan. But they have buttons. And, just like the buttons on a suit, expensive shirts tend not to have vegan buttons. The sheen of a good shirt’s buttons is probably the mother-of-pearl they’re made of. I know of no easy way to tell, and I don’t know what other non-vegan options there are. A cheap shirt probably won’t have mother of pearl buttons, but might fall afoul of law firm snobbery (and plain look bad). If you can afford it, go made-to-measure again, and specify the buttons.
Most ties are silk. This is a hard one to work around.
Some cheap ties are synthetic. You may have luck at Munn’s or the occassional Smith and Caughey’s sale (where they seem to sell cheap stock that they do not normally have in store). However, there’s the problem of whether you’re comfortable wearing those to a law firm, or to court. Added to that, ties are made by folding fabric, three to seven times. As I understand it, anything but a true seven-fold tie will have some kind of lining. Which, as with a suit’s fusing, might be wool – and good luck finding out what it is. One company uses one yard of silk for a tie – and 1.75 yards of wool.
So, what then? I don’t know if I have a single vegan tie. One of mine is synthetic, but I don’t know if there’s a non-vegan lining hiding away. And, well, it’s a little ugly. The only option I can think of seems to be buying online. Jaan J is a dedicated retailer of vegan ties. I though I found another vegan tie retailer with a quick Google search, but no. Just no.
This should be obvious, but it’s something I overlooked at first: Some men’s dress socks are wool. Buy cotton and the problem is avoided.
Shoes and Belts
Leather shoes are, of course, not vegetarian or vegan. This is the question I get the most frequently about vegan clothes. Half the time, vegetarians are asking me where to buy synthetic shoes. The other half of the time, omnivores are trying to catch me out on my leather oxfords and being bitterly disappointed.
Ordering online is the way to go. I have ordered from Vegetarian Shoes, Moo Shoes, and Bourgeois Boheme. Great service from each. Moo Shoes is a US-based reseller of shoes made by other companies, so who it’s best to order from depends on currency fluctuations. Other retailers include: Vegan Wares (Melbourne), Pangea, and Vegan Essentials. Another company, No Harm, sells through Amazon and taunts me by having the best looking vegan brogues I’ve seen…but not for sale. Deviate, here in NZ, sells a very small selection of vegan dress shoes.
You can buy synthetic shoes from the Number 1 Shoe Warehouse, etc. This seems to be getting harder, in recent years, because of the easy availability of cheap Chinese leather. If you want ugly, easily-destroyed, vegan shoes quicky and cheaply, go to the cheapest and nastiest shoe shop you can find. But I have real problems with the ethics of buying sweat-shopped vegan shoes. Why simply replace animal suffering with human suffering – and as they’re as disposable as shoes get, environmental damage through wastage?
These shoes are moderately expensive. They are cheaper than the beautiful, classical English shoes available from shops like Crane Brothers and Working Style, but more expensive than the square-toed clunkers seen in most offices. Are they worth the extra cost? Yes, with reservations. Vegetarian Shoes make extremely high quality shoes, and their Cambridge shoe is the most classical, conservative shoe you can get. I cannot recommend them highly enough, although their shoes can be a bit big and clunky. Stick cedar shoe trees in them, polish them, leave them for a day after each day of wear (you shouldn’t wear the same shoes or suit two days in a row, if you want to maximise their life), and replace their heels periodically, and you have shoes that will last years. Twice, shoe repair guys have said to me ‘Really well made shoes, don’t know why they ruined them by not using proper leather…’ before I explained that was the whole point. Bourgeois Boheme make slimmer, more fashionable shoes, but they aren’t as well made.
So what’s my reservation? Sizing. Buying shoes online is a little risky. You can get a little leeway by erring large not small and compensating with insoles, but it’s not ideal. Short of a holiday to New York, London, or Melbourne, the SAFE shop in St Kevin’s Arcade is your best option, although their selection is paltry. My suggestion is to ask them to stock more from the sites I’ve listed.
For belts, all the shoe websites listed stock a selection. Most suits’ belt hoops fit belts 1.25″ wide or thinner, so don’t order wider belts. You can also get passable leather-look soft-sided briefcases and man-bags, etc, if that’s your thing. Matt and Nat deserve special mention for men’s and women’s bags.
This section is short and simple. You don’t want silk pocket squares, don’t want mother of pearl or ivory cuff-links and tie clips, and that’s about it.
So, it’s possible to get a mostly vegan business wardrobe. However, there are a lot of animal products hidden throughout. I do not know whether it is possible to avoid animal-based adhesives in the fusing, and recognise that there is a very limited selection of vegan ties. Some of the vegan options are more expensive than some non-vegan options. However, I think the cost is worthwhile, because they are only more expensive if you compare them to lower quality non-vegan options. Good vegan shoes cost more than bad leather shoes, and a good made-to-measure suit will probably cost about the same whether it is made of wool or cotton, and will only be fractionally more expensive than a good suit off-the-rack.