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Not-So-Cruel Shoes

The market for chic vegan footwear picks up pace

   Eco-fashionistas have long been stymied by their quest for stylish, cruelty-free footwear. They found sneakers and flip-flops galore, but nary a stiletto or corporate pump. Until now.
   One of the seekers is Rebecca Mink, a Beverly Hills stylist-to-the-stars turned vegan shoe designer. Her label, Mink Shoes, features luxe Italian-made shoes that use no animal products. The collection includes spikes, pumps, platforms and ballet flats. Some step forward in look-at-me colors and others make their appearance in classic neutrals, often sporting accents of whimsy. “Chick,” for example, is a cheery yellow and grass-green strappy sandal with cork wedge heel. “Armadillo” is a steel-colored faux reptile T-strap with a titanium stiletto heel. Prices range from $125 to $355.
   Not all vegan shoes are alike, but they’re typically made with synthetic and sustainable materials, both manmade and plant-derived. Animal hides are taboo, as are wool, silk, pearls, fur and shells. Mink’s fabrications include wood, rubber, cork, metal, corn plastic, organic fabrics and mill ends. She developed a durable water-based glue from rubber trees.
   “It’s a misconception that leather is better for shoes—it doesn’t hold up very well,” says Mink, who debuted the collection in 2004. “Leather cracks in the sun and water, and it ages quite quickly. Many of today’s fabrics move with the foot better than leather, breathe better and outlast water and sweat.”
   Sisters and long-time vegans Erica and Sara Kubersky also noted the need for quality non-leather footwear. In 2001, they opened MooShoes, a Manhattan storefront and Internet retailer that now carries 40 brands. Since then they’ve seen tremendous growth in consumer demand and industry response.
   “So many vegan lines have started up, and mainstream companies that do most of their business in leather shoes have also started to cater to the vegan market,” says Erica Kubersky.
   Among the leaders in high style are Neuaura, Stella McCartney and Olsenhaus. The Kuberskys launched a label as well: Novacas, which translates to “no cow” in Spanish. Made in Portugal, the collection offers pumps, gladiators, flats and boots priced from $30 to $160.
   “The eco-friendly trend is proving not just a fad, with many modern and fashionable designs debuting each season in many categories, from clothing to accessories,” says Anne Crays, vice president of fashion forecasting for Shoebuy.com. “With regard to shoes, there are now options for men, women and children, from tennis shoes to high heels, that allow consumers to purchase not only the shoes they want, but feel good about doing it.”
   In the early days, few people would even talk to Mink. Sixteen Italian cobblers rejected her ideas until Marco Gambassi agreed to apply generations-old artistry to non-leather. After she had samples, buyers and retailers weren’t interested. Two years ago they changed their minds. “The green market arrived, and now we are expanding like crazy,” she says. “I don’t believe everyone must be vegetarian or vegan. I’m not here to do that. What I want desperately is to create a high quality and fashion-forward option for people who want it.”
   Erica Kubersky envisions the day when cruelty-free footwear is the norm rather than the exception. It’s already happening. “Not long ago people would say, ‘That’s a nice shoe for being vegan,’” she said. “Now they don’t know the difference.”

Published: April 09, 2010
Issue: 2010 Spring Green Issue