Earlier this year I had a dilemma; should I buy second hand animal products like wool and leather or should I keep my wardrobe completely animal-product free? Serendipity was putting in double shifts when Carli Vergamini, the founder of CRAVE, a playful, vibrant accessories brand centred around repurposing second hand clothes and materials, jumped into my inbox right around the time I was percolating over the original post. Carli uses recycled leather extensively throughout her range so, to dive a little further into the debate, I had a chat with her to find out her take on the whole thing.
She studied Apparel Design & Development at the University of Wisconsin-Stout but it was a semester at London College of Fashion focusing on accessory design that sparked her love of working with leather. The sustainable facet of her design process, however, happened somewhat by mistake: “I was fresh out of college and didn’t know what I was doing with my life. All I knew is that I wanted to make stuff, but I didn’t know where to buy the materials I needed to make the stuff I wanted to make. So I did what I typically do and got resourceful. I bought the first leather coat I could find, took it home and cut that baby up to smithereens.”
After that day, Carli became ‘more and more obsessed with repurposing and the challenge that comes along with it’. To date, she estimates she’s saved around two hundred vintage leather jackets from landfill. It might have started with a knowledge gap – not knowing whether to source leather hide from – but it’s evolved into what Carli describes as a ‘more exciting and impactful path’.
My dilemma was rooted in making a choice between sticking steadfastly to having a completely vegan wardrobe and reducing waste by wearing animal products that already exist. It’s not an easy choice to make when you’re stone cold set against animals being used for consumption but also feel under a lorry load’s worth of stress about the amount of brand new clothes and accessories made from newly produced materials that we’re unleashing upon our world. In the spirit of sitting back while I let the world make up my damn mind for me, I asked Carli what her stance was on recycled versus vegan leather: “I believe the most eco-friendly way to consume is by repurposing. By choosing vegan leather, yes, you’re choosing an animal alternative which is great, but you’re also choosing a chunk of plastic (in most situations). Check the label on a vegan leather garment and it probably says 100% polyurethane, a.k.a. 100% plastic.”
But what about the judgement? I had visions of passersby pelting me with quorn burgers and parents clutching tearful children to their breast hissing, ‘we believed in you’ at me as I skulked by in a woolen jumper. Does the implication of using leather, recycled or not, bother Carli? While she’s fully aware of the environmental impact of producing leather, and vegan leather for that matter, her answer is an emphatic NOPE. “At the end of the day, I have no say about the genuine leather pantsuit that was produced in the 80s. There’s nothing I can do now to prevent that garment from coming to life. But here it is and if I can turn a lime green, coordinating set of hideousness into something useful, I’ll call that a win.”
I mean, she makes a good point doesn’t she? There’s oceans and oceans worth of EXTREMELY questionable leather garments out there that have no hope of life beyond a very niche 1980s cowboy themed fancy dress party. There are also holey old jumpers that could be unraveled and knitted into something new, snagged silk dresses which could be crafted into something newly beautiful and obscure wool hats that could find a home atop the head of the type of white person who moves to a place five years into its gentrification and says ‘it’s just so raw and untouched, y’know?’
So, I’m 100% on board with Carli’s choice of material but where does she actually find it? I asked it with a caveat that she didn’t have to give away any trade secrets but, a true supporter of people reusing what’s out there, she was all too happy to share:
“1. My mom is an avid thrift store shopper and the leather section is always her first stop. She’s always on the hunt and I love her for that. I’ve got a couple of favourite local second hand shops that usually have a few pieces to choose from and I love scouring eBay for specific coloured garments. The bright colours sell well for me, so I try to keep the whole rainbow stocked at all times.
2. I found my favourite spot while on a trip to London a couple of years back – a stall in Camden Market that was completely devoted to leather jackets. TWO FLOORS of leather coats. I thought I was in heaven. I walked out with a bright green emerald green piece that I just started repurposing recently.
3. As word spreads about my endeavours, I’ve been getting more and more inquiries from friends and strangers looking to get rid of an old leather garment. For every donation received, I offer to gift a tassel or small leather good to the owner as a thank you and momento of their beloved jacket or wallet.
4. Lastly, I occasionally reach out to local tanneries and manufacturers who use leather to source scraps that they would otherwise dispose of. The amount of waste is mind boggling! What one person can save from entering landfill barely even makes a dent – my hope is to encourage others to source scraps and second hand materials so that together we can make a bigger impact.”
At this point, I’m definitely a member of the ‘use what’s already out there’ tribe; I even bought a wool hat from a charity shop not long ago. However, not everyone is as brazen as me in sitting back and having a snack while tasking the whole internet and a designer to make a decision for them, so I did it for you and asked Carli what she might say to someone who’s currently undecided: “You understand your standards more than anyone else and it’s up to you to stick to your guns. Repurposed leather doesn’t fly with the ethos of everyone and that’s alright. Whether you’re anti-leather or not, there’s nothing that can be done to prevent the products that were produced in the past but there’s a heck of a lot we can do to give it new life. We can’t prevent the past, but we can give them new purpose.”
Echoing Carli’s (spot on) sentiment, I don’t think there’s a definitive right or wrong answer here. Recycled leather works for some people and it doesn’t for others. But, if it is something you’re willing to embrace you might just help to disrupt the use-dispose cycle we’ve found ourselves in, and support people like Carli who are determined to find treasure in the trash pile.
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