With Wool and Down Off the Table, What the Heck Do Vegans Wear in the Winter?

Biotech is quickly advancing the world of textiles to give vegans animal-free options to stay cozy.

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Dec 25 2016, 8:00pm

Image: Hernán Piñera/Flickr

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart learned at an early age how brutal winter could be. So when she launched her own line of vegan fashion, Vaute, in 2008, she knew that her outerwear needed to not just be cruelty-free and stylish: it had to be tough.

"It's really hard to find a winter coat that's beautiful and warm even with animal fibers, but beautiful and warm and vegan is impossible," Hilgart told me inside her boutique in New York's Lower East Side. "I realized I could use high-tech textiles and combine them in a way that looks like a dress coat and is actually warmer than wool."

Some vegans are only strict about what they eat, but others extend the no-animals-were-harmed philosophy to as much of their life as possible, and that includes clothing. Wool, goose down, fur, leather, and suede are all off-limits (yes, even wool is often a pretty grim business) which leaves few options in the traditional selection of cozy fabrics.

One of Hilgart's designs, a vegan winter peacoat. Image: Vaute

But designers like Hilgart have joined up with innovators in biotechnology to develop new textiles not just for vegans, but anyone who wants to bundle up. These futuristic textiles are just as warm, strong, and durable as traditional fabrics—and sometimes even outperform our old standbys—while being eco-friendly, sustainable, and, yep, vegan.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the leaders in this area have been brands geared to the outdoors, like Patagonia and The North Face, both of which have offered vegan down-alternatives for years.

"The consumers for outdoor apparel are both environmentally-minded and also performance-minded," said Daniel Meyer, a business developer at Spiber, a Japanese startup that creates synthetic spider silk—one of the strongest fibers on the planet. It is not, despite what it sounds like, made using actually spiders, but with genetically-modified microorganisms.

I spoke to Meyer at the US debut of Spiber's collaboration with The North Face Japan: a winter parka made of synthetic spider silk, dubbed the "moon parka." So far there's just the one, a prototype which was floating in a clear case at The North Face's Fifth Avenue store on New York, but Meyer told me it was meant to serve as an example of what's possible with biotechnology and fashion.

Someone takes a photo of the moon parka at the US debut. Image: courtesy The North Face

Synthetic spider silk is not only vegan—unless you count the microorganisms used to produce the silk—but also more sustainable, since it's produced with organisms, not petroleum, and in a lab instead of a water-sucking field or on the backs of a greenhouse-gas-producing animal. And it's far from the only futuristic, critter-friendly textile out there.

As we toured her shop, Hilgart told me she uses a number of high-tech materials to craft her winter wear. There's her dressier button-down coats, which combine an organic, weather-proofed moleskin—a heavy cotton material—with PrimaLoft, a down alternative originally developed for the army to provide an insulator that stayed warm even when wet. Though moleskin isn't a new textile, the organic, weather-treated version Hilgart uses was her own invention.

"I said 'I want to make this, how do I make this?' and we had a mill that we worked with already and were able to do that," she told me. "I'm just super nerdy about this stuff

Even though I'm technically an entrepreneur, to me it's more about inventing and experimenting with existing textiles."

She hasn't been able to temperature-test her clothing officially, but told me she's heard from customers who say her vegan gear keeps them warm in temperatures as low as -20 F.

Though it's a seemingly niche market now, both Hilgart and Meyer told me they believe vegan, biofabricated textiles could one day take over as the dominant fabrics that major retailers use. At $1,000 for Spiber's moon parka and $300-$500 for Vaute's coats, the cost of production is still a bit high right now.

But on a large enough scale, synthetic and biotech fabrics become more affordable and less resource-intensive to produce than traditional textiles, making them appealing to even the most meat-loving retailer or shopper out there. In the future, your favorite jacket might be vegan without you even realizing it.