“The handsomeness of an object should be matched by the handsomeness of how it was made.” That’s the ethos of Joshua Katcher, fashion designer and founder of Brooklyn-based vegan menswear brand, Brave Gentleman. Katcher, who has also taught at Parsons The New School and LIM college about the importance of sustainability, began his foray into the world of fashion with the launch of Brave Gentleman in 2010, following the success of his ethical lifestyle website, the Discerning Brute, which he began in 2008.
Brave Gentleman offers a broad range of completely vegan menswear products, from 100 percent Italian-milled bamboo suits with buttons made from tagua nuts, to footwear made from EU Ecolabel-certified Italian PU. Future-wool, future-silk, future-ivory and future-slik are also used throughout the brand’s designs, so, as you can probably imagine, innovation is at the forefront of Brave Gentleman’s agenda.
The brand currently has one brick-and-mortar store at 367 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn, and two factories - one in the heart of New York’s garment district, where its belts, bags, coats and accessories are made, and a “100 percent vegan factory” in Brazil, where the brand’s shoes are made. Prices for shoes range from 155 to 260 dollars, while prices for jackets range from 580 to 595 dollars. The brand’s bamboo suits are sold for 2,500 dollars.
So, as Katcher approaches the decade mark since the launch of his ethically-driven menswear brand, and the once uncharted landscape of vegan fashion proves ever more fertile grounds for budding cruelty-free brands, what does the future hold? FashionUnited spoke to the fashion designer, author, activist and animal lover about his brand’s increasing focus towards footwear and suits, the issue with mainstream masculinity getting in the way of sustainability, and upcoming innovations in the world of vegan materials.
How and when did you become vegan?
The idea of veganism made a lot of sense to me. I've always liked animals and when I became aware that I could actually make a decision to live my life in a way that minimises harming animals, well it just made sense. It's as simple as that.
Personally for me, it started in high school when I found out that the rainforest was being chopped down to graze cattle. That was the first time in my life that I really thought about where my food was coming from in the context of this global industrial system. I think, like most people, I have this bucolic fantasy of where cows were grazing in a field, like you would see on product packaging - images of one or two cows grazing in a big green field. Well, that's complete nonsense. That represents a tiny percent of the farms in the world.
I ended up taking the book Animal Liberation out of my highschool library, which taught me a lot. By 18 I was completely vegan. From then on I tried to avoid harming animals in anyway - for the goal to create change, not for the goal of seeming like a puritan or having 'clean hands'. I think there's two main ways to go about veganism. For me veganism is a social justice issue.
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How did that passion marry over into fashion?
I started writing about fashion in 2008 with my blog The Discerning Brute, which was the first men's lifestyle website dedicated to ethical vegan fashion, food, and culture. In writing about it I realised that there was a really big void in the types of products I wanted to see. So I got into fashion. I never studied fashion, per se, but I feel like I was always creative - I went to art school and I studied art and environmental studies. Fashion is something that is incredibly culturally significant as far as identity goes. When I realised how underestimated fashion is, and was, and at the same time how influential and impactful it is, I realised it was something I wanted to participate in.
I think that if we are completely disconnected from how fashion is made, it allows us to create these fantasies about how we are presenting ourselves rather than the reality of how those things are actually made. Fashion was really attractive as a medium for activism for me. I thought I wanted to inspire people - to create a way to have your identity relate not only to how something looks, but to the story about how it's made, and to make you feel excited and inspired about innovation and sustainability and ethics in a way that's empowering and not in a way that feels like it's do-goodery or being wholesome or being boring.
What would you say to people who say they want to buy ethical fashion, but it's often too expensive?
I think the question shouldn't be why is ethical fashion expensive, but rather, why is fast fashion so cheap? I think if we ask that question then it will answer the other one. When you look at the supply chains of high street fast fashion stores, you see people aren't being paid fairly. Cheap and toxic materials are being used. The products aren't being made with a need for longevity. Instead, they're being made with planned obsolescence. They want it to be disposable so you come back and buy more. It's like the fast food model. It's unhealthy but creates a form of addiction, where you can never quite get enough and that's why it's so dangerous.
I really don't like the term consumer because it's very passive. I think it's an insult to people and where they're putting their money. A consumer is just a receptacle rather than a citizen. I like to refer to people who use their money as citizen investors. If people saw themselves as citizen investors they would be putting their money into these systems and brands that they want to see flourish rather than just seeing themselves as a passive consumer. So I think yes, sustainable fashion is going to be more expensive, and for good reason. Working people are being paid a living wage. Innovative and exciting materials are being invested in and developed, and these are things that are being produced at a smaller scale. But it is something that is worthy of investment and it can't be seen in the same playing field as a T-shirt from forever 21 of H&M or Zara - it's a completely different production model.
Do you rely heavily on social media for advertising your brand?
I rely completely on social media when it comes to advertising. My customers find Brave Gentleman through word of mouth and through social media and once in a while I pay for an ad but it's not really something I do. It’s been nice to see how powerful social media can be but also is increasingly becoming more and more difficult to benefit from it as the space becomes more crowded and as social media companies starts to clampdown and limit what we can do without paying for it. I think I was lucky to get in at an early stage with social media and kind of carve out a space whereas people just starting now are going to have to start paying a lot of money to really get followers and established that space.
Do you think you face challenges that a non-vegan brand wouldn’t face?
Sourcing used to be difficult but it's getting easier and easier. There are more and more textile shows and materials available, and new and innovative mills are popping up and showcasing their work. There's now a real focus when you go to textile shows like Premier Vision, for example, on sustainable sourcing - they even highlight in their guides which are the mills that are identifying as sustainable and which are the producers that are specifically high tech and synthetic and eco. I think that within limitation there's a type of freedom. If you have unlimited possibilities, it can be dizzying and overwhelming. When you have some parameters it can make decision making much simpler.
I think that the challenges that we have faced in the past decade or so have now turned into opportunities rather than problems. When you look at the most promising, exciting and lucrative innovations that are happening in material innovation - as well as in the food space - they've come about to battle the problem of human consumption. All the most exciting innovations and opportunities are happening in the realm of what we would consider vegan materials.
What would you say to upcoming vegan brands, or existing brands considering delving into vegan ranges?
Any great art requires effort and the path of least resistance often leads to horrible things. I'd say to any designer that the future is in the realm of plant based and high tech, synthetic innovation. It's not going to be a choice in the near future. If you don't want to be obsolete then this is the type of thing you need to start looking at. This is the demand that customers are increasingly asking for. i mean, we don't have much time: When we look at the climate crisis and everything that's happening on a global scale with resource use and species extinction, then you can clearly see that we no longer have the luxury to make this a fun choice to pat ourselves on the back for. We have a serious imperative, and if we keep waiting we won't have much of an industry left. There won't be much of anything left. Every industry needs to shift over into this way of thinking.
As a menswear brand, what role do you think masculinity plays in fashion and sustainability?
I think that when we look at the type of masculinity that's been celebrated in the last century, even before that, a lot of it is tied up in this sense of brutality. Mainstream masculinity often perceives things like caring about the environment, caring about animals, and even caring about other people as traditionally being a characteristic in the realm of the feminine.
Meat eating as very key to mainstream masculinity, which is tied to this fantasy of hunting and killing something. I think that when people are more concerned about preserving their masculinity then it will prevent them from being able to really make the decision to be most compassionate and sensitive. Sensitivity is something we all share as human beings but for some reason it has been cast aside as something dangerous that threatens all patriarchy.
I find it very ironic that so much of masculinity is tied to meat eating, but when you look at the animals being eaten, they're slow moving, gentle herbivores. People aren't tracking down lions and killing them with their bare hands. This is an industrial system which has pretty much turned animals into these beings that can hardly turn around or escape - never mind attack you. The fantasy cannot withstand the reality of what is actually happening.
How has your brand grown since 2010?
I like to think we have played some role in making better quality standards in vegan fashion. I think we've done a lot of work in challenging people's perceptions of what ethical and vegan materials can create from a standpoint of both aesthetics and performance. I think until recently a lot of people associated vegan fashion with poor quality and uglyness, and something that didn't reflect a sense of desire or aspiration and especially not luxury.
I think it's really exciting to see this emergence of so many different brands and so many different styles. I think what it proves at the end of the day is that sustainable and ethical fashion and vegan fashion is not an aesthetic, it's a methodology, it's a way of looking at things and a way of doing things. I'm very proud of what I've been able to do with limited sources and it makes me hopeful for what I can achieve when we expand.
What do you see happening in the next 5 to 10 years? Do you plan to scale up production?
At the factory I'm working with in Brazil, we're planning to expand our brand with it through footwear to really offer a scaled-up model where we can sell wholesale and distribute much larger quantities. We're beginning to look at how we can fulfil a more global demand for high quality vegan men's shoes. The whole factory is vegan and it's run with a fair labour and a social justice and sustainability mission. I want to build on that and use that ethical model as I move forward.
Footwear is starting to become the main focus of the business and now we're starting to get into bamboo suiting - 100 percent bamboo suits made to look just like kashmir. I think those areas will be the main focus of Brave Gentleman rather than outerwear or ready to wear. I think that spreading myself too thin would be detrimental until I have more resources and more human power.
I never wanted Brave Gentleman just to be one shop or one collection - I really wanted to change the whole fashion industry and I hope that I am on the path to doing that. I really want my brand to be a proof of concept that you really can have a sustainable and ethical brand that is luxurious and long lasting and high performance.
Photo credit: Moran Dankner/Brave Gentleman, Facebook