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Veg & the City: When Compassion Is in Fashion

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We've come a long way towards overcoming the grass-and-granola image long held about a plant-based diet, and we're now making inroads into that citadel of self-interest: the world of fashion. Thank goodness! I adore clothes. I was brought up this way. My grandmother told me, "The Bible says your body is a temple, and you're supposed to decorate it."

Taking her advice religiously, I went to fashion school in London at eighteen and my first job was writing ads for a women and children's specialty store. I was caught up in the thrill of it. Although I'd stopped eating meat, I held onto my fringed mini-skirt of orange suede and a fat fur coat my dad had given me for my birthday two years earlier. I was wearing that coat the day that I slipped on a patch of black ice and landed in dog poo. Not a clump of the stuff -- more like a mountain. It somehow matted itself into that coat in ways that defied physics. I got up, inhaled once, and knew I was done. It was as if the universe was saying: "You're a vegetarian with a fur coat. What's up with that shit?" I had the coat cleaned by a furrier; it cost me a week's wages. Then I gave it to the Goodwill -- the suede skirt, too.

Even then there was ample precedent for not wearing somebody else's skin. Muriel, the Lady Dowding, was among the first to champion this view in the UK following World War II. She and her husband, Chief Air Marshal Lord Dowding (he masterminded the Battle of Britain -- there's a window for him in Westminster Abbey), sought out special tailors to make from fake fur the required "ermine" robes for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. When I visited Lady Dowding in the 80s, she showed me photographs of the two of them: even with the limitations of fake fur circa 1953, Muriel and her handsome Hugh were mirror images of their titled peers at the auspicious occasion.

Twenty years later, the anti-fur movement was big, and stars including Mary Tyler Moore posed for full-page magazine ads decrying this cruel trade. One designer after another made signed statements to stop using fur. Major magazines pledged to avoid showing it in editorial spreads and even to refuse fur advertisements. When Anna Wintour took the reins at Vogue in 1988, however, fur resurfaced with a vengeance. "She saved an industry!" one of her cohorts gushes in The September Issue, the documentary about Wintour.

Nevertheless, the animal rights movement had by then become a force to be reckoned with, and the mid-90s once again saw fur as morally incorrect. Fur salons disappeared en masse from city centers and suburban malls. Some of us thought that this time the minks and otters and raccoons would be "fair game" no longer, but instead, fur crept back -- mostly for collars and hats, at first -- "It's just trim," we heard a lot -- and then a resurgence of fur coats for both women and men.

But once again the tide is turning. The gloriously fashionistic tabloid, Pinnacle, created by Joshua Katcher of TheDiscerningBrute.com, features images, models, makeup, lighting, design, and copy as fashion-savvy as those in any glossy. When Pinnacle was distributed at Fashion Week, it was, as Chloe Jo Davis wrote on GirlieGirlArmy.com, "fighting fur with fashion."

Chic vegans are so numerous now, in fact, that glorious non-wool coats have come on the scene. (For years I convinced myself that wool was a harmless byproduct. It's not. Most commercial wool is cruelly harvested through a process call mulesing which takes chunks of sensitive skin along with the wool. And even sheep bred for wool wind up slaughtered for mutton in the end.) Enter the lovely Leeanne Mai-ly Hilgart and her Vaute Couture line of vegan, eco-conscious, fair-trade dress coats for women and men.

Cruelty-free footwear is another area in which living as a vegan has become undeniably easier. The choices thirty years ago were little more than canvas Keds, cheap plastic prisons with cardboard soles, and black cloth Mary Janes from the PROC. (Those had almost no soles at all. It's a wonder I don't have a podiatrist on speed-dial.) I did sometimes cheat with shoes and buy leather, wearing each pair until they nearly fell apart, then getting them a second life and a third from the cobbler. I just didn't see any other way.

But it's a new world out there, one with incredible vegan shoes at every price point. Cambridge, Vancouver, and New York all boast vegan shoe stores. The last time I was at the one here, MooShoes on the Lower East Side, I found an incredible pair of boots made of inky black Ultrasuede (cloth, not animal skin), with wedge heels and - here's the cool part - fold-over cuffs in periwinkle blue. They're from a gifted designer, Elizabeth Olsen, founder of Olsenhaus Vegan Shoes, who describes her visits to tanneries rather the way Dante described his forays through the various levels of hell.

I know more than I'd like to about the suffering of animals in this world. Being able to have fun with clothes (and cruelty-free cosmetics, too) is one way I can lighten up and live joyfully while trying to make a difference. I could be a vegan in sackcloth and flip-flops, but I find fabulous boots with periwinkle cuffs a far preferable option.