Joshua Katcher: Lion Heart
Joshua Katcher has arrived at the future of fashion before fashion itself. From the platforms of The Discerning Brute, his vegan lifestyle blog, and Brave GentleMan, his ethical and elegant menswear label, the 33-year-old is invigorating the hope for a green fashion industry and, in turn, a sustainable world.The designer, who now lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is vegan from head to toe. Like his collections, he is unequivocal proof that quality tailoring and high-end attire is not established by furs and leathers, artificial dyes, or expendable labor. In addition to his design career, Katcher has toured with his lecture, “Fashion & Animals: The Anatomy of a Fatal Attraction,” to various universities, including Princeton and the American University of Paris. A one-man-band of conservation, he has discovered a gentle and effective way to advocate for environmentally conscious fashion—one that speaks not only to its necessity, but to the beauty of which it is capable. After meeting Katcher—his tattoo sleeves, his debonair tenor, his well-sharpened intellect—his message becomes impossible to overlook.
What were your motivations to live a vegan lifestyle? Do you find it difficult?
I think there’s a perception that being vegan is difficult, but in retrospect, the lifestyle that I lived before was far more difficult. Being vegan has introduced me to so many new things that I never would have otherwise explored—whether it’s different ethnic cuisines, ingredients, or textiles. As a designer, I’m so excited about the materials I’m working with, and I never would have sought those materials out if I [went straight for traditional fabrics]. I feel like [veganism] is perceived as a limitation, but that limitation is an illusion. It opens doors to incredible possibilities. All of the incredible innovation that’s happening in cuisine and fashion and technology are happening in the realm of removing animals from the business model because—not just from an ethical standpoint but also from a business standpoint—it just doesn’t make economic sense. It’s so expensive and so resource- intensive to raise animals; it’s a very clunky business model.
Did you always know that you wanted your line to be a sustainable one?
Yes, absolutely. Any good creator, any good innovator wants that challenge, and I think for me the challenge is how to make desirable, exciting, sexy, cool fashion that is also the most sustainable and ethical as far as material and production go. So many things about the current fashion production model are fatally flawed; it’s designed to self-destruct. The way that things are going right now, it can’t keep going this way. It’s going to end, and the designers who are figuring out a way around it and are problem-solving are the designers who are going to survive. It’s so insane when you look at the amount of resources (and human beings are considered resources in the fashion model when you talk about mainstream fast fashion) that go into sweatshops and these massive production facilities that are in Malaysia and India and Bangladesh…Everyone heard about the Bangladesh fire that made mainstream news, but stuff like that goes on all the time and isn’t covered by the media. People like to look at fashion as a frivolous thing—It’s just clothes, it’s just fun—but when you look at it as a business model, it’s a global industry. I call it the fashion-industrial complex because it’s one of the top polluting industries in the world. It’s an industry that affects millions and millions of people, ecosystems everywhere, animals everywhere. Yet, it has this safety net of being able to say, Oh, it’s just fun, it’s just clothes, don’t worry about it, don’t think about it too hard.
What specific materials do you work with in your designs, and from where do you source them?
I’ve decided to coin my own terms for some of these materials, so I use what I call future leather, future suede, future wool, and future silk. The reason I use the word “future” is because this is the direction that the fashion industry is going, this is the direction that the mills are going. These terms are aspirational. I don’t like using the terms faux or fake because when you say something like “faux leather,” people immediately think it’s going to be crappy. But these new materials are superior to leather—they’re more durable, they last longer, they’re more efficient to produce, they break in, they breathe, and they’re much more customizable. As a designer, to work with an actual skin, where it’s cut out in the shape of this living being, it poses a lot of problems, and it causes a lot of waste.
The future wool I’m using right now for my upcoming fall collection is a combination of recycled cotton and recycled polyester. It’s made in a factory in Brazil called EcoSimple, where underprivileged women are given living-wage jobs. Recycling technology is becoming more and more efficient and much more scalable. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between this and any other tweed, but when you look at the comparisons of energy usage, and if you look at the business model itself, it’s far superior.
Are these alternative materials challenging to work with, constructionally or otherwise?
There are challenges because the infrastructure is not set up to accommodate them. We’d have to change the entire infrastructure, as far as mills and how they’re producing their materials, but I think a lot of these materials are adaptable—it’s challenging for small designers. For example, if you wanted to use something as simple as a recycled polyester care label, you’d have to buy about a million, literally. There are these ridiculous minimums because [the system is] not set up to run 5,000 of them; you have to buy the whole massive role of recycled polyester. The mills that want to produce sustainable materials have to switch out all their mainstream materials that they’re using every day in order to produce sustainable materials, so they have to do it all at once. Mills are not set up to do small runs. They have to buy large bulk materials and produce it in bulk.
Fur—and so many other harmful luxury items—always seem
to be having a resurgence in fashion, they’re always back in style. Do you think the demand will ever be quelled? How do we combat it?
[The fact that fur is always back in fashion] is part of the marketing of luxury materials—to make it seem like it’s always the new thing, even though there’s nothing new about it. It’s the same as it’s been since the Stone Age. Fur is such an interesting model to look at regarding the sociology of perceived luxury. It has a very rich history, from King Henry VIII making fur and other specific fashions illegal to the lower classes, to the tumultuous history of the fur trade—what happened to the people of North America and what fur represents as far as an imperialist and colonialist showcasing of power and status.
You have generations of people putting fur on this pedestal, and you can see today, when you have all these people trying to climb the luxury fashion ladder, that there is a heritage, and they want to be part of that heritage and have access to those powers. Part of that is excluding others and having that status.
So, it’s difficult to turn a big boat around. It’s a reversal of a mindset, and it can’t be changed by reprimanding. It has to be changed by inspiring and enticing. I think it’s okay to also reprimand, but only so long as you can follow it up with, “And this is better, and these are the superior materials to be using.”
At the same time, there’s a story that’s ignored and invalidated, and that’s the story from the perspective of the animal. Animals are living beings with inner lives, and they can feel pain and they have emotions and they have desires, and we, because of this industry, see them as units of production as opposed to beings with needs, like us. I think there’s this dreaded comparison where we say, “Well, we can’t compare our suffering to the suffering of non-human animals because what does that say about us?” If we empathize with them, that means we’d have to change everything.
There are various pro-fur organizations that market the material as sustainable or green. They advertise that it comes from the earth and biodegrades far more easily than any artificial material. What is your response to these institutions and do you feel that we’ve developed the appropriate groups to counter them in PETA, the Anti-Fur Society, etc.?
Organizations like Copenhagen Furs and Saga Furs and the British Fur Council and Fur Information Council of America—we have to remember that these are not advocacy organizations, these are money-making organizations. Their goal is profit. So, it’s difficult to compare what they’re doing with what animal advocacy groups are doing; they’re not getting rich on advocating for animals. It’s not this two-sided argument where it’s an equal and opposing opinion. You’re talking about profit-driven versus research, and conservation, and ethics-driven [models], so they’re going to be willing to look at a lot of things that the fur industry won’t acknowledge.
A few of those things came to light recently, and the fur industry denies them. There was recent research done by C.E. Delft, an independent Dutch science research organization, and they analyzed the claim that a fur coat is greener than a faux fur coat. What they found is shocking—not only is a real mink coat not green, but up to five faux fur coats are more sustainable than one mink coat, even if that one mink coat is vintage. When they considered the amount of resources that go into raising those animals, feeding those animals—the refrigerations, the processing, the slaughtering—and then the care and upkeep of a fur coat, it outweighs by far the amount of resources that go into making a faux. And [organizations for fur] say, “This is petrochemical, it’s polyester, it’s this, it’s that,” but the nice thing about polyester is that the technology is always getting better. Now, we’re able to make bio-based polyester, biodegradable polyester. The technology will always be getting better; faux fur will become more sustainable and more efficient and more real. Animals, that’s a model that can’t be improved, that’s just the way it is forever.
As a designer, are you ever discouraged by your peers? Are you ever disappointed that the industry is still so behind in terms of sustainability?
I get discouraged when I take a step back, but I feel like when I speak to individual people, we all share the same values, and we want the same things to happen. But for some reason, these entities, these corporate entities, they function in a way that is not a person—that’s a problem with corporations, in general. Iris van Herpen for instance uses 3D printing to make textures that are very much like fur, but even more precise and so much more customizable. These designers are going to lead the way, and they’re going to end up being recruited by these fashion houses that have these legacies, and hopefully they will be adjusting these things over time. Or—and I don’t feel bad saying this—if they’re not able to change and are unwilling to change, they’re dinosaurs, and they’re going to go extinct. I hope they do because they’re not for this world anymore. They’re for a world that is no longer relevant.
The future is bio—inspired by biomimicry or using bioplastics. Everything will be biocentric soon because that’s what it is to be life-centric. It’s about looking at nature and saying, “How does nature solve these problems and how can we make our innovations mimic that?” I think we’re moving into an era where we’re coming out of this sort of infantile industrial state of our civilization and are moving into a more mature era where we recognize that the planet does not have infinite resources, and no one’s going to swoop down and save us at the eleventh hour. We actually have to make things that function in the same way that all the things in the natural world function. When we look at an ecosystem, and we see how a forest functions—the trees grow, and the leaves fall, and they go back into the soil and feed the seeds, and new trees grow—that’s a very simplistic example, but there are these cycles, and we have to make our industries mimic these cycles. Otherwise, we’re fighting against a system that has evolved over billions of years.
What is your WILD Wish?
For humanity to realize that the universe is already a lonely place, and the mass extinctions, imprisonment, and institutionalized torture of animals, our only other known companions in the galaxy, is both unnecessary, indefensible and incredibly short-sighted.
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