Rebel With A Cause: An Interview with Joshua Katcher of Brave Gentleman
We sat down and talked to Joshua Katcher, the founder and Creative Director of Brave Gentleman - the first ever all-vegan and sustainable men's clothing and lifestyle brand, author of recently published book Fashion Animals, and lecturer and adjunct professor of fashion at Parsons The New School in New York City, in his flagship store in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn.
*All photos were taken and edited by Dustin Tyler Moore.
So, my first question is what made you become vegan?
Nothing made me; I chose it... No, I'm just kidding, that sounded obnoxious. (laughs) Going vegan for me was a very practical and logical decision that I came to. I realized that how animals were treated in industries that I had no knowledge of prior to investigating was not in line with the values that I already had. I think how animals are treated in the food industry, the fashion industry, as well as the medical and entertainment industries, are not in alignment with the values that most people have. I think if people really knew more about what exactly was happening to these animals, veganism wouldn't be seen as this fringe choice; I think it would just be common sense. That's how I approach it.
Do you still think veganism is a fringe concept right now?
No, it's weird because I'm so used to talking about it in a sort of apologizing way, or in a way where I'm figuring out why it's a fringe concept. I think in the last few years we're seeing a huge shift where you have everyone from major celebrities, to politicians, to industry leaders investing in, being proud of, and claiming the term 'vegan.' You see these huge shifts happening. There is this tipping point that people talk about and I think we're in it. I think it's happening. And that's really exciting.
One example is here in the state of New York, there was a dairy farm that was around since 1925, Elmhurst Dairy, and they recently switched over to making plant milks. Not only are they doing it, but they're doing it successfully. And they're actually making more than when they were doing dairy. So, you see these industries that rely on exploiting animals and their body parts are starting to realize, that not only do we live in an age of transparency and you can't cover up [the way you do business] with slick marketing anymore, but they're also realizing that people want to live a life that is in line with their values. I think there is just something very cathartic and peaceful about living a life that is consistent with your values. In such a crazy time and in such a crazy world that we're living in right now, finding something like that is very rewarding.
"Being in fashion, seeing the potential, seeing the technology and innovation that's out there, and seeing the failure of these leading brands to really embrace it, is really sad, and I think that they're dinosaurs, and they're going to die out."
You mentioned that we live in an age of transparency and in particular, we see the food industry being exposed more and more for their practices. Why do you think, as a fashion designer, is the fashion industry behind?
The fashion industry appears to be very 'with it', to be very cutting edge. There is this illusion of newness because every season, there's a new look, a new cut, a new style, a new color. I think it creates this illusion that there's also similar changes that are happening in textile innovation, the way that we make things, who's making them, how it's being made, and of whose body is it being made. The aesthetic illusion of change couldn't be further from the reality of a lack of change that's happened in the back end. And that's very disappointing. Being in fashion, seeing the potential, seeing the technology and innovation that's out there, and seeing the failure of these leading brands to really embrace it, is really sad, and I think that they're dinosaurs, and they're going to die out. They're not keeping up with what's happening, and smaller brands who are, who really have real values, who aren't just using 'green' or 'eco' as a marketing gimmick, I think they're eventually going to replace them, and for good reason, they should.
Why do you think there's such a huge resistance from the bigger brands, and from the industry as a whole, to embrace this shift that's happening?
There are so many reasons to that resistance, which is partly the reason why I wrote my book, Fashion Animals. I'm looking at those reasons. Why do we have an industry that exploits animals at such a massive scale? Why does it continue? Why is it so defended? And why are animal body parts so valued that they are seen as these sacred objects that can never be questioned or challenged? And I really want to understand the history and psychology of that, and there is a lot of history and psychology, and it's complicated. It isn't such a simple answer. You can't just tell someone, 'Your leather shoes hurt a cow, don't wear them.' There's a lot of feelings and emotions tied up in leather, tied up in fur. We have been very effectively marketed to believe leather is the symbol of authenticity, and of realness, and of being genuine. Those words, 'authentic', 'real', and 'genuine' - those are words that the leather industry spent a lot of marketing dollars owning over the last century.
You mentioned fur, too, and as an activist, why do you think the focus of many animal rights activists is on fur and not necessarily on other animal-derived materials?
It's because fur is so visible. Fur is a visual object that is meant to be seen for what it is. It's a status symbol unlike any other and there's history behind it that goes all the way back to the Middle Ages, where the royalty and noblemen were the people who would wear the fine furs. This was enforced by law and if you were not of the same rank or social status and you were caught wearing fur, you could be put to jail or even death. There were sumptuary laws and literal fashion police on the street. If you get caught dressing outside your class and they caught you, you could either be fined, jailed or even killed.
Fur is so associated with power, status, and class that it really has become this way of communicating, 'I've made it.' When you see typically low-income and underprivileged communities really flaunting furs, it's understandable. It's a way of saying, 'Hey, we made it. We've obtained this thing that is only reserved what is traditionally white people in power.'
I get the social aspect of it, but what happens to the animals stand in stark contrast to what fur represents. We're living in a time where we're learning more and more how much we've underestimated animals' ability to experience life, and how intelligent they are, and intelligent in different ways. These types of intelligence are maybe something we're not familiar with, but maybe we need to validate. It isn't so easy to say that those are just a bunch of foxes so it's ok we're killing them and turning them into coats. A fox wants to live just as much as you or I want to live. A fox doesn't want to feel pain. These are animals that will seek out comfort and pleasure. They want to do all these things that they cannot do in a fur farm.
"We're living in a time where we're learning more and more how much we've underestimated animals' ability to experience life, and how intelligent they are, and intelligent in different ways. These types of intelligence are maybe something we're not familiar with, but maybe we need to validate."
The fur issue is really complex but I think the reason it's so popular again is because it's become a symbol of the rebel. It's seen as standing in contrast to the wholesome values of the animal rights community. We set that up for ourselves, where in the nineties, the anti-fur movement resulted in a backlash, and a well-funded backlash, from the fur industry. They put a lot of money in marketing fur as young, cool, and rebellious, and irreverent. It's sort of in parallel with how the counterculture rebelled against family values, where fur is now a rebellious symbol against wholesome values. It's sort of this 'fuck you' attitude associated with wearing fur. The caveat is, it's actually a fictionalized form of being a villain because the true evil, the true harm that's being done, is always hidden. It's an abstracted idea of cruelty, and an abstracted idea of cruelty can be romanticized — just look at Hollywood villains.
And who's to say that faux fur can't accomplish the same thing?
Right, and the fur industry has put a lot of money in marketing faux fur as plastic garbage. Disposable, cheap, polluting — all of these things that you can push back and say real fur is equally harmful to the environment; the chemicals require to preserve it, the pollution coming from these concentrated fur farms, the amount of energy it takes to refrigerate furs during the summertime and care for them. They like to say that real fur is both biodegradable and it lasts a lifetime, well pick one or the other! It's either biodegradable and it's going to fall apart, or it's going to last a lifetime — you can't have both.
There's scientific studies that have been done showing the real impact of fur, specifically mink, which is the number one animal used in producing furs, an estimated 75 million minks a year are killed for the fur industry and that's just what's counted. It's a huge impact and they're doing a lot of greenwashing to cover that up.
There's a lot of brands out there that market themselves around being sustainable. How do you justify that when the majority of their products are made from animals, which have been known to not be sustainable?
I think the term sustainability is a little bit wishy-washy. I don't think anybody can really put a finger on what it truly means. For some people, it just means an effort or an ability to go on indefinitely without ever using up all their resources. There isn't necessarily an ethical component to the current definition of sustainability. You know, I could be running a sweatshop that as long as I'm making sure that these people I'm exploiting are getting just enough food, or just enough rest, that could be considered sustainable, but that doesn't mean it's ethical. I think these terms — sustainable fashion, ethical fashion, vegan fashion — they all have their little specific meanings and often they're interchangeable, depending on who's saying it. There is no authority who's defining what these terms mean and will actually enforce that with legislation. That's what needs to happen. We're still in the infancy of understanding what do we really mean by sustainable. Can wool be sustainable? No. The answer, from a scientific standpoint, is no. Yet, it's one of the top materials being used by sustainable companies.
"[there is this] pressure to appear that everything is cool and collected and fine, but meanwhile it's terrifying, what's actually happening. Every day is a risk. Every decision is a gamble. And to live your life that way, day in and day out, to be going to bed wondering, is this textile going to work? Will all the money that I just put in this product, will I see a return in that? Will I have a job in a week? Will my business be here in a year?"
Let's talk a little bit about your brand, Brave Gentleman, and how it came about. What was the reasoning behind starting a vegan men's fashion brand?
Brave Gentleman emerged from my blog, The Discerning Brute, which I started at around 2008. At the time, I think it was the first and only blog that was dedicated to a vegan men's lifestyle approach. Up until that point, a vegan and sustainable lifestyle, from a marketing and blogging standpoint, was seen in the realm of the feminine. It was seen as a woman's concern, which sounds so old-fashioned but it's true. Caring for the animals, caring about the environment — these were things for women to worry about. And men, with our very limited definition of masculinity in our culture, it's stifling and it's suffocating, what you have to do to be "a real man". Part of that is not showing emotion and getting the work done no matter what. You can't let emotion or feeling or empathy or concern or compassion get in the way of the objective. I wanted to confront that with the blog and in writing about it, I realized that there were things that I wanted that didn't exist. For example, a nice pair of vegan shoes that didn't fall apart and looked stylish and didn't look like hippiewear, that weren't clunky or bulbous or weird.
I decided to try to make some shoes and I did that with Novacas, a vegan shoe company run by the same woman who owns MooShoes. We partnered, we did some textile research together, and I worked on some designs and we came up with a few styles that were all about craftsmanship, quality, and durability, as opposed to just a disposable shoe that fell apart and you throw away in 6 months. It did well, we sold out, and then we grew. We went to the next season and over the years, we kind of just naturally organically grown. We've expanded our selection and now, we're at a point where we're ready to shift again. We really want to keep scaling and growing. I'm strategizing now to really figure out how to make Brave Gentleman blow up. I'm confident that it will happen.
What are some of the biggest stuggles that you've experienced while running Brave Gentleman?
We've had a lot of struggles. (laughs) I mean, you talk to any entrepreneur, any small business owner, and it's nothing but struggle. A frustration I have is the pressure to appear that everything is cool and collected and fine, but meanwhile it's terrifying, what's actually happening. It's scary. Every day is a risk. Every decision is a gamble. And to live your life that way, day in and day out, to be going to bed wondering, is this textile going to work? Will all the money that I just put in this product, will I see a return in that? Will I have a job in a week? (laughs) Will my business be here in a year? These are questions, you know, we're laughing, but actually it's very stressful.
The biggest challenge we faced is smoothing out our value chain and our production process, meaning finding the suppliers that are reliable, finding the factories that aren't going to screw us over, and that happens. It isn't just about designing cool things and having it made and then selling it. There's so much more that goes on. People will be shocked if they knew the real story of how every fashion object comes into existence.
"The reality of the world is that I can't change the entire economic structure. I'm trying to make a fashion system that is more ethical and more compassionate and that results in a high price point right now. Nobody is expecting you to buy everything from Brave Gentleman. one purchase will make a difference in my business because that's an investment in a system that you want to see flourish."
What do you say to potential customers who contend that your prices are on the higher-end?
I agree. I think sustainable and ethical fashion at this time is expensive. It's expensive because you're paying people a living wage, you're investing in materials that are not made in huge quantities that cost a lot, and just looking at your cost of production, just on labor and materials alone, you're already starting at a cost of production that's higher than what most companies sell at retail. In order to make money on that, you have to have a markup, otherwise you go out of business.
I think there is a real lack of customers understanding how the economics of fashion production operate, and that's a real failure of our education system that we're not taught these kinds of things in schools, unless you go to a school specifically for business or fashion. You're used to buying a t-shirt for $10-$20 without ever asking that same question. Instead of asking why is it so expensive, you should be asking, why is it so cheap? How is this possible that this is so cheap? That's a more important question.
Do you educate your customers when they contend your pricing structure?
I'm happy to have a conversation about it, if they're genuinely interested in it. I've been attacked before for it and I can tell when someone is just really going for it and they're not really interested in knowing more about it and they just want to accost me for having a luxury item that's unreachable by most people. The reality of the world is that I can't change the entire economic structure. I'm trying to make a fashion system that is more ethical and more compassionate and that results in a high price point right now. Until those technologies reach scale, until everyone is being paid a living wage, those prices will eventually come down, but for now, it's expensive. And what I usually recommend to people who can't afford to buy their entire wardrobe at Brave Gentleman, and who could? I mean I can't afford most of my own stuff! (laughs) Nobody is expecting you to buy everything from Brave Gentleman. What is important is that for a small company like Brave Gentleman, one purchase makes a difference. If you can save up and make one purchase — a belt, a pair of shoes, or a wallet — that will make a difference in my business because that's an investment in a system that you want to see flourish.
I really hate the term consumer and I talk about this a lot. I think it's a passive term; I think it trains people to not engage or not be an active part of this entire system. When you're a consumer, you're just sitting back and consuming. I prefer to refer to it as a citizen investor. Every dollar you spend, you're investing in that system. If you're using your money to spend products on a brand that is known to use sweatshops, you're investing on those sweatshops. That money is funding that system. If you want to fund a different system, you have to fund that system. That's the only way it's going to change unless there's some sort of a massive revolution, which if somebody wants to do it, great. But, in the meantime, we have to have other solutions in the works.
"I take every single thing that I make personally. If something falls apart or has a flaw, it's not easy to deal with that. It takes a toll on the perception of the brand and how it represents veganism. That's why I get so upset at non-vegan brands that run a vegan product and then they make it with really crappy materials and it falls apart. now you have a huge chunk of the population who, maybe that was the very first vegan product that they ever bought, are now thinking all vegan products are cheaply made and quickly fall apart. It's difficult because you want those shifts to happen, but you want them to be done well."
You mentioned that veganism tends to be seen as more in the realm of the feminine, so how does a predominantly menswear brand work its way around marketing as vegan, while still catering to a mostly male customer base?
I think there are a lot of stereotypes and preconceived notions about what veganism means in the food realm, what it means in the fashion realm, as well as what it means as far as to men who are vegan. I think the traditional understanding was if you're a man who is vegan, it is assumed that you are sacrificing both pleasure and strength. If it's fashion, the stereotype is that it's cheap, crappy materials that are going to fall apart, hippie designs, and it is not how we define quality, luxury, and performance. In the realm of food, it's seen as an anemic regimen for martyrs who are giving up all the pleasures in life.
Fighting against these stereotypes has to be done in every angle, and that means that there has to be amazing restaurants, chefs, and food companies, which are happening, and this is where the shift is most visible. And it has to happen in fashion, too. I have to make a garment that outperforms a traditional garment. That pressure for me to do that is there. I take every single thing that I make personally. If something falls apart or has a flaw, it's not easy to deal with that. It takes a toll on the perception of the brand and how it represents veganism. That's why I get so upset at non-vegan brands that run a vegan product and they market it as vegan, and they know they're just doing it to make a buck on the vegan community, and then they make it with really crappy materials and it falls apart. Now you have a huge chunk of the population who, maybe that was the very first vegan product that they ever bought, are now thinking all vegan products are cheaply made and quickly fall apart. It's difficult because you want those shifts to happen, but you want them to be done well.
In the world of what is considered masculine, mostly in America, that has to do something with athletics. There are documentaries that are out now like From the Ground Up and The Game Changers, which are about the highest performing, elite, athletes who are living on a plant-based diet. They are fighters, Olympic weightlifters — people who are traditionally defined as masculine and providing that to the majority of our population who identify as male or masculine as irrefutable evidence, is valuable. I see Brave Gentleman in a similar way, trying to prove those points and to back it up with product that are actually high quality.
With the recent announcements of high-end luxury brands like Gucci, Versace, Michael Kors, and Tom Ford to discontinue the use of fur, with some even going as far as saying fur is outdated, do you feel optimistic about fashion moving towards a more cruelty-free direction?
I'll take it. If a major fashion company brand wants to go fur-free, that is a victory.
To me, that means a couple things: the technology to make faux fur has gotten so good, that the use of animal-derived fur is superfluous. It's unnecessary. Or it means that they have awoken to the reality of what happens to animals and they're finally starting to care about it. I believe that less (laughs) because it always comes down to a financial decision. It could also mean that activism was effective. Michael Kors went fur-free just months after he was rushed on a stage by a group of anti-fur activists, who had images of animals being skinned in fur farms and were screaming at him. I understand that rage and I'm not going to say that that was bad that they did that. Sure, it's not good manners. But do we have to have good manners when we're fighting for lives, when there are bodies at stake? I think sometimes you have to be loud, and you have to push people's buttons. Maybe I'm not fully in a position where I can do that myself, but I fully support people doing that.
"If you fall in love with a garment because of how it looks, and then find out how it's made, and the beauty of that garment is in line with the beauty of how it was made, that's something that is kind of poetic. In the same way that we're putting our bodies with food, what we're putting on our bodies as clothes, can really define who we are. It has to be more than just aesthetics. Something can't just look good. It also has to do good."
Would you say that Brave Gentleman is your form of activism in a way?
Absolutely. Brave Gentleman is activism for me. I didn't get into fashion just because I love fashion, but because I saw that fashion is about identity. It is so embedded into the fabric of our culture (no pun intended), that we almost don't even see it. People think that you're into fashion, it means you're dressing in wild ways, and that you're going to fashion week, and being 'fabulous.' But anybody who wears clothes is involved in the fashion system. Even if it's secondhand or vintage, all of it is part of the fashion industrial complex. I see Brave Gentleman as a tool to affect change and to influence how a person plays around with their identity. If you fall in love with a garment because of how it looks, and then find out how it's made, and the beauty of that garment is in line with the beauty of how it was made, that's something that is kind of poetic. If that resonates with you, and you're wearing it, then it becomes a part of you, and it becomes part of your identity. In the same way that we're putting our bodies with food, what we're putting on our bodies as clothes, can really define who we are. If it's in line with who you are — and not just from an aesthetic standpoint — I think that's really the next step in the evolution of the fashion industry. It has to be more than just aesthetics. Something can't just look good. It also has to do good.
Speaking of the future of fashion, what kind of technology have you seen are you most excited about?
Biofabrication, for sure. I think within the next 10 years, we're going to start seeing biofabricated leather, biofabricated silk — any protein-based fiber that comes from an animal is going to be replicated through synthesis in a laboratory and will be able to be scaled up and customized infinitely and is going to be far more sustainable and far more ethical. I think this is going to be the next Industrial Revolution.
Do you think people are ready and are willing to accept that kind of production?
I don't think they have to. I think that this is something that can happen in the back end and something that is not required for the customer to notice. Sure, at first, as with any new technology, it might be marketed to get those early adopters to invest in it, but once it hits scale, and you're just buying your silk tie, you don't care whether that silk was grown out of a laboratory or whether it came out of a silkworm's butt. It's not going to matter because you just want a silk tie. If it's indistinguishable and biologically identical, then you wouldn't even have to think about it. While I would love every single person out there shopping to be reading labels and to be making those ethical decisions while they're shopping, it's just not going to happen. So, those decisions need to be made at the back end by people in positions of leverage and pivotal positions that can make those changes happen. Legislators, innovators, scientists, producers — that's where the changes are really going to happen. If I had photos of the animals in factory farms up in my store, nobody would come in here. That's not the kind of images that you want to see while you're shopping. Let me make those decisions. You can just come in here knowing no animals were hurt, and I'm not going to show you scary pictures, I'm not going to lecture you about it (unless you want to genuinely have a conversation about it), just shop and have fun, and know that I have already made those ethical decisions for you.
My last question is what's next for Joshua Katcher?
Well, my husband is begging me not to go into politics but I have to admit, it's very tempting. I think that there is a real lack of respect for fashion on Capitol Hill. I think fashion is seen among politicians and among most people as silly and frivolous and counter to what we consider cerebral, or worthy of legislation and attention. There are a few laws on the books that are about ethical fashion, but I want to work on legislation that protect animals in the fashion industry. I want to work on legislation that protects the environment and the people who work in the fashion industry, too. So, whether that means I'm consulting with politicians, which is something I've started doing, or whether it means I end up running for office at some point in order to accomplish this goal, I don't know.
Well, I guess we'll all just have to stay tuned..