What's vegan, you ask? Veganism is the practice of not eating meat, fish, eggs or dairy products - anything from an animal. And most people who follow the practice - who are known vegans - typically shun clothing made from animal byproducts, including leather, wool, cashmere, suede, shearling, down, silk and fur because they believe the animals are treated inhumanely.
"Veganism is more than what you eat, it is a personal philosophy of living a life of compassion toward all living beings," Burr said. "Sure, it takes a little extra thought and effort. But as my mother has always said, anything worth doing is worth doing well."
Burr, who hasn't eaten red meat in 25 years, decided to go vegan roughly a year-and-a-half ago after reading about what she considered to be cruel treatment of animals in the dairy industry. She rid her closet of all animal byproducts; however, she hasn't replaced her sophisticated style of dress with tie-dye and peace beads.
Because there are so many cruelty-free options, vegans can make a statement without altering their personal style, said Burr, who helps clients best present themselves through their clothing and makeup choices.
"I think people have this idea that if you went vegan, you'd have to look like a hippie with boiled hemp socks," said Jo Tyler, a Newburyport resident who is a vegan. "My dad became a vegetarian in the '70s and he said all he could find (to wear) was hemp belts that looked like they were made right out of the forest. It's not like that anymore. A lot of my friends are surprised to learn that I'm a vegan because I don't look any different than them."
If you're thinking about taking your wardrobe cruelty-free, spring is a good time because stores are flooded with lightweight clothing made from alternative materials, said Burr.
"The warmer weather is always easier because you do not have to deal with wool, suede, cashmere, etc. There is much more cotton, linen, rayon, Lycra and man-made fibers - and that's really true this spring," she said. "It's so easy to find vegan clothes everywhere this season. In fact, non-vegans will be dressing vegan this spring and won't even know it."
So how do you find cruelty-free clothing?
"It really is as simple as reading labels," Tyler said. "You don't have to have lower your expectations at all. You really can find cute things at major department stores. It's pretty easy to find vegan clothes, but shoes are always a challenge. Oddly, it's harder to find vegan shoes than a vegan meal in a grocery store."
Groveland vegan Heidi Vega Cavanaugh said in general, it's harder to shop for her vegan boyfriend than for herself, most likely because there tend to be more options for female shoppers. While she might find a man's belt made of canvas, it usually is connected to the buckle by a small piece of leather. Such accents of animal by-product have become a personal pet peeve.
"You'll find some nice flip-flops and the sole will have a thin, suede lining," Cavanaugh said. "Do you really need that extra little detail to be a source of cruelty? Why does a bag need tassel of fur? It's so pointless to me."
Both Tyler and Cavanaugh do still wear a few items that include animal products they purchased before they went vegan. That approach, say vegans like Burr, is in keeping with the community's practice of encouraging individuals to do what they're able to do, when they can.
"Some vegans feel comfortable wearing wool or leather, for instance, that they find secondhand or that they owned from before they went vegan. No new life was lost to produce those articles of clothing so it is basically a form of recycling," Burr said.
Burr also noted it's not always practical or financially possible to replace an entire wardrobe at once.
"Rarely do people do it overnight. It's usually more of a process - say a year as you go through each season and discard and replace items," Burr said. "I like to look at it as an adventure instead of a hindrance."
Of polyvinyl and pleather and polyester
Cruelty-free fashion is gaining some traction at the top of the fashion food chain. Major labels like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and J.Crew all pledge to not use fur; designer Marc Bouwer refuses to use fur, leather and wool. And Stella McCartney remains the captain of the cruelty-free fashion movement, as all her productions - including her high-end synthetic shoes - are free of animal by-products, said Michael McGraw, spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, better known as PETA.
"I think you can see it at places like (retail chain) H&M;, where they produce a very fashion-forward line using very little wool and no fur. We're beginning to see a trickle-down effect from high fashion to ready-to-wear lines," McGraw said.
There were an estimated 4.8 million vegetarians living in the United States in 2006, of which a third to a half were vegan. This number has jumped from approximately 2 million vegetarians in 1998, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group.
"In society 20 years ago, vegetarians were nothing but small co-ops focused on the vegetarian lifestyle," said Susan Nichole, a vegan handbag designer who previously lived in Amesbury and is now based in California. "But I've seen, as the years have gone by, there are now many more options for vegetarians in the grocery stores, in restaurants. That's now just starting to happen in the fashion industry, but it is a slow process and will take a long time."
The vegan fashion movement still has a way to go before the trickle turns into a downpour, said Marc Delaney, founder of the Salem Vegan Society in Salem, Mass.
Ken Perkins, a national retail analyst with Retail Metrics LLC in Swampscott, didn't know of any research on the trend, nor did spokesmen from the National Retail Federation or the NPD Group, a national retail marketing research company. And there are really just a few exclusively vegan online retailers and shops, Delaney noted.
"It's pretty comical trying to buy belts or shoes online," he said.
So where to go? Delaney noted that Whole Foods Market in Swampscott is becoming more of a general store for those choosing alternative products, as is Wild Oats Marketplace in Andover. Burr has found vegan-friendly clothing at Michael's of Main Street in Salem, N.H., and Skate Skins in Swampscott.
McGraw said shoe shoppers can find trendy, synthetic shoes at major chains like Payless and Target or fur-free clothing at the youthful retailer Forever 21. And should winter give us one final push, Lands' End offers faux shearling and faux suede items, said Helen Rayshick, cofounder of the Massachusetts Animal Rights Coalition.
Rayshick noted shoppers should be weary of faux fur labels on items less than $150, however. In a recent investigation by the Humane Society of the United States, 96 percent of fur-trimmed jackets that were either not labeled or labeled as faux were actually made using the fur of dogs and wolves.
"It's the one time that the label might not be a good indication," Rayshick said. "But that does give you an idea of how many people want to wear cruelty-free clothes - fur sellers are hiding what they're actually selling. That would not have happened five years ago. They would have touted the fact that it was real fur."
What to wear this spring
Whether you are vegan or not, there's one trend you should know about for next season: The dress is back.
"Dresses haven't been big since the late '80s and early '90s," said North of Boston image consultant Ginger Burr. "The style is a mix of '60s, '70s and '80s influence. But there are a lot of choices in styles this season."
What else is big for spring?
* Black-and-white combinations
* Bright, clean colors
* Flowing and pencil skirts
* Floral patterns
* Tunic tops with leggings
* Wedge sandals
* Wide-legged pants
* Massachusetts Animal Rights Coalition, massanimalrights.org
* People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, peta.org
* Salem Vegan Society, salemvegan.org
* Total Image Consultants, totalimageconsultants.com/veganlinks.html
* Vegan Essentials, veganessentials.com
* Pangea Vegan Products, veganstore.com
Susan Nichole, a vegan handbag designer formerly of Amesbury, uses a synthetic material called PU that's made of rayon and linen and polyurethane that looks like a very soft leather. It's so real looking, she's even fooled some tried-and-true experts.
"I do sell to leather stores. Even though I tell them it's PU, they seem to believe it's real leather," Nichole said. "If I can get into a leather store and give someone the option to buy my bag over a real leather product, I say 'Hurrah for us,' that's a huge step."
The Waltham-based company has experienced such success with its vegan shoe line that it is ramping up its apparel department to launch a new line down the road. Easing that process is the increasing number of manufacturers producing alternative fabrics that weren't available in the recent past..
"They are working with all different types of materials like bamboo, hemp, soy, coconut, shells, pineapple and the like," said Laurie Doxer, brand manager for Earth's clothing segment. "Using cruelty-free materials in apparel is important in regard to not only sustaining the planet, but also contributing to reduced pollution and erosion of the environment and in promoting the awareness that harming or killing animals is no longer a necessity to wear luxurious, stylish clothing."
When North of Boston bag designer Cathy Berse-Hurley chose to work with vinyl more than 10 years ago, it was because the synthetic was easy to clean and came in fun, bright colors - not because it was a cruelty-free material.
Her line of backpack, bags and T-shirts called Little Packrats has grown - in part because of vegan shoppers - over the years, but all the production work for the company is still done in Massachusetts, with the dye-cutting done in Haverhill and screen printing in Lowell. And now her bags are catching the attention of even major grocery stores looking to offer alternative products.
"I've sold to people because of the vegan materials more recently than when we started," Berse-Hurley said. "I just came back from the New York Gift Show and there were several buyers looking for vegan or alternative products. It's like the '60s all over again; people are looking for recycled products in different areas of their lives."