SHE WAS A STRAY, TRYING TO SURVIVE in the streets of 1950’s Moscow. She couldn’t have known that her motherland, the Soviet Union, was in a mad race to be the first to put a man in space. But first, they needed a dog. And so Laika, as she was named— the most common name one could give to a dog (“barker”, it meant)— was plucked off the street one night. She was a good dog, with a sweet disposition, obediently complying with the rigorous training of the space exploration program. And here is the duplicity of the situation: the lead scientist, Oleg Gazenko, developed a bond with her, even fighting for a window to be installed in her tiny space shuttle. The day of the launch of Sputnik II came in 1957, and after Laika was strapped in, he remained by her side on the platform. He knew she was doomed— the shuttle was designed to not be retrievable. He knew her death would be agonizing, a result of stress and overheating. Many years later he would recall how he walked past the post-launch reception and out into the nearby forest, where he cried. “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it…. We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog,” he said in a public statement in the late 1990’s, after the Soviet Union was no more.

Regret is a running theme in Maximum Tolerated Dose—the first feature length documentary on animal testing. Part of the story is told through revealing testimonials of vivisectors who had a crisis of conscience at one point during their research— like the cardiologist, who finally made the connection between the dogs he was experimenting on for work and his beloved pet dogs at home; or the lab worker who bonded with the rats from her lab. They made the decision to walk away from animal testing forever, unable to compartmentalize their inherent compassion any longer.

The film is beautifully made—in spite of the harrowing subject matter it covers. A lot is inferred through sounds off-camera, first-person accounts, and footage of animals post-research. One such animal is Darla, a profoundly traumatized monkey, who is retired to a sanctuary after nearly two decades of being experimented on. There are scenes that pierce one’s soul: like the capture of a macaque from the wild, who is pulled from a tree with methodical precision, and restrained— arms bound behind his back as though under arrest. The look of desperation and confusion on the animal’s face devastates. Director Karol Orzechowski surrendered completely to the film, diving deep into the murky waters of animal testing. He ended up battling depression for a few months, as a result of the grueling filmmaking experience and the demanding schedule that followed the film’s release. “Hopelessness is a real feeling, and I empathize with anyone who ends up in that kind of thinking,” he told us, when we spoke to him recently about the film. “But I really think nothing is ever 100% hopeless. As long as someone is still out there working towards the same goal as you, you are two.” Although deeply shaken by the realities of vivisection, we left the film armed with a wealth of new information and a resolve to bring this practice to an end. Here, we talk to Karol more about Maximum Tolerated Dose and the plight of animals in testing.

What prompted you to make this film?
Back in 2010 I interviewed former research cardiologist Dr. John Pippin and a former commercial lab worker named Isabelle, and during those interviews, I realized that the experience of working in a laboratory and being traumatized by it was perhaps more common than we realize. Around the same time, I was fortunate enough to meet some chimpanzees who were used for decades in laboratory research, and their stories – their traumas, their healing, and their perseverance – deeply affected me. I was already involved in animal work, and filmmaking, so it made sense to combine the two in a larger project. Through those interviews and meetings, the subject matter pretty much just found me.

Karol shooting from inside of a chimpanzee “metabolism cage.” Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur

How important was artistry and production value during the filmmaking process?
That was one of my main goals: I wanted to make something that was a good documentary film first, and a piece of activism second. It was strategic, but it was mostly a function of how I think of art and of myself as an artist. There is already a huge amount of video out there that covers virtually all aspects of animal exploitation, and it serves a particular activist purpose. I’ve done a bunch of that stuff, and will in the future. But I think we don’t have a lot of films that explore animal issues in a way that doesn’t betray the aesthetic aspect. MTD is really my humble attempt to create a good film that also explores an issue that I feel strongly about. I’m not sure if I succeeded in rising to the level of a cinematic work, but I tried my best. And I think in striving for that goal, I also created something that has the potential to have a deep effect on the viewer.

Tell us a little more about Darla.
Meeting Darla for the first time was one of the moments that inspired making the film. Darla lives at Fauna Foundation in Montreal, and I first met her in 2010 on my first visit there. I was able to build a relationship with the Fauna folks, to the point where they allowed me to include Darla in the film, and to return to the sanctuary to film her and interview staff there about her story. Meeting her those times deeply affected me… and just a few months before filming Darla’s story, I was visiting monkey farms in SE Asia, either the same places or similar to the kind of place that Darla would have come from. The juxtaposition of those two aspects of the production were really difficult to stomach, because it gave that much more weight to her life story.

To put it in blunter terms: Darla is a beautiful, strong, and severely damaged individual. She was used for 17 years in a laboratory before being sent to sanctuary, and even though her life now is infinitely better than it once was (she has monkey companions at the sanctuary, access to a large space outside, comfort and care from the human staff, and much more), she will likely never fully recover emotionally from her time in the lab. Fauna is an amazing place, and the fact that they have given Darla and many other space is a beautiful thing. The labs that send animals to the sanctuary are not required to divulge any information about what they were used for. What we do know is that Darla was used at Queen’s University, and that she may have actually lived at two facilities because she has two tattoo numbers. In her time as an university lab test subject, she was used in tests related to menstruation (where her uterus was removed), and later anorexia experiments where she was starved for periods of time. We only know this through the tearful confessions of what the researcher who adopted her out to Fauna Foundation said during a couple of visits after Darla’s “retirement.”

Watching her in the film really illustrated the scope of an animal’s life in vivisection, beyond the experiments. Was that intentional?
Particular tests or procedures, and even the moments of death, are just a sliver of the entirety of animals’ lives in the lab. I’d like to see more of a discussion of the “true costs” of keeping animals in labs for their whole lives, not just what we do to them in a particular test. Monkeys trapped in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand end up on farms, where they are bred for years and eventually exported to China and Vietnam. From there they are “laundered” to bend international species trade regulations, and then exported to labs all over the world. Farms in Laos are the midway point between when monkeys are trapped, and when they are actually exported. So in many cases, a macaque in a lab may have, at some point, been living in the wild, trapped, and used for breeding for years before being used for many more years as experiment subjects.

A monkey farm in Laos. Photo by Karol Orzechowski

You mention The Foundation for Biomedical Research on the film’s site. Can you explain what that is, and why it’s important for activists to be aware of these types of groups?
Ah yes, “The Foundation.” I learned about The Foundation for Biomedical Research a few years ago, and it’s always fascinated me. Essentially, it’s a PR group / Lobby group that serves as a propaganda arm of the various biomedical research industries in the US (and I suppose, by extension, the world). Does it have a real influence? That’s hard to say, because it’s hard to know what kind of budget they’re working with for their efforts. But, they are definitely out there, trying to spin animal testing in a positive way. They also have a feature film in production by their media arm, FBR Media, called Uncaged. The trailer is actually kind of comical, in the way that it blends big titles that say BLACK PLAGUE with a shot of THE ONE SCIENTIST WHO CAN SAVE US, mixed with shots of fighter jets, mixed with shots of healthy looking lab mice with DNA diagrams floating in the background. But regardless of how comical or easy to deconstruct we may find their work, I think it’s really important that we engage with it, and regularly. The FBR is one example of the type stuff that is out there, that may or may not be consumed by the general public, and that we need to know how to counter. How can we counter it if we don’t know what they’re saying?

So are you seeing reasons for hope?
I think there is much to be hopeful for. There are lots of groups all over the world working really hard, using a wide variety of approaches, to bring about an end to vivisection. As a movement, we’re also fortunate that there are a whole slew of scientists (some of whom aren’t motivated by animal welfare, but by scientific efficiency and accuracy) who are working on research alternatives that will help in that fight too. Activism on this issue is extremely varied and becoming more and more prevalent. What’s more, I think research institutions and governments are also starting to recognize that the tide of public opinion is shifting, and rather than fight it, they are moving with it. That is a very good thing.

Rita, rescued from a laboratory dog breeding facility in Spain. Photo by Karol Orzechowski

Maximum Tolerated Dose is currently being screened in select cities. And this summer, it will also be the shown during a ground-breaking animal rights tour called Open The Cages. Traveling along the East Coast of the United States and Canada, it will make stops in 16 cities— each chosen specifically due to their proximity to laboratory facilities that test on animals such as primates, mice, rabbits, beagles and other dogs, as well as cats, guinea pigs and rats. Every stop will include protests at the facilities, workshops on animal rights and activism, as well as music performances. For tour founder and long-time activist Mike XVX this was an intentional method of connecting people to a social justice movement like this one. “My big catalyst for breaking into Animal Rights was through the music I listened to. I grew up in the punk scene in Southern California and I was greatly influenced by the lyrics of the bands I’d go and see on the weekend,” he explained when we spoke to him recently about the tour. “Everyone has that big ‘A-ha!’ moment at different times in their lives… it’s very difficult to discern when individuals will reach that point, but this tour is essentially a platform that allows those moments to happen.” One of the goals of the tour is to jumpstart the grassroots movement across North America, he explained. After witnessing some disheartening infighting within the animal rights community, Mike is determined to show that “we are much stronger fighting together than fighting separately,” he said.

A demonstration at Oregon National Primate Research Center. Photo by Jennifer Bundock

OTC already proved this during its West Coast tour in the Summer of 2012. A multitude of artists, activists, and musicians successfully came together to educate, inspire and motivate each other, and the communities in the cities they visited. The tour helped reenergize local anti-vivisection campaigns, and is aiming to make similar strides in 2013. “We need to be out there (not just on the internet!) meeting people, building connections, and sharing ideas on how we can push forward. We can’t forget that the lives of animals hang in the balance of our willingness and ability to cooperate with each other,” Mike explained. With the ultimate goal being the abolition of animal testing and all animal exploitation, “We’re in this for the animals and the animals only,” he emphasized.

The forthright activism of initiatives like Open The Cages, honest artistic statements like Maximum Tolerated Dose, and the shifting attitudes towards animal testing not only within the public, but the scientific community itself— give substantial reason to believe that an end to vivisection is not only achievable, but with our collective influence, closer than we even think. “Every research institution and commercial lab and ethics oversight committee worth their salt espouses something called the “3 Rs” of animal experimentation: Refinement, Reduction, and Replacement. This is something that the animal experimentation industries themselves are saying,” says Karol. “The idea that vivisection should and will be phased out, is already recognized by the industry. This should be encouraging, and should motivate us to push even harder, in as many ways as we can think of.”

An effective way to make a difference right now is to simply not support the companies that test on animals. We’ve put together an abbreviated list of resources below, and we also highly encourage our readers to research the topic on their own. And together, we can change the plight of animals like Laika and so many others, and turn We shouldn’t have done it into We’ve stopped doing it for good.

Resources on cruelty-free options:
+ Leaping Bunny
+ Go Cruelty Free
+ A list of cosmetics companies that DON’T test on animals
+ Another comprehensive list of companies that DON’T test on animals, including cosmetics, self-care and household products

General resources on animal testing:
+ A comprehensive list from Maximum Tolerated Dose
+ PCRM and their program Humane Seal

Major corporations that DO test on animals:
+ Unilever
(Dove, Lipton, Skippy, Ben and Jerry’s, AXE)
+ Proctor & Gamble
(Tide, Bounty, Tampax, Gilette)
+ Johnson & Johnson
(Band-Aid, Listerine, Splenda, Neutrogena, Aveeno, Tylenol, Motrin, Stayfree, K-Y)
+ S.C. Johnson
(Drano, Glade, Pledge, Shout, Skintimate, Ziploc)
+ Reckitt Benckiser
(Lysol, Resolve)

List of companion food companies that DO test:
+ Iams Cruelty

Major pharmaceutical companies that DO test on animals:
+ Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.
+ Merck
+ Novartis
+ Pfizer

 

Laika illustration by Meera Lee Patel for Laika Magazine

Written by Julie Gueraseva

 

SHE WAS A STRAY, TRYING TO SURVIVE in the streets of 1950’s Moscow. She couldn’t have known that her motherland, the Soviet Union, was in a mad race to be the first to put a man in space. But first, they needed a dog. And so Laika, as she was named— the most common name one could give to a dog (“barker”, it meant)— was plucked off the street one night. She was a good dog, with a sweet disposition, obediently complying with the rigorous training of the space exploration program. And here is the duplicity of the situation: the lead scientist, Oleg Gazenko, developed a bond with her, even fighting for a window to be installed in her tiny space shuttle. The day of the launch of Sputnik II came in 1957, and after Laika was strapped in, he remained by her side on the platform. He knew she was doomed— the shuttle was designed to not be retrievable. He knew her death would be agonizing, a result of stress and overheating. Many years later he would recall how he walked past the post-launch reception and out into the nearby forest, where he cried. “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it…. We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog,” he said in a public statement in the late 1990’s, after the Soviet Union was no more.

Regret is a running theme in Maximum Tolerated Dose—the first feature length documentary on animal testing. Part of the story is told through revealing testimonials of vivisectors who had a crisis of conscience at one point during their research— like the cardiologist, who finally made the connection between the dogs he was experimenting on for work and his beloved pet dogs at home; or the lab worker who bonded with the rats from her lab. They made the decision to walk away from animal testing forever, unable to compartmentalize their inherent compassion any longer.

The film is beautifully made—in spite of the harrowing subject matter it covers. A lot is inferred through sounds off-camera, first-person accounts, and footage of animals post-research. One such animal is Darla, a profoundly traumatized monkey, who is retired to a sanctuary after nearly two decades of being experimented on. There are scenes that pierce one’s soul: like the capture of a macaque from the wild, who is pulled from a tree with methodical precision, and restrained— arms bound behind his back as though under arrest. The look of desperation and confusion on the animal’s face devastates. Director Karol Orzechowski surrendered completely to the film, diving deep into the murky waters of animal testing. He ended up battling depression for a few months, as a result of the grueling filmmaking experience and the demanding schedule that followed the film’s release. “Hopelessness is a real feeling, and I empathize with anyone who ends up in that kind of thinking,” he told us, when we spoke to him recently about the film. “But I really think nothing is ever 100% hopeless. As long as someone is still out there working towards the same goal as you, you are two.” Although deeply shaken by the realities of vivisection, we left the film armed with a wealth of new information and a resolve to bring this practice to an end. Here, we talk to Karol more about Maximum Tolerated Dose and the plight of animals in testing.

What prompted you to make this film?
Back in 2010 I interviewed former research cardiologist Dr. John Pippin and a former commercial lab worker named Isabelle, and during those interviews, I realized that the experience of working in a laboratory and being traumatized by it was perhaps more common than we realize. Around the same time, I was fortunate enough to meet some chimpanzees who were used for decades in laboratory research, and their stories – their traumas, their healing, and their perseverance – deeply affected me. I was already involved in animal work, and filmmaking, so it made sense to combine the two in a larger project. Through those interviews and meetings, the subject matter pretty much just found me.

Karol shooting from inside of a chimpanzee “metabolism cage.” Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur

How important was artistry and production value during the filmmaking process?
That was one of my main goals: I wanted to make something that was a good documentary film first, and a piece of activism second. It was strategic, but it was mostly a function of how I think of art and of myself as an artist. There is already a huge amount of video out there that covers virtually all aspects of animal exploitation, and it serves a particular activist purpose. I’ve done a bunch of that stuff, and will in the future. But I think we don’t have a lot of films that explore animal issues in a way that doesn’t betray the aesthetic aspect. MTD is really my humble attempt to create a good film that also explores an issue that I feel strongly about. I’m not sure if I succeeded in rising to the level of a cinematic work, but I tried my best. And I think in striving for that goal, I also created something that has the potential to have a deep effect on the viewer.

Tell us a little more about Darla.
Meeting Darla for the first time was one of the moments that inspired making the film. Darla lives at Fauna Foundation in Montreal, and I first met her in 2010 on my first visit there. I was able to build a relationship with the Fauna folks, to the point where they allowed me to include Darla in the film, and to return to the sanctuary to film her and interview staff there about her story. Meeting her those times deeply affected me… and just a few months before filming Darla’s story, I was visiting monkey farms in SE Asia, either the same places or similar to the kind of place that Darla would have come from. The juxtaposition of those two aspects of the production were really difficult to stomach, because it gave that much more weight to her life story.

To put it in blunter terms: Darla is a beautiful, strong, and severely damaged individual. She was used for 17 years in a laboratory before being sent to sanctuary, and even though her life now is infinitely better than it once was (she has monkey companions at the sanctuary, access to a large space outside, comfort and care from the human staff, and much more), she will likely never fully recover emotionally from her time in the lab. Fauna is an amazing place, and the fact that they have given Darla and many other space is a beautiful thing. The labs that send animals to the sanctuary are not required to divulge any information about what they were used for. What we do know is that Darla was used at Queen’s University, and that she may have actually lived at two facilities because she has two tattoo numbers. In her time as an university lab test subject, she was used in tests related to menstruation (where her uterus was removed), and later anorexia experiments where she was starved for periods of time. We only know this through the tearful confessions of what the researcher who adopted her out to Fauna Foundation said during a couple of visits after Darla’s “retirement.”

Watching her in the film really illustrated the scope of an animal’s life in vivisection, beyond the experiments. Was that intentional?
Particular tests or procedures, and even the moments of death, are just a sliver of the entirety of animals’ lives in the lab. I’d like to see more of a discussion of the “true costs” of keeping animals in labs for their whole lives, not just what we do to them in a particular test. Monkeys trapped in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand end up on farms, where they are bred for years and eventually exported to China and Vietnam. From there they are “laundered” to bend international species trade regulations, and then exported to labs all over the world. Farms in Laos are the midway point between when monkeys are trapped, and when they are actually exported. So in many cases, a macaque in a lab may have, at some point, been living in the wild, trapped, and used for breeding for years before being used for many more years as experiment subjects.

A monkey farm in Laos. Photo by Karol Orzechowski

You mention The Foundation for Biomedical Research on the film’s site. Can you explain what that is, and why it’s important for activists to be aware of these types of groups?
Ah yes, “The Foundation.” I learned about The Foundation for Biomedical Research a few years ago, and it’s always fascinated me. Essentially, it’s a PR group / Lobby group that serves as a propaganda arm of the various biomedical research industries in the US (and I suppose, by extension, the world). Does it have a real influence? That’s hard to say, because it’s hard to know what kind of budget they’re working with for their efforts. But, they are definitely out there, trying to spin animal testing in a positive way. They also have a feature film in production by their media arm, FBR Media, called Uncaged. The trailer is actually kind of comical, in the way that it blends big titles that say BLACK PLAGUE with a shot of THE ONE SCIENTIST WHO CAN SAVE US, mixed with shots of fighter jets, mixed with shots of healthy looking lab mice with DNA diagrams floating in the background. But regardless of how comical or easy to deconstruct we may find their work, I think it’s really important that we engage with it, and regularly. The FBR is one example of the type stuff that is out there, that may or may not be consumed by the general public, and that we need to know how to counter. How can we counter it if we don’t know what they’re saying?

So are you seeing reasons for hope?
I think there is much to be hopeful for. There are lots of groups all over the world working really hard, using a wide variety of approaches, to bring about an end to vivisection. As a movement, we’re also fortunate that there are a whole slew of scientists (some of whom aren’t motivated by animal welfare, but by scientific efficiency and accuracy) who are working on research alternatives that will help in that fight too. Activism on this issue is extremely varied and becoming more and more prevalent. What’s more, I think research institutions and governments are also starting to recognize that the tide of public opinion is shifting, and rather than fight it, they are moving with it. That is a very good thing.

Rita, rescued from a laboratory dog breeding facility in Spain. Photo by Karol Orzechowski

Maximum Tolerated Dose is currently being screened in select cities. And this summer, it will also be the shown during a ground-breaking animal rights tour called Open The Cages. Traveling along the East Coast of the United States and Canada, it will make stops in 16 cities— each chosen specifically due to their proximity to laboratory facilities that test on animals such as primates, mice, rabbits, beagles and other dogs, as well as cats, guinea pigs and rats. Every stop will include protests at the facilities, workshops on animal rights and activism, as well as music performances. For tour founder and long-time activist Mike XVX this was an intentional method of connecting people to a social justice movement like this one. “My big catalyst for breaking into Animal Rights was through the music I listened to. I grew up in the punk scene in Southern California and I was greatly influenced by the lyrics of the bands I’d go and see on the weekend,” he explained when we spoke to him recently about the tour. “Everyone has that big ‘A-ha!’ moment at different times in their lives… it’s very difficult to discern when individuals will reach that point, but this tour is essentially a platform that allows those moments to happen.” One of the goals of the tour is to jumpstart the grassroots movement across North America, he explained. After witnessing some disheartening infighting within the animal rights community, Mike is determined to show that “we are much stronger fighting together than fighting separately,” he said.

A demonstration at Oregon National Primate Research Center. Photo by Jennifer Bundock

OTC already proved this during its West Coast tour in the Summer of 2012. A multitude of artists, activists, and musicians successfully came together to educate, inspire and motivate each other, and the communities in the cities they visited. The tour helped reenergize local anti-vivisection campaigns, and is aiming to make similar strides in 2013. “We need to be out there (not just on the internet!) meeting people, building connections, and sharing ideas on how we can push forward. We can’t forget that the lives of animals hang in the balance of our willingness and ability to cooperate with each other,” Mike explained. With the ultimate goal being the abolition of animal testing and all animal exploitation, “We’re in this for the animals and the animals only,” he emphasized.

The forthright activism of initiatives like Open The Cages, honest artistic statements like Maximum Tolerated Dose, and the shifting attitudes towards animal testing not only within the public, but the scientific community itself— give substantial reason to believe that an end to vivisection is not only achievable, but with our collective influence, closer than we even think. “Every research institution and commercial lab and ethics oversight committee worth their salt espouses something called the “3 Rs” of animal experimentation: Refinement, Reduction, and Replacement. This is something that the animal experimentation industries themselves are saying,” says Karol. “The idea that vivisection should and will be phased out, is already recognized by the industry. This should be encouraging, and should motivate us to push even harder, in as many ways as we can think of.”

An effective way to make a difference right now is to simply not support the companies that test on animals. We’ve put together an abbreviated list of resources below, and we also highly encourage our readers to research the topic on their own. And together, we can change the plight of animals like Laika and so many others, and turn We shouldn’t have done it into We’ve stopped doing it for good.

Resources on cruelty-free options:
+ Leaping Bunny
+ Go Cruelty Free
+ A list of cosmetics companies that DON’T test on animals
+ Another comprehensive list of companies that DON’T test on animals, including cosmetics, self-care and household products

General resources on animal testing:
+ A comprehensive list from Maximum Tolerated Dose
+ PCRM and their program Humane Seal

Major corporations that DO test on animals:
+ Unilever
(Dove, Lipton, Skippy, Ben and Jerry’s, AXE)
+ Proctor & Gamble
(Tide, Bounty, Tampax, Gilette)
+ Johnson & Johnson
(Band-Aid, Listerine, Splenda, Neutrogena, Aveeno, Tylenol, Motrin, Stayfree, K-Y)
+ S.C. Johnson
(Drano, Glade, Pledge, Shout, Skintimate, Ziploc)
+ Reckitt Benckiser
(Lysol, Resolve)

List of companion food companies that DO test:
+ Iams Cruelty

Major pharmaceutical companies that DO test on animals:
+ Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.
+ Merck
+ Novartis
+ Pfizer

 

Laika illustration by Meera Lee Patel for Laika Magazine

Written by Julie Gueraseva

 

MEN’S FOOTWEAR TOOK A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION during Fashion Week, thanks to the outstanding footwear collection from Brave GentleMan. Worn by the models during VAUTE’s Autumn/Winter ‘13 Presentation, the shoes were immediately eye-catching, tying each look together crisply. There was an impressive range of boots, oxfords and saddle shoes in sophisticated hues, each offering a new take on classic silhouettes. Demonstrating a high degree of craftsmanship, design and versatility, the line of footwear also gave men of style something to feel good about: the collection was entirely vegan, sustainable and made under fair labor conditions. If shoes make the man, these undoubtedly would make you an even better one. “Ecologically, they are far superior to traditional leather in that they were not tanned in a chemical bath, they are naturally water-resistant, and they are not products of the livestock industry which has a staggering effect on water resources, topsoil erosion, GHG emissions, and grain and petrol consumption,” Joshua Katcher, the designer behind the line, explained to us when we visited him in his studio last week.

Brave GentleMan during the VAUTE NYFW presentation

The line is a collaboration with another vegan brand of footwear, Novacas, and is constructed in Portugal from Italian textiles. One of our favorite styles from Fashion Week was the Defender (seen above)— a twelve-eyelet bulcher-style boot. The bulcher were introduced by the Prussian General von Blücher, Joshua explained to us, and are “known for having side pieces that lap over the front and vamp,” he added. The upper is a biodegradable PU microfiber. It is remarkably indistinguishable from leather in look and feel. And this is where the Italian craftsmanship element comes into play. The material is made up of “millions of tiny fibers that, like an animal’s skin, feel supple and can handle wear and tear very well,” Joshua told us. This level of detail results in shoes that are breathable, that break-in naturally, that don’t crack, and are resilient. Seeing the gorgeous line within the context of a vegan fashion show was undoubtedly one of the week’s highlights for us.

Joshua makes some final adjustments on set (left); the Covert in Navy (right)

A man with great taste in shoes obviously needs a great suit. Recognizing the need, Joshua recently created his very first line of Brave GentleMan custom men’s suits and tuxedos. We got to take a look at the impeccably-constructed line at Joshua’s studio during Fashion Week and discovered fabrics that are truly pushing the boundaries of innovation, and are evocative of the thrilling developments happening in veganism today. The Covert, for example- the line’s most popular style- is a three-piece, notch lapel, single button suit. “This means that there is a waistcoat with an adjustable button belt, a single button jacket with a single rear vent, functional and flat-front slacks, that the lapel features a notch,” Joshua explained to us. Designed in New York City, they are made in Italy by a small family-owned factory. To source sustainable textiles, Joshua partnered with the Italian organization CLASS. “I use their own collaborative line of textiles made from recycled-PET, mostly from post-consumer water and soda bottles. These materials are used by many high-end European mills to create very luxe and sustainable, recycled materials,” he told us. Impressing us further, he told us that the buttons are Tagua Nut (or “Corozo”), which fall from trees, and are gathered. They are known as “vegetable ivory” because of their luxurious feel, color and strength. The collar backing, shoulder pads, lining, full-canvass sew-in interfacing and sleeve headers are all made from recycled poly from Japan in closed-loop factories. As Joshua explained, “The factory does not allow any emissions or contaminants to leave the facility-they are cycled back in to the production process or they are treated and neutralized.”

Joshua— a long-time vegan— has been utilizing fashion as a vital extension of his work as an activist for a number of years. “The fashion industrial complex not only affects millions of people’s livelihoods globally and is tied to some of the worst environmental problems like livestock (sheep, cows, pigs), but it is one of the most powerful forms of creating values and meaning based on aesthetics and expressing personal identity,” he told us. “Fashion is so culturally relevant and has global implications on issues of humans rights, animal rights, and the environment,” he added. With wool production being just one example of an environmentally detrimental practice, not to mention cruel— companies like Brave GentleMan are leading the way towards making these practices obsolete. Joshua is currently designing his Fall ‘13 and Spring ‘14 collections, and we have a hopeful hunch that a Fashion Week presentation is in his very near future.

photo by Joel Barhamand for Laika

We also got to check out Charlotte Ronson’s Autumn/Winter 2013 Collection. Showing 60’s Mod influences, the collection boldly integrated spring-time floral patterns into a fall wardrobe. There were flirty halter dresses and A-line minis in lively emerald greens, punctuated by blacks; touches of peek-a-boo mesh panels; eclectic color-blocking and unexpected cutouts.

While we must make clear that Charlotte’s collection is not all vegan, we are reporting on it here because she has publicly asserted herself as a fur-free designer. During a time when some designers have taken to accepting bribes veiled as sponsorships from a fur industry desperate for market share, Charlotte has remained steadfast in rejecting the usage of fur in any of her garments. Indeed, even just by virtue of excluding fur, she is setting a heart-felt example for her peers. “It’s something I can do, and it’s something that could make a difference,” she told us, when we spoke to her after the show.

Charlotte during and after the show. Photos by Joel Barhamand

She recalled being invited to the offices of the Humane Society a few years ago, where during a meeting she saw videos about the harsh realities of the fur trade. She was deeply affected. “You just can’t go back,” she said. She further explained that fur as a fabric simply doesn’t appeal to her, and is not only “not my style,” as she put it— but that she doesn’t wear it or use it in her collections for compassionate reasons. “I’m against any kind of animal cruelty, and I love my little dog,” she told us.

photos by Joel Barhamand

Another highlight during Fashion Week was seeing cruelty-free and vegan cosmetics being used. Simcha Whitehill, aka Miss Pop (a nail artist with a cruelty-free kit, and a contributor at Laika), created several stunning nail designs for the runways, partnering exclusively with the outspokenly cruelty-free and vegan Color Club nail lacquer. For Charlotte Ronson, she created the “Picture Frame” look (seen above). “To match all the hues in the collection we did five permutations of the look: lipstick red and eggplant, hunter green and a bright purple, two shades of grey, sand and a deep ocean blue, and black and white,” Simcha told us. The look above can be easily recreated at home, using Color Club’s Where’s the Soiree and French Tip shades. Start by applying one coat of the darker shade of polish, and then imagine your nail is just a teensy bit smaller and polish your nail using the lighter color. “This should leave a thin U shape of the darker color framing your nail,” Simcha explained. Brush on a thin French tip with the lighter shade to complete the nail frame.

photo by Joel Barhamand

Another design from Simcha was this nature-inspired look, which used a custom color she created with Color Club called Raw Amber. The look integrated the natural nail peeking through as part of the design. And the purpose of the geometric shape was to evoke “an element of mystery- the openness of the natural nail shrouded in amber and black,” Simcha explained.

 

photo by Julie Gueraseva

That week, we also made a trip to mid-town Manhattan to check out the footwear industry’s version of Fashion Week— the New York Shoe Expo, a major trade show from the Fashion Footwear Association of New York (FFaNY). There, we discovered an exciting new vegan collection from Krže Studio. The collection was in large part inspired by founder and designer Leila Kerze’s home base of Los Angeles. “There is a play between art and industry, motorcycle culture and the canyons and beaches it races through. Though the collection exudes an aggressive and rugged strength, it finishes in elegance,” Leila explained to us. Many of the designs have aerodynamic silhouettes, with lacing and chain detailing. The collection shown in NYC is expected to hit retail outlets in July or August of 2013.

photo by Julie Gueraseva

While compassion was Leila’s primary motivation for starting Krže Studio (“I do not believe it is possible to create something truly beautiful if its origins are from suffering, cruelty, and victimization,” she told us), she quickly discovered that many of the vegan materials on the market not only rivaled the look of leather, but were actually superior in performance and function. The lining of her shoes, for example, utilizes a breathable, anti-bacterial and porous material that is approved by the American Podiatry Association. “This means that both a tall winter boot and a strappy spring sandal can be worn without becoming uncomfortable because of bacteria,” Leila explained. With many vegan leathers being plastic-based and recyclable, designers now have an opportunity “to adhere to a cradle to cradle philosophy and make a renewable and sustainable luxury product,” she added.

Indeed, what we saw during Fashion Week is that not only is it possible to create cohesive and imaginative clothing and footwear without the use of animal fibers— but one can create a collection that in fact surpasses conventional materials in style and function. So perhaps today’s designers should ask themselves the question, Am I moving forward with the currents of change and progress, or swimming against them, regressing further into stagnant practices? If fashion is about innovation and rebellion, it seems evident that humankind has in fact fully exhausted all the possible ways to use animal skins. It is time we give some serious thought to the price animals pay for our vanity, and carefully examine other viable solutions. For a designer like Joshua Katcher— who is already successfully implementing these solutions, you can’t put a price on compassion. “No one complains that furs or leathers are “too expensive”, but most designers are desperate to use that visual currency. But if you asked them to pay workers fairly or invest in new textile technologies that remove animals from the production model, suddenly it’s “too expensive.” Deciding to work towards an ethical fashion system doesn’t have to be an aesthetic choice. If you’re a good designer, you should be able to make brilliant work with whatever materials and production methodologies are available,” he says. We look forward to the day when being a good designer becomes universally synonymous with being an ethical and compassionate one. And we feel confident that this day will come.

Written by Julie Gueraseva

Brave GentleMan photographs courtesy of Joshua Katcher, Gregory Vaughan and Anthony Two Moons (respectively).