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Can vegan leather be a responsible alternative to cruelty?

Disha Singh, founder of Zouk, an Indian PETA-certified vegan lifestyle brand, talks to Lounge about how vegan lifestyle products are made, and their appeal  

A vegan leather tote from the brand
A vegan leather tote from the brand

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Founded by Disha Singh and Pradeep Krishnakumar, batchmates at IIM Ahmedabad, Zouk is a direct-to-consumer (D2C) brand for bags, wallets and accessories – all made of PETA-certified vegan leather. Singh says the idea of Zouk was born when she visited Kutch for an IIMA course; she saw that her friends loved the local handicraft items but did not buy any as they felt they were not functional and durable. But why vegan leather? And what is vegan leather? Lounge spoke to Singh to find out:   

What was the motivation behind launching a brand of vegan leather products in the Indian market? Is there enough awareness about veganism, or enough number of people rejecting leather?

We started Zouk as a vegan brand after seeing some horrifying videos of how animal-based leather is made. I decided that I don’t want to put my name and my life’s work into this. We researched and found the right material which is cruelty-free and still is stylish and functional, to create the products we wanted.

Awareness was super low in the beginning. I distinctly remember one of our early Instagram posts, where a user commented saying how can bags be vegan. From there on, today, many of our customers are proud to be carrying a responsible product.

At the same time, there are many leather alternatives in India such as handcrafted cloth bags and other products. Where does vegan leather stand in this spectrum in terms of price, durability, aesthetics etc?

Vegan bags definitely have a standout charm when it comes to aesthetics compared to alternatives like cloth bags. At Zouk, we are able to deliver great look and feel plus ensure durability. In fact, we conduct lab tests to check for strength, across multiple parameters relevant to usage, to ensure this durability. Even today, we keep getting compliments from customers who bought their Zouk bag two years ago and are still carrying it along.

Can you explain what IS vegan leather? How is it made?

This is a very interesting one. We started by really understanding why animal-based leather is used in bags. As an engineer by background, I had this habit of breaking down things into simpler items. I understood that leather had two key properties. It had flexibility, so that it can be stitched in different shapes. It also had certain strength properties on the outside, which allowed for bags to withstand the wear and tear of daily usage.

Hence, we worked with select specialized vendors to chemically replicate this in a proprietary manner. So, our vegan leather has the same flexibility and exterior durability to ensure our bags last for a reasonable period of time. We keep researching and experimenting with superior forms of this vegan leather, thus improving our product further.

How is vegan leather to work with? What are some its features in comparison to leather and other materials usually used for these products, like say canvas?

Given we replicated the key properties of animal leather, it is very similar to work with. Another key feature of our Zouk products is the use of Indian prints on fabric. Given our products are handmade, we have worked with our artisans to come up with the right techniques to infuse our vegan leather and Indian prints.

What made you decide on making your brand a D2C one? How do you see the growth of D2C companies in India -- what are some of the advantages and challenges?

At Zouk, our first category of focus was bags. We were creating an India-inspired collection in a category dominated by Western-looking bags. So, we needed a channel that would allow us to share our story. Why proudly Indian, why the use of ikat, why vegan amongst others. The D2C channel really allowed us to do that. From scratch, we were able to reach 1.5L+ happy customers, who have supported us on this mission. We have over 150K followers on Instagram, who have followed our journey. All this has been possible, thanks to the power of social media that a D2C brand like ours could leverage. It has also allowed us to create a pan-India brand at a fraction of the cost of a traditional brand. If we would have taken an offline route, we would have been just a Mumbai-based boutique brand.

The key challenge ahead for D2C brands now would be to build large businesses that can IPO in the stock market. I am confident many brands are going to do that in the coming years.

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