Chalk it up to awkward timing. Serena Williams’s latest presentation took place in the calm before the coronavirus storm in the tail end of February. The tennis mega star, who also studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Fort Lauderdale in the early 2000s, told Essence that her second-ever RTW collection was inspired by “some of my favorite places to travel, which ultimately when I thought about it, was Africa. That’s where I got the giraffe print from.”
Williams also revealed why she focused on vegan leather as a theme: “I feel like a lot of things are being killed and we’re not saving the earth. We can all just do one small thing and help out so that was also a lot of our inspiration.” Back in 2011, Serena’s sister and fellow tennis champion Venus Williams was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes extreme fatigue, joint pain, and digestive issues. Venus soon discovered that a vegan diet helped manage and improve her condition, and Serena followed suit in support.
Since then, Serena has tried eating vegan on multiple occasions, most recently after giving birth to her daughter. “Now, since the baby and only since the baby, I try to do cardio three or four times a week where I just go on a run. I actually never ran before, but I wanted to drop weight fast. It worked for me. Because I wanted to lean out, I also wanted to eat a lot healthier so I went vegan for 44 days. That worked out really well. Then I tried it again. But now, I’m vega-tarian,” she said to The New York Times. These days, the famous vegan ally stocks her fridge with “coconut water, Gatorade, cucumbers, mint, kale, vegetables, ginger, and wheat grass,” and her go-to home-cooked meal is “vegan sushi.”
While Serena initially was turned on to plant-based diet for family, health, and performance reasons, it’s clear that the ethical and environmental ramifications have since resonated with her. Her sexy yet sophisticated takes on suiting using vegan leather—a hip-length, waist-defining blazer and slim-fitting, high-rise cropped pants—promptly sold out on her website.
Following in the heels of Serena Williams, Rihanna quietly dropped a Fenty vegan-leather capsule collection in April (thanks, COVID-19!). The collection had as its jumping-off point the 1950s workwear silhouettes captured by the legendary fashion photographer Irving Penn. That translates to oversized-hoodie, work shirt, and cargo pants in beige and black vegan leather, blending nostalgia and modernity with sustainable élan.
Is this vegan-leather mania, specifically among Black celebrities, a pure coincidence? Or does this signal a paradigm shift among culture arbiters? For a long time, veganism has been accused of being focused on the needs and preferences of white people. It has been stereotyped as being a lifestyle habit of a rich, thin, white women (although according to our analysis, this turns out to be a myth). But the perception of exclusivity and injustice isn’t entirely unjustified. While women comprise the majority of vegans and the animal rights movement, its leadership is made up almost entirely of men, and especially white men. And the goop-ization of veganism has made it off-putting to many people who don’t identify as Gwyneth Paltrow-esque.
In this context, the explosion of Black celebrities declaring themselves as vegans or vegan allies is extraordinary. Just recently, Lizzo announced to her 8.7 million TikTok followers that she’s vegan. Snoop Dogg told Beyond Meat that he likes to sneak in vegan food into his family meals and quietly invested in a vegan “pork rind” snack company. And powerhouse actress and beauty role model Taraji P. Henson launched a vegan haircare line. Of course, Beyonce and Jay-Z have been pushing for veganism for several years, offering lifetime free concerts to a fan who goes vegan, and launching a vegan lifestyle & food brand/app 22 Days for “our health and the health of the planet.”
It’s particularly salient that they stand for the kind of glamour that has not been associated with veganism. Take vegan leather, for example—it’s simply designed to appeal to a different crowd than a white, normcore or hippie vegan. It speaks to an audience with different cultural sensibilities, and when it comes to changing people’s behavior, culture matters, possibly more than ethics.
Because let’s face it, everyone knows cruelty is wrong—ethics is universal—but what we need is a cultural shift.
In this context, the embracing of vegan culture by Black stars is truly something to be celebrated.
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Photo: Serena Williams via Instagram, Fenty Vegan Leather Capsule Collection; @badgalriri via Instagram