The Nordstrom shoe salesman approaches.
"May I help you?" he asks.
"You really don't want to," Sabri na LeBeauf assures him.
The actress, best known for her work on "The Cosby Show," is a vegan (VEE-gan) who wants nothing to do with animal products. She believes in "compassionate shopping," a practice that applies to clothing, cosmetics, accessories--even sporting goods and automobile interiors.
Although many of the nation's 12.5 million vegetarians may eschew fur and leather because of concerns about cruelty, an estimated 500,000 vegans might add to the list silk (worms "boiled alive," according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), wool (sheep "brutally" mistreated), feathers (birds plucked for profit) and pearls (oysters robbed of "a part of their being"). Some are such purists they won't even wear faux fur or faux leather.
The perks for such dedication include a clear conscience and considerable cost savings. This is the cotton, rubber, vinyl and polyester cheering squad. Through word of mouth and trial and error, these consumers learn how to dress, where to shop and when to bow to the inevitable.
Finding fashionable footwear is labor-intensive in a store like Nordstrom. "I really don't like to ask them to run around for the synthetics," explains LeBeauf, who finds the going easier at Payless Shoesource, home of high-fashion knockoffs. Many of her leather-free accessories, including a cellular phone case, come from Just In Case, a Santa Monica store specializing in upscale synthetic accessories.
On LeBeauf's wish list are a short, warm swing coat in an artificial fabric and chic brown "pleather" footwear. Echoing other vegans, she says black synthetics look great but brown ones have a long way to go.
Still, shopping gets a little easier every year. This fall, a smiling cow signals "genuine non-leather" among the leather items in Unlisted--Kenneth Cole's collection of $60-or-less shoes and bags.
Cole's print and TV campaign "was wonderful," says LeBeauf, "because most people who aren't familiar with vegetarians or vegans think of it as this impossible lifestyle. They think you don't eat anything but salad. You don't have any decent clothes and you certainly can't be fashionable."
Lauren Laster, a vegetarian who owns a lingerie showroom in the California Mart, considers herself very fashionable. Starting with her feet. "I am wearing my fake suede platform shoes--$16 from Patrini--with my $18 Donna Karan hose," she says. And, yes, faux leather shoes do last. She has worn her favorites, black half-boots from Patrini, for three years.
Laster was once "a leather-toting kind of a gal," with the works--jackets, skirts, shirts, pants and vests. A few years ago, she consigned the lot to a resale shop ("I couldn't feel comfortable giving them to anybody") and donated the money to charity. Her replacements include "spandex and lots of velvet" and a $130 synthetic coat from a recent Chadwick's of Boston catalogue. Without all the leather, Laster estimates she spends 60% to 75% less on clothing and accessories these days.
Concerned consumers say they would be adrift without such favorite stores and companies as Sears, Montgomery Ward, Standard Shoe Stores, Fayva, K mart, Liz Claiborne, Kenneth Cole and Sam & Libby.
They also rely on catalogues, both mainstream and vegan-only, such as Just In Case, Creatureless Comforts (women's accessories with a "Coach" look), Aesop (accessories and footwear, including Doc Marten look-alikes, athletic shoes, men's and women's wingtips) and Heartland Products Ltd. (cowboy and hiking boots, dress and running shoes for men and women).
And they research products using such publications and organizations as Animals' Voice, EarthSave and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Three times a year, for example, New York-based Beauty Without Cruelty sends members "The Compassionate Shopper," a booklet listing some of the best places to buy products such as fake furs and wool-free coats.
The National Green Pages, a directory listing more than 1,000 "socially and environmentally responsible businesses," is a favorite reference guide for Chantal Cloutier, owner of a Los Angeles agency for hair, makeup and wardrobe stylists.
Cloutier is anti-leather, anti-fur--and outspoken. In a chic Beverly Center store recently, she overheard a salesclerk bragging about an alligator belt. "It made me sick," Cloutier says. "I'd seen a program on how they're treated. I told her I thought it was disgusting they would carry it."
The same convictions guide Ilene Adelman, a Los Angeles landscape designer. "This is all about principles being more important than having a particular thing that momentarily looks and feels good." She recently passed on a cotton jacket at Banana Republic, explaining to the salesperson: "I would love to have it, but not with the leather collar."
These consumers also dole out the praise to favorite sources via letters and telephone calls. And those who don't worry that they should.