In 2008, Joshua Katcher launched The Discerning Brute, a men's lifestyle website that encourages discourse with visionaries and creative influencers who aim to redesign the world, redefine success and look good doing it. Three years later, he also spearheaded the creation of Brave GentleMan, the e-commerce platform and alternative fashion label behind the first line of vegan, sustainable luxury men’s suits, as well as a premium shoe collaboration with Novacas. Most recently, he revealed a complete vegan and sustainable collection for Spring 2014.
Katcher’s work has been well-received, featured in publications including The Wild Magazine, Alicia Silverstone's The Kind Life, Oprah.com, Time Out New York, BlackBook, Bust, New York Magazine and The Guardian, to name a few. A sometimes adjunct professor of sustainable fashion at the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising in Manhattan, he frequently tours with his lecture, Fashion & Animals: The Anatomy of A Fatal Attraction.
Here, he philosophizes about today’s society as a material-based reward system, about dedicating himself to counteracting the evils that system perpetuates and about how— with our individual passions and unique sets of skill—we can all make the world a more ethical place:
Live The Process: Have the ethics behind your clothes and food always been important to you?
Joshua Katcher: No, they were not always important to me. Aesthetics were the primary focus until the time I was fifteen or sixteen and had an experience that changed my worldview.
I think that aesthetics, for many people, are not only perceived as outside the realm of ethical consideration, but are seen as the primary [source of] pleasure—which is why they’re defended so passionately. I have very nostalgic memories of eating animals at family backyard barbecues and holidays and of the feeling of my grandmother’s mink coat that hung in the hallway closet. Whether it's a sweater or a sandwich, our culture encourages us to determine whether something is good or bad based on the way it looks, feels or tastes. Bad things are ugly and yucky; good things are pretty and yummy. That’s a rather infantile way of looking at the world.
Our entire economic system is built around rewarding those who make powerful symbols out of objects, while obscuring the processes in which they were created. Then, on top of that, we assign our own meanings to objects that we possess. Advertisers and marketers spend millions spinning spellbinding tales around items that, in reality, have very little to do with those stories. The way something is made, who made it and in what context can be elusive under the weight of all that storytelling. We bury the truth very deeply when it comes to fashion and food.
Actually, especially in the worlds of fashion and cuisine, there is a real emphasis placed on celebrating naughtiness: ordering the foie gras or buying the fur coat. We tell ourselves (or are we told?) that these indulgences are so sensual and powerful that the pleasure outweighs any other consideration.
But the perceived naughtiness pales in comparison to how shocking the hidden reality of production can be: Leather is a perfect example of something perceived as naughty, paired with the symbolism of quality, luxury and sensuality. The reality of leather production, most recently exposed in a Human Rights Watch report, is that it's mostly coming from illegal tanneries in slum areas of Bangladesh, where children with no protective gear are tanning the leather of cows who led miserable lives and died painful deaths. The industry is destroying local waterways, while creating the second most profitable livestock industry behind meat. This is a major disconnect with the stories we are told about leather's sexiness and suppleness.
There is, however, a huge difference between being naughty and participating in evil. I don't mean “evil” in the religious sense, but in causing great harm to others for momentary pleasure. Dr. Melanie Joy, a Harvard-educated psychologist, calls this phenomenon “carnism” or the "need to use a set of social and psychological defense mechanisms to enable humane people to participate in inhumane practices without fully realizing what they’re doing.” Wearing or eating animals is seen as a given, not as a choice or ideology with its own set of values.
LTP: What is the biggest obstacle or temptation that distracts you from living a modern, ethical existence?
JK: I think that ethical fashion and food have come a very long way. I'd even dare say that the most exciting, awe-inspiring and visionary innovations are happening in the realm of ethical food and fashion. So much of it is more delicious and of superior design when compared to the mainstream counterparts that the obstacles I face are never about compromising my values.
My biggest obstacle is the temptation of convenience. So many of us live these fast-paced lives. It’s easier than ever to compromise our values for the sake of convenience. It's much more affordable, for example, for a designer to use a sweatshop in China or Bangladesh than to use a domestic factory that pays workers fairly. It's easier for restaurants to serve animals than have to develop delicious alternatives to the tastes and textures that people love. It's more convenient to walk the path that's paved. On a personal level, there are certain things I'd never compromise, but I've taken a plastic bag from the store when I'd rather not because it's convenient. We often place the importance of completing a task on time and at a profit above the implications of those processes.
LTP: What tips would you offer people who aspire to make informed choices in their everyday lives, but are unsure of where and how to seek out the necessary information?
JK: The first tip is to change your perspective. Making ethical fashion and food decisions isn’t a religion, where the goal is puritanical perfection. Many of these pursuits are about human rights, environmentalism and animal rights, which are practical, achievable goals and not simply abstract spiritual quests.
My next tip is to do research on the Internet. There is a bounty of blogs and websites offering recipes, tips, advice and guidance on every topic under the sun. If there's something you love, I guarantee there is a superior ethical version of it somewhere.
If you're someone who has money, put it to good use! Apparently, the stuff is influential in this culture. Invest in people and ideas you want to see expand! If you don't have money, what skills do you have? Are you a writer? An artist? A mathematician? A great parent? Tailor the message you have to your skills. If you're not someone who can afford the expense (and it is expensive) of ethical fashion brands, shop thrift and secondhand and save up for that one piece from the brand you want to see grow and flourish. Most of my clothes are from secondhand stores.
Learn to cook delicious vegan food! Going vegan is one of the easiest ways to tackle the worst environmental, ethical and social problems.
Above all, have fun, make delicious vegetarian food, wear awesome ethical outfits, take care of yourself and look great because these things will attract others. No one gravitates towards the depressed and defeated. Yes, the world is screwed up, but channel that despair into something creative and productive.
LTP: What inspired you to found Brave GentleMan?
JK: I founded Brave GentleMan for guys (and really anyone who appreciates menswear aesthetics) with a refined sense of personal style, who do not want to compromise ethics or aesthetics. When I started my blog, The Discerning Brute, five years ago, there was a huge void in the market. Most ethical products were marketed to women because we live in a culture that associates compassion with the feminine. I wanted to create a discourse that challenged these associations that were essentially a roadblock to sustainability.
In addition, I'd always wanted to create a vegan and sustainable men's suit. After years of research and development, I finally did it. Many people don't realize that most fine suits contain horsehair, camelhair or wool interfacing—or that the wool industry is both incredibly cruel (from live export to the shearing process) and the single greatest cause of environmental problems from greenhouse gases to land erosion for Australia and New Zealand. I use what I call “future-wool” and “future-leather,” made from high tech recycled, sustainable or closed-loop synthetics or organic, plant-based materials. Also, when I started Brave GentleMan, no one was making cool, durable, fairly-made vegan shoes and boots that appeal to male aesthetes, so I partnered with Novacas and we created them!
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
JK: Happiness is autumn in the Hudson Valley among friends of many species with lots of amazing food and conversation.
LTP: What does it mean to you to "Live The Process" and how do you do that every day?
JK: For me, living the process is simply about pursuing truth, researching and accepting the processes by which things are made, and acting to refine them.