The tattoo-covered Kat Von D, wearing moving-day yoga pants and a slouchy black off-the-shoulder sweatshirt, leads you excitedly up the stairs of her new Windsor Square mansion. You’re there to talk about her recently launched line of vegan footwear and other news, but first, she has something to show you.
She leads you up a magnificent stairway with gleaming crystal-ball finials and past a nearly life-size painting of the devil whispering into the ear of Jesus and into the room beyond. She spreads her hands wide with all the ta-da drama of a magician revealing her marquee trick.
She’s standing in front of a cello-shaped cabinet big enough to hide a human. It’s decorated with a pair of carved wooden snakes, topped with a carved head and inscribed in Latin on the front. “It says, ‘In God we trusted’ — past tense,” she says before adding the bigger ta-da. “This was a gift from Napoleon to his favorite cello player. I bought it at auction, and it just arrived today.”
Von D, the 38-year-old tattoo artist who needle-pricked her way to reality TV fame on “L.A. Ink” over a decade ago, is perhaps just as well known for parlaying a four-lipstick licensing deal with Sephora 12 years ago into a global multimillion-dollar beauty brand.
Between the time you arrange an interview and the time you show up at the front door of the mansion where kneeling marble cherubs flank the fireplace, Von D has announced in an Instagram post that she and her longtime partner in Kat Von D Beauty — LVMH-owned beauty brand incubator Kendo Brands — had called it quits. Immediately after that mid-January announcement, Kendo rebranded the award-winning makeup line as KVD Vegan Beauty, leading many to speculate that the split was less about Von D’s stated reason — so she could focus on growing her vegan shoe business and touring to support a soon-to-drop album — and more to do with a certain controversy from two years ago.
That’s when Von D set the internet on fire when, as a mom-to-be, she posted a photo of her pregnant belly on Instagram and said she didn’t want to vaccinate her unborn son.
On this late February morning, with her (very much vaccinated) 16-month-old under the watchful eye of a nanny somewhere in the just-moved-into mansion and a hairless Sphynx cat named Nietzsche curled up on her lap, the woman born Katherine Von Drachenberg, with what appears to be the slightest of tears welling up in her eyes, is ready to set the record straight on a few subjects.
“When it comes to the vaccine issue,” she says with a slight tremble in her voice, “I was six months pregnant at the time, and I was still trying to figure out my birthing plan to have my son. And, at the time, I made a completely thoughtless post on my Instagram on whether or not I would vaccinate my son. And, because of it, people think I’m something that I’m not.
“But the truth is, I’m not an anti-vaxxer at all,” Von D says. “I just made a mistake, and I was completely uninformed. It was stupid, and I really shouldn’t have opened my big mouth on the subject.”
Von D says that while she did receive a tremendous amount of backlash as a result of that 2018 Instagram post — some of which she says continues to this day — it had nothing to do with her and Kendo parting ways and everything to do with the timing of her other projects. (Representatives for KVD Vegan Beauty declined to comment but wished the former founder “the best of luck in her new endeavors.”)
“We had already been deep in the trenches with lawyer stuff a year prior to this,” she says. “[Kat Von D Beauty] wasn’t something I could just pass on, just collecting a paycheck [for] signing off on things. … I’m so painfully involved in everything and I do tend to micromanage — I’m sure Kendo can vouch for that — but that’s part of what made the brand beautiful. It was something that was hard for me. … I didn’t want to be deceitful to the public and say, ‘Hey, everything’s the same,’ when the reality of it is that I’m not going to be involved in any way.” The name change, she adds, “took a lot of compromise on their behalf.”
Perhaps the biggest imprint Von D left on the 12-year-old cosmetics brand (besides her initials on the packaging) was pushing to have the entire line reformulated to be vegan.
“I’d been a vegetarian for a long time, but in 2011, when I became vegan, I felt I needed to be able to walk the walk and not just talk the talk,” she says. “And they’ve always supported my vision so they backed me on it. And it took a lot of money and energy and time — about a year — to do it. We had to replace ingredients like beeswax and carmine [a red pigment made from crushed beetles]. I had no idea about any of that when we started.”
Another part of walking the walk meant emptying her closet of hundreds of pairs of leather shoes, which she did by taking to Twitter and urging those with size 8 feet to stop by her West Hollywood tattoo shop on La Brea Avenue and pick up a pair gratis. (Von D says she kept two museum-worthy pairs of high heels that Bettie Page had worn in an Irving Klaw photo shoot but that she doesn’t wear them.) This move turned out to plant the seed for her future foray into footwear.
“When I became vegan, I was pretty desperate to find vegan shoes that I loved,” she says. “I couldn’t in my right mind support an industry that skins animals alive. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t put [those shoes] on my feet and walk around and pretend that I’m an animal rights activist. So I was like, ‘If no one’s gonna do it, I’m gonna do it!’ ”
She then clarified that while there are, indeed, vegan shoe offerings out there, they didn’t speak to her particular aesthetic. “This is not a knock on hippie style,” Von D says. “I consider myself a modern vegan.”
Her search eventually put her in the same orbit as Rebecca Mink, a celebrity stylist and pioneer in the luxury vegan shoe space (whose namesake line, Mink, launched in 2000). Mink, in turn, hooked her up with a family-owned factory in Florence, Italy, that not only manufactured footwear for top-tier luxury brands (Gucci, Dior and Christian Louboutin, among them) but was, thanks to Mink, already familiar with using animal-substitute materials such as the eco-friendly compressed-apple faux leather Von D wanted to incorporate into her offerings.
Von D Shoes officially launched online last World Vegan Day — Nov. 1, 2019 — with 13 styles that key into the tattooed vegan namesake’s Goth-punk-meets-pinup aesthetic. In the mix are black, calf-high, back-zip Slayer boots with a gunmetal cross zipper pull ($249, partly an homage to one of her favorite bands, she says, and partly a nod to the idea of “vampire-slaying or slaying all day”).
Also, there’s the black satin exterior/red vegan leather interior Coven I buckle shoe with a short, sculpted kitten heel ($180, “A coven is a group of witches, so I feel this is a sisterhood buckle shoe,” she says). Both styles sold out unexpectedly fast — in a matter of minutes, according to Von D.
“[That] was really scary for me,” she says, “because I just wanted it to live a little bit longer [online,] but obviously we were excited that people are so passionate about it. We recently launched our Europe online store, and the same styles sold out in less than a day.”
Others available at launch included the Adele open-toe pump ($220), with a vamp constructed of black velvet laser cut into a spiderweb design (“named after one of my muses, milliner and artist Adele Mildred,” Von D says), and the crocodile-embossed vegan patent leather Calavera platform pump ($200, in black or bubblegum pink) with a cartoonish white metal dog bone detail at the vamp. She calls the shoe “a tip of my hat to all of our doggy mamas out there,” she says, adding that 100% of the proceeds from that shoe’s sales are being donated to the pet-rescue group Best Friends Animal Society.
Von D explains that new styles will drop as soon as they’re ready (instead of seasonally), and sold-out ones will be replenished on an as-needed basis, partly to lessen the environmental impact but also as a way of freeing her from obligations of cyclical deliveries. “That’s what’s happening in the makeup world right now,” she says. ”It’s all about newness, and they’re adding seasons every … day. I don’t know if I want to contribute to that. [That’s also why], with the exception of very few styles that are either charity-based or artist collaborations, I’m not doing limited-edition [shoes]. I’m pouring so much of myself into each design, and these are meant to last a lifetime. So why would I want them to be here [today] and gone tomorrow?”
Emmanuelle Rienda, founder of L.A.’s Vegan Fashion Week, says that although Von D Shoes isn’t exactly at the forefront as a brand when it comes to combining the issues of ethics and sustainability in vegan footwear, it is at the forefront when it comes to a celebrity vegan footwear brand. And that, she says, is worth a lot.
“Vegan celebrities have a value in highlighting awareness issues,” Rienda says. “That Kat Von D is making the effort to have an ethical supply chain is really good; that she’s trying out new materials like the apple leather, which is a more sustainable option [than other faux leathers], is good. These things show she’s got great vision.”
Rienda, who became vegan just as Kat Von D Beauty was reformulating to be animal-free in 2016, also points out that the tattoo artist’s celebrity status was instrumental in growing a mainstream audience for the freshly vegan beauty brand.
Von D seems keenly aware of her power and responsibility as a celebrity, especially when it comes to education and issue awareness.
“I feel like if you have the opportunity to have that platform, why wouldn’t you want to use it for good?” Von D says. “That’s the beauty of social media. I love learning and I love learning when I’ve made a mistake — I have no problem admitting that. If anything, I think it’s exciting for me to [be able to] better myself. For me, it’s all about how you send your message out into the world. You don’t have to say, ‘Hey, go vegan.’ You can say, ‘Hey, check out what I’m doing here.’ “
To that end, Kat Von D wants something that, for most fashion brands, would be dangerous if not fatal to the bottom line. She wants to be copied.
“[W]hat if another shoe line sees how successful we are and says, ‘Hey, I want to jump on that bandwagon.’? That’s what I want,” she says. “Most people don’t want you to copy them. I want you to copy me. If we could all be on board, imagine [the] amazing actual impact we could make.”
Besides, the tattoo artist, reality star, beauty brand mogul and vegan footwear founder has made it clear that her third second act is certainly not going to be her last. Next month the first single from her upcoming album, “Love Made Me Do It,” drops, followed by the full album as well as a global tour in the fall. Her husband, Rafael Reyes (one half of electronic rock duo the Prayers), will be touring with her, and their son, Leafar, will be along for the ride.
“I want to [have] an all-female road crew,” Von D says of the tour. “I don’t think anybody’s done that before. And we’re going to do a whole documentary about that.”
11:29 AM, Mar. 13, 2020: This story was updated to include a comment from KVD Vegan Beauty wishing the former founder “the best of luck in her new endeavors.”