Vintage Vixen: An Interview With PETA’s Ashley Byrne

Interview by Janelle Pietrzak

When photographer Janelle Pietrzak went to New York last spring, she jumped at the opportunity to hang out with longtime friend, animal rights activist and veteran PETA employee Ashley Byrne, the Associate Director of Campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). From organizing PETA’s “Running of the Nudes” to protest bullfights in Pamplona to wearing only strategically placed lettuce leaves in the bitter cold to promote healthy vegan meals, Byrne leads some of PETA’s most provocative campaigns. Her work to promote animal rights has landed her on national television programs and in newspapers in the U.S. and abroad, including U.S. News and World Report, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inside Edition, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, FOX, and CNN, among many others.

Janelle and Ashley  met skateboarding almost twenty years ago, and although neither skateboards any longer, their friendship has endured.  Janelle shot Ashley wearing thrifted vintage looks for this interview for Eluxe Magazine, where, they discuss growing up in the 90s punk rock scene, eco-activism, animal rights, and of course, fashion.

Janelle: It makes me laugh to think about how much we have changed since we met, but at the same time how much we have stayed the same in our values and goals.   If memory serves me correctly, you had dyed black hair, your own punk “zine” MadGirl and a dream of working for PETA.   We were very punk rock back then! How do you think that scene made you into the person you are today?

Ashley: The ethics and ideals of the punk scene we grew up with still inform everything I do and have done as an adult. I feel so lucky to have found punk rock, riot grrl really, that’s what got me first. By the time we met each other, punk had transformed my entire life. It turned me from a cheerleader into a riot grrl, into a vegan and animal rights activist.  

Janelle: Are you the same now?

Ashley: Now I am a generally outspoken activist who is in the habit of thinking critically about everything.  That scene taught me not to take anything for granted, no matter how innocuous, routine, traditional.  I think in my entire young adult life I had always been very rebellious, but I didn’t really know why or against what. Political punk rock helped me realize that I did have reasons to be angry, and not just the right, but also the duty to rebel.  I learned it was not just about general, unfocused rebellion against the world as a whole, but focused rebellion against the institutions that were the root of injustice and bullshit in the world. When we first met I think I was somewhere between those two places.

Janelle:  For years, I’ve wanted to do this Mad Men styled photo shoot with you because I know you have a closet full of vintage items from this era.   As children of the 90’s we grew up with a recession, Nirvana, and grunge.   Cheap, fast, fashion like Forever 21, didn’t really exist back then, and mall stores were super tacky, so we thrifted.   I know that while I was scouring vintage and thrift stores for plaid flannel shirts, I also learned about fashion history first hand.   I came across all of these amazing garments and accessories from different eras.   I outgrew my punk phase, but never my love of fashion and I still draw on this knowledge in my work as a photographer and in my personal style.   I know you are the same and that you collect vintage pieces.   I recently read that fashion is the second biggest polluter in the world behind agriculture.   Besides looking chic, how does buying and wearing vintage work into your personal ethos?

Ashley: I started thrifting as a teenager when, after years of shopping religiously at Contempo Casuals and other teenybopper 90s mall stores; I wanted clothes that were unique and edgy (well, somewhat unique, since I really wanted to look like Courtney Love). It’s interesting that even after becoming an activist, and an environmentalist, it was years before I thought about what happened to clothes once I got rid of them. I always thought that you gave old clothes away, and someone else got them, and never thought past the next step of what would happen when THAT person got rid of them, or when the next person did. So all these years that we were thrifting, we were actually doing something very environmentally responsible, but that aspect of it never actually occurred to me until much later.

Janelle: Do you think thrifting made an impact on how our generation shops today?

Ashley: I think thrifting helped introduce a throwaway generation to a clothing philosophy from a different time. An era when a great deal of care was given both to the construction, and maintenance of garments, they were built to last, and cared for to make them last. Sometimes I think about the remarkable vintage pieces that I’ve found in perfect shape, and wondered whether anything of mine has looked that nice a year after I’ve owned it, much less decades later. And I can’t say that I’ve totally mastered this yet, but I’ve been trying to commit in recent years to buying less, investing in the things that I do buy, and then caring for them to make them last. When you’re buying from ethical companies, they want their products to last, too.

Janelle:  All disclosed, and you know this, I am not a vegan, but I am an environmentalist, animal lover, and I do try to be a conscious consumer.   You are a big time animal rights activist, and have been vegan for as long as I have known you.   When people think of vegans, their first thought is probably about what you eat, but how does the vegan lifestyle extend beyond food and into such things as fashion?  

Ashley: As we’ve discussed, when I first went vegan I was in a phase where I didn’t have to put much thought into changing my wardrobe. I just started wearing canvas or synthetic skate shoes instead of leather ones. As that began to change I had to start reading a lot of labels (just like I was already doing with food). At the time it would often take tons of research to find a pair of non-leather heels that I was happy with, or a warm coat that wasn’t made of wool. Fortunately, several years ago that started changing drastically and rapidly. These days the options available to vegans are staggering. In addition to specifically vegan brands making products ranging from bags, to shoes, to coats, other brands have realized that there is a huge demand for cruelty-free, eco-friendly products, and vegan offerings (especially vegan leather) and are everywhere.

Janelle: What are some of your favourite vegan or socially conscious fashion brands?

Ashley: Free People has a whole vegan accessory line, vegan leather and faux fur have been featured on the runways of brands like Coach and Joseph Altuzarra. My favorite cruelty-free brands at the moment are Vaute Couture (the vegan wool coats are so warm- they have been my saving grace since I moved to NYC and started braving the long, freezing winters). The brand also does classic, vintage style hats (which are usually made from wool, or even beaver fur). Another is Brave Gentleman. It’s technically a menswear brand, but I love mixing clothes with an androgynous feel into my wardrobe (and I’m not alone in that, which is why Brave Gentleman recently expanded to carry shoes and clothing in smaller sizes that can accommodate more women). I also love Matt and Nat bags. I’ve had a couple of their bags for years and had them in heavy rotation in my wardrobe the entire time.  They are so well constructed and high quality that they barely show any sign of having been used.  

Janelle: Finally, how do you feel about the future?  We can no longer deny that really destructive things are happening all over our planet, but at the same time it can all feel completely overwhelming.  

Ashley: My feelings about the future change drastically from day to day (sometimes minute to minute). There isn’t much middle ground for me, I think we’re either totally fucked, or on the verge of revolutionizing everything for the better. If you had asked me twenty years ago what things would be like today, I don’t think I would have guessed that they could be as good, or as bad as they are. We are increasingly becoming a world of extremes.  We are able to consume at unprecedented levels, to be greedy and selfish in more wide-reaching ways than ever, to eat and wear the most exotic animals, outsource our dirtiest, most dangerous work to people with no means of protecting themselves; or to educate ourselves, make informed purchases, support companies using high-tech, cruelty-free, clean products like synthetic spider silk, leather made from pineapples, even lab grown meat in the foreseeable future.

We’re seeing the worst from governments on a terrifying level (including our own), but that’s also helping to push ideas into the public discourse that I never would have expected to see outside radical “zines.” At the end of the day, however apprehensive I may be about the future, I refuse to just let it happen without fighting for a better world. Apathy is deadly, and being an informed consumer, refusing to support things you don’t believe in by paying for them is an important part of staying awake and empowered in our daily life.

Janelle:  Absolutely, and you are certainly fighting the good fight!  I love how our shoot came out and I am so happy we had a chance to put this together.  Thanks for being my friend all these years, and I look forward to getting old with you.  I’m sure we will eventually be in the old folks home for punk rock retirees together.


Explored Exposure – Janelle Pietrzak

Pogue:  Rescue and Companion Animal Extraordinaire

Clothing Credits:  All Clothing Vintage but  Hats: Vaute


Chere Di Boscio
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