Even by the standards of Fendi, the Roman house that once sent mink coats glistening with 24-karat gold down the runways, its upcoming “haute fourrure” show Wednesday counts as a statement: the first fur-only extravaganza by a major design label during the Paris haute couture shows.
If there was still any question that fur was back in fashion, and that the animal rights lobby had lost the luxury battle, the show would seem a definitive answer.
Yet Fendi executives declined to speak about the show, which coincides with Karl Lagerfeld’s 50-year anniversary with the brand, or fur in general. They were not the only ones.
Designers like Michael Kors, Jean Paul Gaultier and Jeremy Scott of Moschino have turned fur into a runway star over the course of recent seasons, rebranding this holdover from the country club 1950s as young, hip, fashion-forward and even environmentally sustainable.
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But each, through representatives, declined requests to address the topic, as did several other prominent designers, fashion editors and even fashion bloggers.
That’s the curious state of fur in 2015: So many people seem happy to sell it and show it, but nobody wants to talk about it.
“Fur has always been a hot-button issue in fashion, and now more than ever because the consumer has the ability to research and decide for themselves where they want to stand,” said Robert Burke, founder of the luxury consultancy in New York bearing his name. “It is really the one area where money and ethics converge in fashion.”
In 1996, when an activist tossed a dead raccoon on Anna Wintour’s lunch plate at the Four Seasons, it seemed fur may going the way of the whalebone corset. But over two decades later, 73 percent of this year’s 436 shows in New York, Paris, Milan and London featured fur, according to Saga Furs, the Finnish auction house.
Though many retailers still won’t touch fur, the number of fur outerwear products in stores (including faux fur and shearling) jumped by 74 percent as of November, compared with the previous year, according to Editd, which tracks fashion retail data.
Once consigned to special departments, fur can now be found in ready-to-wear collections sold throughout department stores, said Nick Pologeorgis, a New York furrier who has made pieces for many designers, including Kors and Zac Posen.
To next-generation designers such as Jason Wu, 32, one of the few willing to openly discuss fur, the pelt is not a political statement, but just another material, like wool or silk, that is a canvas for his imagination.
“I always love to look for things that are traditional and classic and reimagine it through my lens, for my generation,” Wu said.
With advanced techniques for dyeing, shaving and shearing to alter texture, fur is now an all-season fabric, he said. His 2016 resort collection for spring, for example, includes a pink fox fur powder-puff coat combining sheared fox with natural fox.
Yet the anti-fur contingent remains vociferous.
Dan Mathews, senior vice president for media campaigns at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, noted that young designers are courted aggressively by the industry, which sponsors student design competitions and lavishes young designers with free samples and junkets.
“The fur trade focuses on young designers like PETA focuses on young consumers,” he said. “It’s a tug of war that has been going on for years, which explains why fur is still visible on runways but not so much in retail. For the average young person, fur is about as desirable as acne.”
The fur trade likes to trumpet the fact that fur is a more than $40 billion industry globally, according to a 2014 study commissioned by the International Fur Federation. But while the federation does not break down demand by region, Frank Zilberkweit — chairman of the Polar Group, which owns the Englisher furrier Hockley — estimated that China may account for as much as 80 percent of the market. (Russian demand, once robust, has fallen since the recent ruble crisis, he said.)
In New York, fur — formerly a status purchase for Park Avenue matrons in full-on Blackglama minks — now pops up more casually and sporadically in rabbit-fur mukluks, or a fox-trim Prada clutch, or a Canada goose coat with a coyote-trimmed hood.
The wider acceptance is likely in part because of the fur trade’s efforts to change perceptions that it is unnecessary, indulgent and an affront to nature.
The Fur Council of Canada, for instance, has a website, furisgreen.com, promoting the premise that sustainably-produced fur from farm-raised mink or wild-sourced beaver is a renewable resource, while petroleum, the basis of synthetic fur, is not. As Alan Herscovici, vice president of the council, said, “there will be fur long after the last oil wells are empty.”
(Opponents cry “greenwashing,” countering such claims with studies, like one from a Dutch consultancy, CE Delft, in 2011, indicating that fur production has a higher environmental impact than common textiles in terms of climate change and toxic emissions.)
The industry has also labored to promote greater transparency in sourcing, a concept that got a push in 2010 when President Barack Obama signed the Truth in Fur Labeling Act, which requires that each fur piece, regardless of cost, specify its species and country of origin.
Designers like Wu acquire their pelts from Saga, which emphasizes the “traceability” of its furs to farms that meet the Saga Furs certification program, started in 2005, to establish minimum standards of animal health and breeding conditions.
With increased dialogue about fur, the topic has become not just a rallying cry, but a debate. Some see vintage fur as acceptable, since the animals have long been dead.
Others, including even the environmentalist site Treehugger, seem willing to tiptoe into fur, if it is sourced from roadkill or animals that died of natural causes or were culled as pests, like the creations of British designer Jess Eaton. (Her rat-fur bolero jacket was one signature piece.)
For many, it seems, fur has become just another where-do-you-draw-the-line ethical issue. As Wu put it, “some people can choose to be vegetarian, some people are not. Some people don’t use leathers and furs, and some people do.”
Not everyone is so sanguine, perhaps still fearing reprisals from the animal rights lobby, which has not disappeared. Protests outside fashion tents may have died down, but groups like PETA have opened the battle on new fronts, like social media.
The group’s gruesome video expose of fur farming practices in China, narrated by actress Olivia Munn, was viewed over 9 million times on Facebook and received over 83,000 shares in February 2013. (China has become a major source of fur, supplying 35 million mink pelts in 2014 alone, according to the International Fur Federation.)
Over the years, PETA has marshaled an army of sympathetic designers: Stella McCartney, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Vivienne Westwood, among others. The organization also rallies celebrities (Pink and Ricky Gervais lent their voices to “Stolen for Fashion,” one of the group’s anti-fur ads) to assist in “fur shaming.”
Just three years ago, Kim Kardashian, who has a fondness for minks, got flour-bombed at a perfume introduction by a woman who allegedly shouted, “Fur hag!”
Whether activists create a similar spectacle Wednesday, when Fendi stages its show, remains to be seen.
But they are facing a different climate: one in which even McCartney, one of fashion’s most vocal animal rights activists, joined the recent faux fur boom by presenting a full line of sumptuous faux fur coats in her autumn and winter collection unveiled this March in Paris, a notable foray into anything resembling fur.
It wasn’t an easy decision, she said.
“For years, we were looking at fake furs, but it never felt like the right message for us to promote the look of fur,” McCartney wrote in an email. With dramatic improvements in the look and feel of synthetics, she said, “we finally found something that looks great and is consistent with our philosophy on luxury and cruelty free fashion.”
“What was key for us was to really be able to capture luxury and richness,” McCartney added.
If not raccoons.