Fur For All?

This story appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

It was to no one’s surprise that fur took center stage (in the form of raccoon peplum and laser-cut minks) at the Fall 2013 show of J. Mendel, the fifth-generation luxury brand established with a specialty in luxurious furs. The surprise, rather, was the omnipresence of the material in collections shown throughout New York Fashion Week: black and white fox chubbies and oversized mittens at Altuzarra; shearling-collared coats and fur pillbox hats at Ralph Lauren; and longhaired coats and color-blocked vests at Monique Lhuillier (to name just a few).

And yet, not a drop of red paint fell on the Upper West Side.

Granted it’s been years since significant incidents of faux bloodshed and the like have made headlines — nearly 20 since a fur protester served Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour a dead raccoon at the Four Seasons, and even longer since PETA first launched its now iconic “Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur Campaign” — but could it be that fur has somehow transcended the line from sartorially taboo to tolerable, or dare I say, even desirable?

Perhaps. Despite PETA’s efforts (radical as they may be), fur seems to be more fashionable than ever — and not only on the catwalk. According to the International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF), global fur sales are at an all-time high, reaching over $15 billion in 2012, up 70 percent since 2000. (Retail fur sales in the United States were $1.27 billion in 2012, a 1.57 percent decline compared to the previous year due, in some measure, to unseasonable warm winter temperatures nationwide.)

So what has ignited the modern interest in the morally controversial commodity? Based on the new sales growth, we can’t simply chalk it up to the current “hipster” youth sub-culture whose penchant for thrift shopping includes the appeal of grandma’s vintage furs. Some consider the popularity of fur as a fabric for designers as a factor, thanks in part to new processing techniques that allow for more versatility when used in design (more than 400 designers use fur in their collections today, compared to only 42 in 1985). Or it could be the assumed approval among celebrities publicly donning pelage (including several who once lent their naked bodies to PETA’s anti-fur crusade: Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell, among them). Perhaps it’s the widening disapproval of the harassing tactics used by anti-fur protesters. Maybe it is the hipster sub-culture, whose marked assertion of independence — politically, spiritually and stylistically — has led to a backlash against anti-fur dictation (youth rebellion at its best). Or, maybe it’s the recent claims that real fur is actually more eco-friendly (yes, more) than its faux counterpart.

Females have been faking it since 1929, though faux fur back then was reportedly made from the hairs of alpaca, before today’s advancements in polymer technology. Now, the majority of fake fur is manufactured from non-renewable petroleum-based products (nylon, acrylic, polyester, etc.). Real fur, on the other hand, is a natural, biodegradable and sustainable product (animals, it turns out, are considered to be renewable resources). And results of a life cycle analysis study by DSS Management Consultants, Inc., commissioned by the IFCF and reported in October of last year, found that a fake fur coat results in about 20 percent greater consumption of non-renewable energy (i.e. oil, gas) and 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than a real fur coat — not the first nor the only study to produce results of this kind.

Additionally, fur enthusiasts argue that the industry itself actually supports animal welfare and international animal welfare legislation (note this is different from the animal rights movement, which condemns the use of animals for any purpose — that not only means no animals used for research purposes, but also no pony rides, no Lassie, or any other trained animals in movies or TV, no leather, silk or wool anything, let alone fur, and a vegan lifestyle to boot). The majority of fur sold today — over 85 percent — comes from farms that are governed by national regulations. And fur auction houses, like Saga Furs Oyj in western Finland, even employ a traceability system, allowing them to trace each garment to the farm that produced the skin, so designers can be assured that the pelts they use originate from only certified farms that follow animal welfare regulations. China, however, the second largest worldwide producer of fur pelts, remains highly unregulated with limited animal protection laws.

In regards to wild fur, the majority of species used are taken as part of government-regulated wildlife management programs. The wild fur trade can positively impact the animals themselves in the case of an increase in animal populations that can put a strain on the natural food resources leading to stress and starvation. And in the United States, for example, the wild fur trade is important for land management — beaver dams cause over a billion dollars in damage annually due to flooding, blocked drainage networks and the erosion of transportation channels when dams fail. Not to mention the importance of the overall fur industry to our nation economically — with approximately 1100 retailers and 100 manufacturers across the country employing thousands of individuals, the fur trade makes a considerable contribution to the United States economy. While historically, beaver, wolf, mink and fox were all luring European men into the North American wilderness long before the Mayflower set sail.

Yes, while fur may be the most widely debated fashion trend, let us not forget that it certainly is the oldest. From the cavemen to the Indians, humans have been clothed with the warmth and shelter of fur since nearly the beginning of our existence. And in the United States, the search for fur-bearing animals was the catalyst for territorial exploration and the settlement of many areas across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains. Our country's past is rapt in the lure of fine fur, it seems, and it’s a seminal part of our nation, whether you like it or not.

In any case, designer interest and consumer demand seems to trump any suggestive ethical dilemma, at least for now. And the choice to wear real fur versus faux fur versus no fur at all (according to 86 percent of Americans, according to the Fur Information Council of America) should be left up to the designer and the wearer. "Fur is not for everybody," as Charles Ross, the Head of International Marketing for Saga Furs says. "But today, farm certification programs have made fur a highly regulated farming industry, probably the most in the world, and one with the quality, transparency and sustainability the consumers, and the designers, demand. That wasn’t always the case... but now fur is becoming just another luxury material.”