By  on February 14, 2007

NEW YORK — Let the fur fly.

That seemed to be the motto of designers showing during New York Fashion Week last week, and the buyers, editors and socialites sitting in the front rows. Whereas in past seasons the luxury material seemed as taboo in certain fashion circles as overweight models, this fashion week, there was more fur on display — in ways both bold and discreet — than there has been in years.

In addition to ubiquity on the runway, there was Christian Louboutin in a fur-lined down vest, Bergdorf Goodman's Roopal Patel in a tie-front fur vest, Joanna Mastroianni snug under a Mongolian lamb hat and Judith Giuliani playing it safe in a full-length fur. Though unintentionally, the female trio that accompanied Burt Tansky to Friday's Carmen Marc Valvo show was a candid snapshot of how fur has caught on with women of all ages. Tansky's wife, Rita, wore a full-length coat, his daughter opted for a shorter version and his granddaughter sported a shearling.

Roopal Patel in a tie-front fur vest, Joanna Mastroianni snug under a Mongolian lamb hat and Judith Giuliani playing it safe in a full-length fur. Though unintentionally, the female trio that accompanied Burt Tansky to Friday's Carmen Marc Valvo show was a candid snapshot of how fur has caught on with women of all ages. Tansky's wife, Rita, wore a full-length coat, his daughter opted for a shorter version and his granddaughter sported a shearling.

But the Neiman Marcus Group chief executive officer said the interest is driven by shoppers. "I think the customer wants fur — it's a luxury."

Of course, designers want the four-digit and five-digit sales that accompany fur to keep going. Last year, fur items rang up $1.82 billion in retail sales — a slight increase compared with 2005, according to the Fur Information Council of America. But given the unseasonably warm winter many regions of the country had last year, that tally wasn't bad, said executive director Keith Caplan. "The focus was on more fashion-oriented pieces — capelets, shrugs, stoles and accessories. Obviously, those pieces are lower-priced than a fur coat, so you have to sell more of them."

What the masses of fur all over the runways for fall means to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals remains to be seen. The group has raised plenty of ruckus in past seasons, but this fashion week's demonstration amounted only to fliers being passed out before one show, and the group's sponsorship of Marc Bouwer's fur-free show."It's a sad commentary that instead of wowing fashion editors, buyers and consumers with actual design talent, some designers threw fur on anything, from dresses to handbags to hats, to get attention for their runway shows this season," a PETA spokesman said, contending, "even when much of it will be translated to faux fur for retail."

He claimed that Polo Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor, Jones Apparel Group, Limited Brands and Kenneth Cole were not using fur. In Europe, Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Comme des Garçons and Katharine Hamnett were just a few of the designer labels with fur-free policies, the PETA spokesman added.

Calvin Klein went fur-free as of this spring, but a company spokeswoman could not say if it stemmed from PETA.

The prevalence of fur on the runways was not missed by animal rights activists. IMG staffers received their share of unsolicited e-mails. One executive showed one that read, "Have you ever looked into the eyes of an animal being skinned alive for the fur industry? If not, I can send you the videos. Or, is it about money...only money matters?"

By last weekend, PETA's efforts were focused on Cleveland and Columbus, where a crew of naked activists climbed into a giant bed, holding signs that read, "Fur – Out, Love – In." The pre-Valentine's Day pitch was part of PETA's "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur" campaign that was introduced in the Nineties.

Just as designers were unabashed about their fondness for fur, fur-wearing women seem unconcerned about the threat of animal activists.

Celine Dion wasn't making any apologies when she turned up at the J.Mendel fashion show in a fur-trimmed coat. Asked if she had any reservations about attending due to animal rights activists, she said, "No," adding she takes responsibility for "what I say, what I do and what I wear."

"Project Runway" critic Tim Gunn said seeing Vanessa Williams backstage at Dennis Basso's show reminded him of an exchange they had on the red carpet at the Golden Globes, when he was covering it for "The Today Show." Gunn said when he commented on the big fur she was wearing, Williams shot back, ‘I didn't kill it.'"That said, the former chair of the department of fashion design at Parsons The New School for Design noted the school also works with PETA. "I really think it's important for people to have choices, especially when there are so many great synthetic substitutes for fur." (Gunn was just hired as chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne Inc.)

"But now, there are these horror stories that have made me wince about the synthetics that are coming from dog fur in China," Gunn said before Basso's show.

Whether or not that is true, he said the origins of every product should be detailed on its label. "Let the truth be told so consumers can decide. There is an incredible amount of misinformation out there," Gunn said. "I was discussing something about China with my students. I told them, ‘If a country doesn't have human rights, why would you expect them to have animal rights?''' Gunn said.

Bouwer was one designer during fashion week who tried to make a statement about not using fur. Bouwer, who once used fur and leather, said he would stop using all animal-based materials, including wool, in his fall collection. That made him the first designer to show completely free of animal fibers.

Bouwer was bucking the tide, though. And all the fur was welcome news to many retailers, including Ginny Hershey, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of Bergdorf Goodman, who noted, "The treatments are much more sophisticated."

Badgley Mischka offered a cream plucked mink and fox coat, J.Mendel created a white silken lamb coat with a white fin raccoon hood and Isaac Mizrahi designed fox clogs.

Of course, what appeared to be a fur free-for-all on the runways was not by chance. Saga Furs has been rounding up young designers to get them better acquainted with the latest techniques, lining up potential manufacturers and making skins available to them. Rodarte, Doo.Ri and Jason Wu are among the newest names on its roster, and Peter Som, Derek Lam and Proenza Schouler have been around for the past few seasons, said Charles Ross, director of international operations for Saga Furs.

In addition, longtime Saga collaborators like Michael Kors, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Carmen Marc Valvo and Badgley Mischka had a wider assortment of fur pieces on their runways, Ross said. Should any of the 15 to 25 designers Saga works with each season have a special request — an unusual color, an uncommon treatment or a limited number of skins — Saga taps its international network to get things done at the quality designers demand, Ross said. What really appeals to them is the high-ticket sales."The category sold very well at the designer level last winter. They shipped early and sold early," Ross said. "Maybe there was global warming in early December, but it's been frigid in February. Plus, a lot of women who buy a designer fur don't just stay in New York. They travel the world."

And fur is one look that disposable fashion retailers can't knock off, noted fashion consultant Robert Burke. "Fur has been prominent in so many runway shows. Part of the explanation for this is the real emphasis on luxury. Contemporary companies and H&M have been so quick to copy things. But this is something they can't copy with any real authenticity."

As a former retailer, Burke also understands that fur can help boost the bottom line. "Stores are always looking for a way to bring up the average price point."

Marylou Luther, who hit the shows in a fur she bought in the Seventies, said she had never seen designers showing so much fur. That's saying something, considering she has been attending shows since Yves Saint Laurent introduced his first collection for Christian Dior in 1958. "I can't say it's because of our cold weather because these collections were planned months ago."

The threat of PETA is less of a factor, she said. "More and more women aren't worried about PETA — just wearing fur is almost an expression of independence, as if [women are thinking] no one is going to tell me what not to wear."

Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director at Macy's East, said, "I think more is not enough. There was a lot of fur last winter as well. But last year was more about flat fur and this year is more about volume and fur trimming."

Fur-trimmed items in Macy's Birger Christensen-run fur salon are bestsellers year after year, she said. Having grown up around furriers — her father was one and her brother Gerard is one — she thinks fur design to be a craft, not a controversy. "There are other causes in our world that I wish people would demonstrate as violently for."

Bergdorf Goodman's senior vice president and fashion director Linda Fargo said people justify wearing fur. "What about leather? What about plastics?" she asked.Personal preferences aside, Fargo praised the inventiveness shown in new designs like Proenza Schouler's hats.

Not everyone sees furs as the next big thing. Saks Fifth Avenue vice president and women's fashion director Michael Fink considers the category to be part of the fashion landscape. "In the last few years, people have been wearing fur freely if they want to. But it hasn't stuck out as a major trend this season. I'm just seeing it as another texture in a very monochromatic season," he said.

That all-inclusive mind-set is just what sold longtime fur designer Basso on his Bryant Park debut last week. After 23 years of specializing in fur and throwing lavish fashion shows that often attracted or "finale-d" with a major celebrity, Basso decided it was time to show the versatility of his work and introduce a ready-to-wear collection. "I've always handled fur in a creative manner. Other designers are just beginning to do that now."

IMG doesn't necessarily hire extra security for fur-heavy shows, but is said to have more manpower out front, where ticket holders check in. Many designers take it upon themselves to hire extra security for any number of reasons — to safeguard jewelry, protect the designer, take insurance precautions or deal with celebrities. At Basso, security was beefed up at the entrance and some were asked to show their tickets with seat assignments as many as five times. Once showgoers were inside, security guards were buckled down in each aisle during the presentation. Asked if the extra manpower was there to handle any animal activists, one guard, who asked not to be named, said, "Of course."

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