With a crowd of 300-plus in the City Council’s Chamber and 100 antifur protesters outside on the steps of City Hall, Wednesday’s public hearing was the first chance for both sides to face off about the proposed bill to ban the sale of new fur and shearling in New York City.
Should New York City go forward, it would become the largest city in the U.S. to ban the sale of new fur apparel and accessories. The term fur applies to any animal skin, in whole or in part, with the hair, fleece or fur fibers attached, according to the proposed legislation. The bill was put forward by Council Speaker Corey Johnson, along with City Council members Mark Levine, Fernando Cabrera, Justin Brannan, Helen Rosenthal and Robert Holden.
Before City Council members listened to and spiritedly challenged the many views, the pre-event rally was relatively orderly. While many were left waiting outside the security gate before the debate got under way, indoors some bill opponents made their opinions known by wearing T-shirts with messages such as “Police Our Streets, Not Our Closets” and “My Closet. My Choice.”
To help keep the peace, about eight security officials were stationed in the room. A New York City police officer, who was seated quietly in the back of the room, told one attendee she was there to make sure everything went smoothly. Attendees were advised that any booing would result in their removal from the proceedings. Clapping was also forbidden, as guests were advised to raise their arms and wiggle their fingers instead.
Speaker Johnson started the hearing by telling the crowd how millions of animals are killed for their fur, and “It can take hundreds of lives for a single coat.” After telling attendees how Stella McCartney once said, “Fur is the most unnecessary thing in the world,” Johnson then rattled off the names of many designers and houses that have taken steps to eliminate fur — Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Diane von Furstenberg, Tommy Hilfiger, Gucci, Burberry, Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Phillip Lim, Vivienne Westwood “and the list goes on.” Johnson made the point that the ban would only apply to new fur items, and not prevent selling or repurposing of used fur garments, or anyone from wearing or owning fur in New York City. “We are not about to raid your closet,” Johnson said, adding that that is contrary to claims by the fur industry. “There is no such thing as ethical, ecological or excellent welfare fur. That is marketing language aimed at hiding the brutality of this business.”
Alternatives to fur, freedom of choice, the number of jobs that would be lost, the fur industry’s self-regulation, the suffering of animals, mislabeled products, the definition of humane treatment, the challenge of enforcing a citywide ban should New Yorkers shop for fur online, the potential for fur-minded employees to transfer their skills to other areas of the fashion industry and consumers’ increasing interest in sustainability were among the many topics that led to great discourse. Representatives from Tapestry Inc. and Capri Holdings Ltd. — the parent company of Michael Kors and Versace — provided a statement opposing the shearling and hair-on cowhide aspects of the bill. They described the legislation as “overly broad and would have a far-reaching negative impact on the city’s economy and the fashion industry based here.”
Tapestry and Capri Holdings noted, “Each of our brands has developed a meaningful presence in New York and many were originally founded here. Tapestry established its global corporate headquarters in New York, and each of the Capri Holdings’ brands has a meaningful corporate presence in New York City. Collectively, we employ thousands of full- and part-time workers across the city’s economy and the fashion industry based here.”
There are more than 150 fur businesses operating in New York City that provide 1,400 full-time jobs — 300 more than previously known, according to a representative for Fur NYC. But there was reference to an economic report that pegged the potential job loss at 7,000 — a statistic supporters referenced from a recent impact study by an economist, but one that council members did not have in their information packets.
“Project Runway” cohost Tim Gunn was among the first to speak, noting how he has advocated against fur throughout his career in fashion. He also spoke about the fashion industry’s “troubling history with animals” and how furriers used to slice up chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, leopards, baby seals and tigers for their fur until the Seventies. That’s when most of that was deemed illegal, as the federal government enacted the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. “Now it’s time to safeguard all the other animals from such gratuitous violence,” he said.
An attorney for the International Fur Federation and the Fur Information Council spoke of the bill’s significant impact on the fur district’s neighborhood and the need for the city to identify, assess and disclose those impacts, as well as develop indication measures and consider other alternatives.
Mark Oaten, chief executive officer of the International Fur Federation, a group that represents the fur industry around the globe, said the “growing” fur trade is worth $33 billion. In New York, fur is sold beyond the fur district to stores such as Barneys New York, Bloomingdale’s and on the Internet. “From Canada Goose to Uggs to Fendi to Louis Vuitton, New Yorkers are buying fur and they have been doing it for decades, and want to continue to do so. The next generation is designing fur. It’s on the catwalks here.…A ban proposed this way would stop the freedom of those designers from being able to use fur, and more importantly, stop consumers here from buying fur they want to buy. At a time when many of us are concerned about environmental impact on society, it makes no sense to deny consumers the opportunity to buy a truly natural material rather than push them toward the fake plastic alternatives. Fur biodegrades. It does not end up in landfill.”
Much of what he said triggered considerable back-and-forth between Johnson and other council members. At the top of that list was IFF’s Fur Mark, a certification program designed to reassure New York City consumers about the fur they purchase. Oaten encouraged Johnson a few times to meet with him to discuss the prospect of having New York City be the first city to adopt that 22-assessment program. The pair also clashed about London Fashion Week’s reported plans to go fur-free. Oaten insisted that was not happening, telling Johnson that the British Fashion Council’s chief executive Caroline Rush had told him as much. When Johnson disagreed, citing an article from The Guardian on his smartphone, Oaten restated his claim and offered to give him Rush’s phone number.
At one point, People for the Ethical Treatent of Animals’ Dan Mathews sprang up from his seat to demonstrate how a $10 steel trap (that he said can be bought on Amazon) works. That effort took more than one attempt.
Suggesting that the number of fur storefronts has fallen off drastically from the Seventies, Gunn said, “There is an erosion in perception in fur being a luxury item. The fur industry likes to say, ‘It’s not your grandmother’s coat any more.’ There have been many attempts to make fur more moderate.…It just doesn’t have the sort of luster that it used to have. I don’t believe that we should return to a time where it does.”
Some opponents of the bill, which would carry up to a $500 penalty for the first offense, and one ranging between $500 and $1,500 for any thereafter, were quick to air their views. The American Apparel & Footwear Association posted its government relations representative Kristen Kern’s testimony Wednesday, while the hearing was still going on. Their recommendation was for the council to “reconsider this legislation, which will limit consumer choice, kill jobs, and hurt New York City’s economy.”
New York City-based designer and activist Joshua Katcher spoke of such fur alternatives as algae-based biosynthetics and how luxurious fabrics can be made from citrus peels, pineapples, mushrooms and agricultural waste. He also said fashion design students that he has worked with are seeking more sustainable options.
Three representatives from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office also spoke of his support of the fur ban. The mayor supported legislation put forward by Johnson that led to the ban of elephants in circuses. After delivering his testimony, Marc Bouwer said, “I think that wearing real fur is a vanity thing and totally unnecessary. I’m appalled at the way these animals are caged and treated. I am deeply disturbed by the way they are killed or skinned. I want to be part of the solution to a better fashion industry and this is a giant step towards that.”
Nicole Fischelis shared her opposition of the bill, describing fur design as a dedicated craft that has survived wars. She also took issue when council member Rafael Espinal cut her short. As the hearing neared the five-hour mark, there was no sign of a quick ending, with many supporters and opponents still waiting to air their concerns. One furrier asked why only two council members (both of whom were looking weary) were the only ones remaining, when they started with seven.