Gucci. Michael Kors. Versace. Maison Margiela. All one-time enthusiastic purveyors of fanciful fur merch. To wit, Gucci’s fur-lined slippers, introduced for fall 2015, became an instant comfort-chic phenomenon, and, as late as the spring ready-to-wear season in October, the brand’s store on Rue Royale in Paris featured flashy, flamboyant floral intarsia mink coats.
“It’s like when you have to stop to smoke…” the brand’s high-flying, uber influential creative director, Alessandro Michele, told WWD in December. “You love it, but it’s not good. So, at the end, you just have to take your box of cigarettes and throw it in the bin and that’s it. Because after, you feel much better.”
Whether or not fur is “not good” depends upon one’s perspective. There’s no question that fur as a major, hot-button issue is back with an intensity not seen for at least 20 years, when fur protests at fashion shows were de rigueur, and high-profile fur-champions were frequently doused with red paint and tomato juice. Today, while anti-fur activity has thankfully moved on from physical acts of aggression against individuals, organized protests are back as the debate has reemerged, not only in the forefront of fashion discourse, but in the broader culture. Across the industry, passions run deep and, in deep swaths of the retail landscape, so, too, does fear.
As countless brands and designers either renounce fur officially or cut back on its use, the fur industry is going on the offensive. “We’re coming out fighting,” said Mark Oaten, chief executive officer of the International Fur Federation.
There’s much to fight for. In 2017, fur generated global retail sales of $30 billion, according to figures supplied by IFF. More than half of that, a whopping $17 billion, is in China, where organized anti-fur efforts are still nascent but building momentum. Europe, at $7 billion, is the second largest market, followed by Russia at $2.2 billion. In the U.S., which accounts for a relatively modest $1.4 billion, the issue resonates powerfully. Last month, San Francisco passed a ban on fur sales effective Jan. 1, becoming the largest U.S. municipality to invoke such a measure.
Overall, it’s a complex and emotional battle, with the animal-rights side seeming to have gained the upper hand — at least in terms of public relations, with fashion brands at the epicenter of attention right now. Along with the power quartet mentioned above, Jimmy Choo, Furla, Donna Karan/DKNY and, as of last week, Brooks Brothers, recently proclaimed themselves fur-free brands. Ralph Lauren has been fur-free since 2006, and Giorgio Armani declared definitively in 2016.
Yes, there’s a caveat: Many brands swearing off fur continue to work with shearling and leather. (Unlike a mink, Baa, Baa Black Sheep and Elsie the Cow have the unfortunate distinction of being part of the food chain. As such, their skins are considered a by-product and therefore, their use, deemed a lesser affront by many designers.)
On the retail side, Yoox Net-a-porter Group last year went fur-free, ceasing sales of all fur clothing and accessories on its multibrand sites, and Holt Renfrew closed six of seven fur salons. Fur sales have been banned in West Hollywood since 2013, precluding Maxfield and Fred Segal from stocking it at their stores there; the latter extended the ban to its LAX outpost and has asked licensed partners to conform as well. Sydney-based David Jones stopped selling fur back in 2002. And in media, InStyle earlier this month officially banned fur from editorial and no longer accepts fur advertising.
While a skeptic might wonder if social media considerations — whether fear of online attacks for using fur or the hope of plaudits for going fur-free — might have something to do with the recent brand defections, most designers interviewed for this piece said no. However, fur industry representatives maintain that intimidation indeed factors in, with anti-fur activists engaging in aggressive campaigning. Then there’s the matter of what, exactly, the major fashion brands are sacrificing in terms of the bottom line. Even at the height of interest, fur comprised only a relatively small percentage of most collections, both in number of looks and sales. Yet at a time when marketing tail often wags corporate-policy dog, those questions are beside the point; the perception of an ongoing exodus exists, the luxury fashion cognoscente finally shunning fur in an exercise of enlightened commercial noblesse oblige.
The impact has been powerful. “It’s about time that the fashion industry woke up to the fact that fur is cruel, barbaric and simply incredibly old-fashioned and unfashionable,” said Stella McCartney, long fashion’s lone mainstream, major-brand voice in support of an animal-free ethos. While McCartney feels “very proud that I have been true to myself and my beliefs,” she seeks no credit for changing minds, rather attributing the shift to “the entire industry working together for the betterment of the planet and the better of animal welfare.”
If McCartney’s assertion about “the entire industry” overstates current reality, the full industry is at least paying rapt attention, with individual brands evaluating their own places in the proverbial conversation. Consider, from no less an entrenched fur purveyor than Silvia Venturini Fendi: Of course, I live in real life and so I’m interested about that, very much interested…,” she said. “But when you decide to go for that, you have to do it in a very committed way. It’s not just [about] not doing fur and doing crocodile or exotic-skin bags, which doesn’t make sense…we will see. The future is going to be very interesting.”
“This subject would need very lengthy discussion,” advised Miuccia Prada. “And once you approach fur you should possibly approach the larger issue of sustainability and environment and maybe much more, all issues that our company is committed to. I have always preferred doing, acting, instead of making announcements: Of course, we are researching and analyzing the possibilities very seriously, and I have stopped showing fur on the catwalk. The subject is serious and has to be addressed, but let’s not forget it’s a small part of a much bigger picture that needs the same attention.”
Every high-profile pronouncement thrusts the topic into the media-cycle forefront, to the delight of the anti-fur set. The biggest shocker: Donatella Versace. In an interview posted last month, she told The Economist’s 1843 Magazine, “I am out of that. I don’t want to kill animals to make fashion.” Given her long-running love of fur, well-documented through years of runway coverage, Versace’s statement rang as stunning — and as over the top as the most demonstrative of the fur designs from which she is now distancing herself. In response to a query for explanation and context, Versace offered insight into her change-of-heart. “As a person, but most importantly as a businesswoman, I need to carefully evaluate what impact certain decisions will have on the business,” Versace said, while noting that quantifiable business considerations were only part of the issue. “I have started to think about legacy, the next generations and leaving a better future.”
Two who have been fur-free for a while: Antonio Berardi and Fausto Puglisi. Berardi stopped using fur several years ago, finding its ever-increasing use as a status-marker across luxury “abhorrent.” “Fur has its limits,” he said. “Its beauty lies in the fact that it suits the animal and not the human.”
Puglisi took a similarly clear-cut stance; he hasn’t used fur in three years: “I have two dogs and I love them like family members, so I can no longer ignore how fur animals are treated.”
Casey Cadwallader will show his first collection for Thierry Mugler, a fall capsule, in New York on May 9. A one-time fur and leather expert at Loewe and briefly at J.Mendel — “it was even on my visa,” Cadwallader noted — his views started to change, “as I’ve grown and matured.” His debut will feature no fur, shearling included. Cadwallader wants to get in early on cutting-edge, lab-produced leather, with the ultimate goal of making his Mulgler animal-free. “The day that I can, we switch for sure. I think that would be amazing,” he said. To that end, he noted the work being done by Modern Meadow, the New Jersey firm that has developed Zoa, a collagen-based laboratory leather that it debuted in a t-shirt created for the recent MoMA show, “Objects: Is Fashion Modern?”
While such absolutist positions remain in the minority — albeit one growing more populous, seemingly by the week, all designers canvased acknowledged fur as a major issue with which they must grapple in the upcoming seasons.
Marc Jacobs showed only fake fur for fall. Though he won’t declare his brand fur-free, he’s both respectful and skeptical of recent proclamations. “In the world we live in right now and with experiences I’ve gone through in other areas of fashion, I think it’s impossible to not be sensitive to things that people take issue with…,” Jacobs said. “That doesn’t mean I’ve gone green. The only person I know — and there may be others, but I can’t think of another — the only person I know who works in fashion who has been through-and-through anti-fur, anti-leather and [is] vegan and all that, is Stella. That is a life choice. Her belief system is to me without hypocrisy….
“So when people start to conveniently talk about being green or conveniently become anti-fur, I’m a little bit suspect. In order to avoid that kind of hypocrisy that I don’t respect from others, I just [don’t make definitive statements].”
Nor will Tom Ford grasp the distinction. While he no longer uses animals farmed for their fur, he continues to use shearling, which, he said, “does not sound very sexy: ‘I’m selling you a food by-product!’” Ford therefore won’t claim to be fur-free, unlike many others who happily assume the descriptive while showing off a shearling coat.
The anti-fur movement seems willing to accept the shearling-only approach as a positive point in a process. Asked whether he considers that loophole a reasonable half-way measure or self-serving hypocrisy, Dan Mathews, senior vice president of PETA, said, “It’s definitely a big step. We would love to see people design without leather and without any animal products. But what’s happening now as these designers have shed their fur lines, it starts the ball rolling.”
A huge contributor to that process: fake fur. Newly fabulous fake fur is playing a major role in designers’ decision to reject real fur or use less of it. Along with Kors, Jacobs and Ford, Dries Van Noten, Clare Waight Keller, Anna Sui and Marco di Vincenzo are among those designers who noted that advances with fake have opened new creative vistas, making working with real fur less essential to their work. Even Fendi incorporates fake fur into its collections. (Venturini Fendi noted that fake is nothing new to her brand; she recalled that in the midst of anti-fur activity in the Eighties, the house did a collection featuring “fake fur worked like they were real.”)
Kors ranks among the more surprising converts, as, until his declaration last December, fur frequently fluffed up his runway, and he had produced a collection in partnership with Pologeorgis for more than 20 years. He’d also been the object of major animal-rights activity over the years, including last June, when protesters stormed the stage during his conversation with Alina Cho at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In discussing his shift, Kors told WWD that as a pet owner who’s gone on multiple African safaris, the animal issue had started to gnaw at him. But until he felt confident in the fashion allure of fake fur, he was unwilling to give up the luxury the real thing affords. “How do I continue with that texture and that indulgence but not use animals that were raised or trapped for their fur?” Kors questioned, rhetorically. “I wanted to have it all. Don’t we all?”
Yet while advances with fake have opened new creative vistas, many designers admitted to philosophical conflict because they assume fake fur is worse for the environment than real. (No one registered the thought that it’s not an either-or situation, and that one could in fact refrain from using real fur without crossing over to fake.)
“Fake fur pollutes the world more than anything else,” declared Karl Lagerfeld.
“Of course, there is a cruelty, and it’s not the nicest thing when you see films of how the fur is made and everything,” said Van Noten, who used only fake fur for fall 2018. “On the other hand, we have to also be honest and see how cruel it can be to the world that you do all those very synthetic yarns and all these things to make [fake] fur….So for me, it’s a very double thing. You can say, ‘OK, you don’t want to be cruel to the animals,’ but maybe once you would know how about the environment you need to make this [fake] fur, so it’s a little bit of double thing. So, my answer is, I don’t know.”
“People think of fake fur as a disposable thing. They buy it, they wear it a few seasons, they throw it away, it doesn’t biodegrade [whereas] a fur coat gets recycled. People wear them for 30 years, they give them to their kids, then they turn them into throw pillows. So I don’t know the answer to that,” Ford said.
It’s this quagmire on which the fur industry is striking back. Portraying real fur as ecologically favorable to fake lies at the heart of its tactical defense. In its effort to take on the reawakened anti-fur movement, the IFF along with several of its members — Fur Europe and the auction houses Saga Furs, Kopenhagen Fur, North American Fur Auctions, Sojuzpushnina and Fur Harvesters Auction Inc. — has just launched stage one of a broad-based campaign, “Natural Fur: The Responsible Choice,” which involves shifting a significant portion of its advertising budget from fashion to an environmental focus targeting the industry. It’s in the process of sending out a 48-page mailer to 10,000 designers and retailers worldwide, and has enlisted p.r. firms in Paris, London, Milan and New York. A consumer-facing video and social media campaign that focused on Millennials will kick off next month. And, under the “Natural Fur” moniker, the group has signed on as a sponsor of several luxury conferences, including those of Condé Nast, held last week in Lisbon and the Financial Times, scheduled for May 20-22 in Venice.
Nick Pologeorgis, ceo of the company founded by his father in 1960 and a North American member of the IFF, maintains this large-scale, organized approach is long overdue. “Our industry has always said, ‘Let’s just turn the other cheek,’ like in the Bible,” he said. “That’s the wrong way today. As an industry, we haven’t communicated properly yet what fur is, how sustainable and traceable it is, and [what] a good product it is for the world…fake fur is full of poly fibers and polymers, petrochemicals, plastics. [It] contaminates the waterways, fills the landfills.”
Oaten expanded on that point. “Our product is totally natural, and even if it has chemicals added to it, it biodegrades,” he said. “The other product is made of fibers and materials, which will not biodegrade.” As for the suggestion that tanning makes real fur also environmentally toxic, he said. “It’s totally wrong to suggest in any way whatsoever that the tanning element affects the biodegradability. This is a false claim.” He noted, too, that the industry is doing research into natural tanning techniques.
To support that premise of furs environmental superiority with facts, the IFF commissioned Organic Waste Systems, an independent laboratory based in Ghent, Belgium, and accredited under ISO, or International Organization for Standardization, standards, to do a comparative study of fake and real fur, the results to be released within the next two weeks.
Inez Monteny, an Organic Waste spokesperson, declined to summarize the results of the study, and Oaten said they’re not yet ready for release. Monteny capsulized its parameters. “We performed specific testing for IFF in order to analyze the potential degradation behavior of real fur [dressed fur and dyed fur] and fake fur in a landfill,” she said. “Both biodegradation and disintegration were evaluated. Biodegradation is the degradation on a chemical level. A well-known synonym is mineralization. For this, we measured the conversion of the real/fake fur to CO2. Disintegration is the physical fragmentation into smaller pieces.”
Even assuming real fur wins out over fake in the biodegradability stakes, clarifying the ecological ramifications of both is far from a linear pursuit. One can find research on both sides of the divide — until now, typically lean research emanating from a partisan perspective. While it seems logical that as a natural product fur would be ecologically favorable, a counter argument of fur-free proponents maintains that when the entire picture is considered — from the carbon footprint created by the animals farmed for their fur through to the tanning processes that make real fur no longer “natural” — fake fur is the more ecologically responsible choice.
Linda Greer is an environmental toxicologist and a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where she runs Clean by Design, a program focused on lessening the fashion industry’s carbon footprint. She noted that neither real fur nor fake fur provides an environmental “free lunch,” but that both represent a small percentage of clothes bought, sold, worn and discarded. By that measure, she views the matter of which is more damaging to the environment less significant than the primary issue of general overconsumption of fashion.
Greer did offer a comparison of the two. The rap against fake fur: Synthetics are made from non-renewable crude oil-derived acrylic polymers and require a great deal of energy to produce. In its early stages, modacrylic in particular uses a raw material that is highly toxic and carcinogenic to workers, though this toxicity disappears — and hence poses no risk to consumers — as the chemical is transformed in the manufacturing process. As for real fur, the animals raised for their pelts generate significant carbon footprints of their own. Greer acknowledged the dearth of reliable scientific data on which is worse, but pointed to a 2013 study by the Belgian research and consultancy firm CE Delft. Bottom line, it assigned a carbon footprint number to both real fur and fake fur and favored fake over real. But there’s a big caveat, as Greer deemed the study somewhat scientifically wanting. “They do not provide the breakdown of how they got the final number, so I don’t consider it an authoritative source,” she said.
The IFF is doing its own comparative carbon footprint study, with results expected in October. (Greer’s ultimate suggestion — not one that those on either side of the divide want to hear: buy less and buy vintage.)
Then, there’s the water issue. Francois Souchet leads the Circular Fibres Initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The fur controversy, he noted, “is very much about ethics and ethics are derived from opinion.” He described his organization as “fact-based,” its opinions rooted in extensive research. As it hasn’t done specific research on real fur versus fake fur, Souchet declined to compare the two. He said fake fur is often made from synthetics that “shed plastic microfibers, when they are used and washed, in the environment. Those microfibers are too small to be filtered at any point of the water treatment system…and basically, all those microfibers end up in our oceans contributing to ocean plastic pollution.”
Souchet added that as the textile industry continues its development of synthetics and the apparel industry increases its use of those materials, responsible research and development is a must. “Whether it’s through fake fur or faux leather or other types of materials, there is a need for innovation to make those materials look beautiful but there is also a need for innovation to make those materials good, [not only] by the way they look but also by the way they impact the environment,” he said.
The fur industry is banking on the ecological aspect of the debate to fall in its favor. Yet for those who believe that an animal should never be killed for its fur, the issue of environmental impact is ultimately secondary. “Definitely. [Animals are] the number-one priority,” Mathews said. “But I think concern for the environment goes hand-in-hand with not wanting animal skins used. Because animal [skin] has to be preserved chemically. Otherwise, it will rot like the piece of decaying flesh that it is.”
To that end, Oaten sees the anti-fur movement as entry to a much larger agenda. “The animal-rights groups are not just talking about fur,” he said. “They are talking about leather, they are talking about banning wool, they are talking about silk. Their agenda is to stop all of this.”
Asked specifically about silk, Mathews concurred. “Sure. I think anything that comes from an animal should be done away with,” he said. “With technology being as sophisticated as it is today, I think that we could do away with every single animal-based fabric tomorrow and there’d be plenty of options.”
While the environment quandary dominated designers’ conflict about switching from real to fake fur, some also expressed concern on a human level, for those who work in an industry now under assault, and for the long tradition of skill developed in an industry with roots thousands of years old. The history and tradition of fur go way back — to when humankind first started wearing clothes. Fig leaf aside, skins and fur were the first clothes, and have been in continuous use ever since. Skills and crafts developed around wearing fur, with those traditions strengthened and refined literally over millennia. Along the way, fur grew into the industry it is today — a behemoth at risk of obsolescence. If the fur-free movement has its way, the resulting economic toll on individuals, families and even countries could prove profound.
“The idea that people don’t like it — I understand…” said Lagerfeld. “People who want to suppress the fur industry — if they have enough money to make an income for all the people who work in that industry, OK.”
Others zeroed in on the craft aspect. Van Noten showed only fake fur for fall, but noted the exquisite skill involved at the highest levels of fur craftsmanship. “I love skills,” he said. “And for me, the fourrure, the people who work in fur — it’s a profession with skill which is so fantastic.”
Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli showed a mink coat with a giant floral intarsia on his fall runway. He called the fur issue, “a delicate topic,” while acknowledging that fur is part of the heritage of the house of Valentino and of the haute couture itself. “It is undeniable that today this is a relevant issue. Fur has always been part of Valentino’s heritage; our house contains historical and iconic fur pieces. So, this is definitely part of the Valentino iconic imagery.”
Piccioli’s creative interest lies not in the material itself, but in using and celebrating the craft, “the human work,” that goes into haute fur. At Valentino, any shift away from fur would have to consider its impact on workers. “I must protect all the people, the artisans,” Piccioli said. “Ethically, it’s very important to protect all the people that work in Italy [in the fur industry]. In my company, I have many people that work on this. Before doing any [changes], we have to experiment.
“Maybe we [can] transform the knowhow and the craft into something different. Maybe using fake fur with fantastic craftsmanship is also very luxurious and very couture. It’s not the material that makes a difference but the craft of the people. I’m experimenting. I am open to new challenges. Why not?”
And what of the consumer within this fray? PETA’s Mathews as well as several designers pointed to a generational turning away from fur. “Watching girls that I work with, they don’t wear a lot of fur…” said Joseph Altuzarra, who showed only fake fur this fall. “It feels like women are moving away from it and want things made from noble fibers, things that feel cozy and comfy but also that they feel ethically comfortably with.” He added that he’s “not following any Kering edicts or anything.”
“I think a lot of the Millennials are vegetarian so they would never wear fur,” said Anna Sui. For fall, she showed fake only, though she admits to loving the real thing.
That sentiment was echoed by Givenchy’s Clare Waight Keller, who showed shearling and fake fur. “I really believe that the new generation coming through is not accepting [real fur] at all,” she said.
There, as well, is disagreement. “I hear that, too,” said Tia Matthews, fashion business director of auction house Saga Furs. “But then we see completely contradictory information on that, like this next generation recycling and reusing the fur. In North America, we see that Millennials are driving the online fur buying. Over the last 24 months, we saw [from several major online retailers] a 30 percent increase. It might not be a jacket at that time, it might be an accessory, outdoor garment with fur trim, something in a bag or shoes.”
With global sales of $30 billion, someone is buying fur. Oaten maintains that the real fur customer is getting the short shrift as brands flee the category to placate a movement out of synch with their own customer base. “The reality is, the customers were buying,” he said. “But [the brands] have listened to a petition of maybe 100,000 people who were never their customers. They [are] panicked and scared by these petitions….Now, if it had been all their customers signing, I could understand, but it’s not. They’re campaign petitions organized by people who have a much bigger agenda, which [the brands] have caved to.”
Oaten suggests letting the customer decide. “It’s the simplest thing to do,” he mused. “If you genuinely think that people don’t want to buy fur, it will die, won’t it? People won’t buy it.”
A fear factor such as Oaten described may exist at the brand level. It’s undeniable at the retail level. Of 22 retailers approached by WWD from New York to Tokyo, fewer than half would address the issue. Extract those no longer selling fur or in the process of a full exit, and the number shrinks further, to five. Barneys New York, Holt Renfrew and Matchesfashion.com provided fresh answers. Harvey Nichols and Myer forwarded corporate policy statements.
Those retailers spoke primarily about doing right by their customers while adhering to strict ethical standards. “As a specialty luxury retailer, Barneys New York is constantly reevaluating this topic and carefully considering how our policies can provide customers with the most sustainable fur products,” it said in a statement.
“As the industry changes, we look to change with it,” Holt Renfrew ceo Mario Grauso offered. He said the store continues “to listen to our customers’ wants and needs.” The decision to close six of seven fur salons came as the store identified fur among several “sensitive materials within the industry.”
Matchesfashion ceo Ulric Jerome noted that his customer is interested in and well-informed on the sustainability issue. To that end, the retailer this year launched a Code of Conduct for suppliers. “This code ensures that any fur we sell comes from certified sources and encourages our designers to use alternatives,” he said. “The Code of Conduct also goes much further — looking at every aspect of the supply chain and all the materials used in production.”
A whopping 14 retailers, including many of the storied names, several of which have fur salons — either declined comment or ignored numerous requests. They are Galeries Lafayette, Harrods, Isetan Mitsukoshi, Lane Crawford Joyce Group, Le Bon Marché, 24 Sevres, Moda Operandi, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Printemps, Rinascente, Saks Fifth Avenue, Takashimaya and Tsum.
Therein could lie the fur industry’s biggest challenge: retailers who refuse to defend or even acknowledge their own entrenchment in the category. The logical inference: They want the business and the customer, but are embarrassed by both — clearly not a situation that can continue indefinitely in the face of continued agitation by the animal rights movement and the likelihood of more designer-brand exits from the category. At some point, each of those 14 retailers, and their peers who are similarly reticent, will have to take a stand. If most opt out of fur, will the fur brands be able to telegraph similar cachet via their own e-commerce in the midst of ongoing controversy?
Then there’s another issue that’s unlikely to change. As one industry veteran observed, “The problem with fur — you can’t Instagram it.”