NEW YORK — Is fur chic again?

From ersatz monkey to phony Mongolian lamb, a veritable zoo of fake fur made its way across the fall runways of Europe and New York.

Some were overtly faux — sent out by the industry’s most politically correct designers — but others could easily be mistaken for the real thing. So much so, in fact, that some in the industry say all this runway action could make the streets safe again for any fur — even the real thing.

Observers see irony at work: In the attempt to satisfy anti-fur activists with fakes, designers may end up giving the real thing a big boost and lifting a stigma that’s plagued the fur industry since the Eighties.

The question boils down to whether fake fur is, ultimately, pro-fur or anti-fur and the industry is predictably divided.

“We’ve always sold fake furs,” said Ralph Romberg, divisional vice president of outerwear at Neiman Marcus. “Every three to four years it becomes very hot and oddly enough, in the years that fakes take off, so does the real thing.”

“You can never know the psychology of the consumer,” Romberg said. “When you see something in a fashion show in couture it does filter down, depending on what’s available. In many cases the consumer is buying a look and a feel.”

Romberg said that this past winter, Neiman’s sold out of its fake fur inventory and also did well with real fur sales. Romberg said he anticipates much of the same for 1994.

“The abundance of fake fur bodes well for real fur,” said Karen Handel, director of media relations and governmental affairs for the Fur Information Council of America.

Fur sales rose 9 percent, to $1.2 billion in 1993, according to a report conducted by FICA, the second consecutive yearly gain following a 10 percent hike in 1992 — and the upward trend is expected to continue this year.

Handel said that when fake furs are hot, an upturn in real fur business often follows.

“Fake fur is an imitation and everyone knows imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” she said.

Several factors drive the faux fur business. Fake fur is considered politically inoffensive, can be produced in a wide variety of looks, and is known for its warm, soft qualities.

With pile coats wholesaling for $75 to $450, the cost is much less than a real fur coat, which at retail sells for $1,000 to $50,000 or more.

FICA has been on the front lines doing battle with its arch enemy, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the fakes issue is one that touches nerves on both sides.

Some argue that fakes can’t possibly be confused with the real thing and will in no way impact the fur business.

But in February, model Naomi Campbell caused a furor when she showed up in a white furry coat at a screening of Christy Turlington’s backstage look at modeling — right after she appeared nude in a PETA ad in which she proclaimed she’d “rather go naked than wear fur.”

Although Campbell’s representative at the Ford Agency insisted the coat was fake, FICA sent off a press release claiming the coat was real: “Naomi obviously thinks fur is fashionable. That’s why fur is part of her personal wardrobe,” said the statement.

Whether the Campbell coat is fur or fake remains a question.

Still, some say, the gap between faux and real fur customers remains wide.

“I think the fakes were fabulous,” said Ellin Saltzman, fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman’s, talking about the Bryant Park shows.

Saltzman said fake fur and real fur attract different customers.

“I don’t think it competes with real fur,” she said. “Fake fur is a fun item, and I was delighted to see it on the runway.”

Saltzman said there might be a connection between the heavy dose of fakes on the runway and a climate more conducive to wearing fur, but said, “I’m not taking it any further than that.”

With the gains in fur sales, animal activists, most particularly the Washington-based PETA, have stepped up their activities, specifically targeting the fashion industry. Their tactics have ranged from an ad campaign featuring supermodels in the nude to storming the offices of Vogue and Calvin Klein. PETA also says it intends to disrupt next month’s designer fur shows here.

On Saturday, nine women from the group Activists for Animals protested topless on Fifth Avenue in front of Bergdorf Goodman and the Fendi Boutique against the use of fur.

For animal activists, the surge in fake furs is troublesome.

“I’m not a fan of fake fur that looks real,” said Dan Mathews, director of PETA.

However, he said, “Fake fur is an anti-fur statement.

“If people feel compelled to wear something furry, I’m glad no animals were killed,” Mathews said. “Designers are making a statement by using so much fake fur. Even Karl Lagerfeld, who is such a fur hag, is backing off and we’re thrilled.”

Mathews conceded that “the real-looking fakes may confuse consumers, but trappers can’t kill animals when designers use fakes.”

The current round of fake fur first hit the runways in March in Paris and Milan, with such houses as Dolce & Gabbana, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Vivienne Westwood showing much of it in their collections.

In a move that caused quite a stir, Karl Lagerfeld, who has done a complete fur collection for Fendi for the past 30 years, mixed up the real thing with fakes in Milan in his signature collection and in the collections he did for Fendi and Chanel.

At the time, it was widely reported that a “row” had erupted between the Fendi sisters and Lagerfeld when he wanted to show only fakes in public and do a private showing of the genuine article. The result, apparently, was that Lagerfeld mixed up the two.

The designer said his fakes for Fendi have sold well and he maintains his motivation was purely a fashion statement, not a political one.

However, when asked whether the look of fur, even fake fur, would encourage people to wear real fur, Lagerfeld said: “These strange tortured ideas that these people have are just too vicious for me. For me, fake fur is a fashion point. That’s all. That [assertion] is such a perverse thing to say. It’s like telling people to not stop smoking because if they do, they’ll want a cigarette. If you follow that kind of thinking, you’ll never do anything.”

Carla Fendi, principal of Gruppo Fendi, said, “Fendi’s position is that of a fashion house which uses the right product in the right moment.”

Is there a future for fake fur or is it just a fashion trend?

“Fendi used fake fur already many years ago and did it again this year, but how can you foresee what you are going to do for the next collection?”

Fendi added that its fakes perform “very well.”

Among designers on this side of the Atlantic who showed faux fur for fall, the issue divides itself across several lines.

Marc Jacobs, who recently signed a license with Birger Christensen to do leather, shearling and Mongolian lamb coats and who showed the fake stuff in his recent runway show, summed up his feelings on the fake versus real controversy by saying, “I’m just pro-choice.”

“I used fakes as a fabric. I didn’t think of it as an alternative, which of course it is,” Jacobs explained. “Fake fur is a trend in fashion. I don’t associate it with anti-fur issue as much as just fashion enthusiasm for women who want off-handed glamour.”

Jacobs said there will always be women who feel that a fur coat is the height of luxury and status.

“I will continue to use both fake and real furs,” he said. “I don’t have a hangup about using fur. To me they are both the same. I don’t look at it like one is precious and the other cheap. I don’t think it matters anymore.”

Byron Lars, whose collection had an African theme, said while he is not anti-fur, he did use only synthetics in his runway show.

“I would never use real fur as long as the fake stuff looked as real as it does today,” he said, although he says he didn’t intend to make an anti-fur statement. “If it were an anti-fur act, I would have to be anti-leather, then anti-everything. When there is an opportunity not to use it, then I won’t.”

Lars said the trend of designers toward fake fur probably has no bearing on the real fur business.

“Those that want real will buy real,” he said. “There might be an increase in real fur sales. You see all this fake stuff and it looks real. But I don’t think it’s going to sway real fur customers away.”

Isaac Mizrahi, who designed fur until a year ago, said that while he considers real fur the height of luxury, he also admits that animal rights groups have reached him personally. Last year, the designer began using faux fur in his collection, as he did again this year.

“It’s impossible to use real fur and be politically correct, unfortunately,” he said. “So I opted for the fakes. They are so luxurious and feel so good and they look almost exactly like real fur.

“I loved doing fur, but the animal activists got to me. There’s nothing as luxurious as real fur, but synthetics come really close. This phenomenon of fakes might make it safe to wear furs, in which case why buy a real one?”

He added that there may be a time in the future when he will go back to doing real fur.

“I don’t know when,” he said. “Maybe when there’s a shift in the cultural perception of fur. You can’t tell me it’s over. This has been going on since the time of cavemen.”

For Todd Oldham, the issue is clearly political. He has never shown fur, uses fake leather and designed a float in last November’s Fur-Free-Friday demonstration here. He is a designer who has unabashedly aligned himself with animal activists — although he says they disagree with him about fake fur.

“They don’t think you should use it [fakes] at all,” Oldham said. “But I think the more non-dead options we offer, the better.”

Oldham said he didn’t think the prevalence of synthetic coats would spur women to wear real ones.

“I don’t think they do look real,” he said, referring to the fake coats, but added, “We went for all real-looking fakes this season with polar bear and sheared beaver. But it is still synthetic and has a cartoony feel. I can’t imagine that it would make a woman feel safe or comfortable wearing real fur.”

Oldham said he hoped that the popularity of designers showing fake fur on the runways was a statement against fur, but added, “I have my doubts.”

“There will always be women who want real fur, but I just enjoy synthetics,” said Betsey Johnson. “I don’t believe in killing animals for fur. This is the first year fakes became really great. They have taken on a whole new modernity. But I don’t think it’s going to make women wear real fur — I would hope not, anyway.”

Some furriers consider using faux fur to spur interest in the real thing an exercise in splitting hairs.

“The fakes might look like real ones on the runway,” said Chris Spyropolous, president of Birger Christensen. “But there is a tremendous difference.”

Spyropolous, who noted that his fur sales more than doubled this year, said the prevalence of synthetics would not hurt real fur sales. But he didn’t know if they would help, either.

Although Birger Christensen has a license with Marc Jacobs, who used fakes in his collection, Spyropolous said that he didn’t have a problem with designers using both.

“Designers have a picture in their mind about what they want to present,” he said. “If he [Jacobs] envisions fakes on the runway to serve one purpose and shearlings and leathers for another purpose, then one doesn’t conflict with the other.”

“It was a great form of flattery,” said Larry Schulman, vice president of Alixandre, which licenses a collection with both Valentino and Oscar de la Renta, regarding the plethora of fakes.

Schulman pointed out that de la Renta — who showed fake cheetah in his recent collection — used faux fur only as trims and not as full coats.

“Fake fur pieces haven’t sold very well in the past few years,” he said. “I don’t think it will affect business. People who want furs want furs. It’s like when you buy a car. Do you want plastic seats or leather? It appeals to two different consumers.

“I don’t know if this will have a trickle-down effect. I don’t see the correlation between fakes and fur. There could be something, but I don’t know what it could be.”

If anyone is smiling over the run of fake furs, it’s the manufacturers of pile fabric coats.

“I think it adds more respectability and a more couture feeling toward fakes,” said David Leinoff, designer and manager of Fur and Furgery, a veteran furrier who expanded into fake furs four years ago. “It was an important fashion statement. I like the idea that a designer says that pile fabrics are important and, whether you do it in a $500 coat or a $500,000 coat, it’s an important, valid look.”

Leinoff, who often mixes real and fake fur, said the stamp of approval by designers on faux fur will help generate real fur sales.

“The fur look becomes important in the consumer’s mind,” he explained. “A lot of people walk in to buy a fake on the retail level and find they want to see the real thing. It won’t hurt fur sales, if anything it will help them. Our biggest selling coats are mixed. People take a look and they want to carry it out in the most elegant way they can. If fake sales increase, so will real fur sales. It’s already happening.”

Today, Leinoff’s Furgery line constitutes 40 percent of his overall volume and his fur business increased last year by 25 percent.

Neil Haimm, president of the Donnybrook division of Lou Levy & Sons, thinks the input of top designers using faux fur will help increase his business by 20 percent this fall.

“I think it’s nice that a lot of top designers showed fakes,” he said.

“It obviously helps buyers to be more aware that fake fur is happening and they should have it if they haven’t already carried it,” he added.

Haimm said following the runway shows here, he had more customers coming to shop his line of fakes.

“I think the shows will have an affect on our business,” he said, but added, “I don’t think it will affect women who want real furs. A woman who buys a fake today isn’t looking for an imitation, she wants a fun, fashionable looking coat.”

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