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Furs Get the Cold Shoulder in Animal-Rights Movement

Bill Blass shocked the fashion world last month when he announced that “for personal reasons” he could no longer design fur coats. Blass apparently started yet another trend. A few weeks later, New York designer Carolina Herrera said she would stop using animal pelts for fashion’s sake--nor did she wear fur this winter, she said.

Now the big question on New York’s designer-studded Seventh Avenue is which other big name designers will follow suit and refuse to be associated with fur products.

In addition, financial reports indicate that the last 12 months have demonstrated “very slow” sales for furriers. Could it be that the anti-fur faction is finally affecting American consumers? Are previous fur wearers deciding that fashion is not worth the price of animals’ lives, and 30 to 50 minks are too many to sacrifice for a coat?

Spokespersons for the U.S. fur industry say the anti-fur movement has had no effect on purchases, blaming flat sales on the October, 1987, stock market crash, on increased prices of furs and on a weak dollar.

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But more and more women, like actresses Zsa Zsa Gabor, Candice Bergen and Rue McClanahan, are refusing to wear fur for moral, not financial, reasons. And they’re vocal about it.

Last month, an audience of more than 3,500 converged on New York’s Palladium for “Rock Against Fur,” a six-hour concert, dramatic presentation and furless fashion show designed to protest the killing of animals for fashion’s sake. Actor River Phoenix, singer Belinda Carlisle, rock group the B-52s and ex-Go Go Jane Wiedlin joined Gabor and McClanahan on stage to lend their support to the anti-fur movement.

McClanahan has participated in a major animal-rights ad campaign, sponsored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an organization of more than 300,000 members.

“Last year was the first year the anti-fur movement gained recognition in this country--in the past they made noise, but last year they got heard. They’ve picked up momentum,” says Tammy Robinett, press attache for Revillon Inc.

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Still, some industry insiders contend that the impact of the animal-rights movement in the United States has been loud but not all that effective. “Fur is still very much in demand,” contends Sandy Blye, executive vice president of the American Fur Industry, a trade association representing 3,500 fur retailers and more than 400 manufacturers and dealers. According to Blye, retail sales figures are not available for 1988 yet, but were projected to be $2 billion, up from 1987 and 1986, when they were flat at $1.8 billion.

Bruce Missett, vice president and retail analyst for the New York investment banking firm Salomon Brothers, counters that the fur industry has “experienced great difficulty in the last 12 months for many reasons. Luxury products in general were slow after Oct. 19, 1987, we had a relatively warm winter last year and fur prices escalated dramatically.”

A fourth reason might have to do with the anti-fur movement, Missett says. “In New York, some people wearing fur coats were spray-painted. There has to be some negative effect.”

Soft sales are reflected at Federated and Allied department stores across the country. “Fur sales have been very difficult across the board,” said Frank Doroff, former president of Bullock’s and current chairman and chief executive officer of Federated/Allied Merchandise Services, the merchandising arm of stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Rich’s in Atlanta and Burdine’s in Miami.

Despite what could be interpreted as disappointing sales in the industry as a whole, and despite the lead from Blass, many designers continue to put their name on fashion furs. Karl Lagerfeld and Donna Karan have successful collections. Isaac Mizrahi and Carolyne Roehm are soon to design signature-fur collections. Oscar de la Renta, who, like Blass, was one of the first designers to enter the signature-fur business, continues to style new collections and will show his fall ’89 styles in May.

Karan, who has taken a stand on many other social issues, will continue to design her fur collection, even after this show. “She’s very aware of the controversy,” says Donna Karan vice president Patty Cohen, “but until her feelings about the issue change, she will continue. She only uses ranch-bred varieties of fur, however.”

That is no consolation for animal-rights activists, who are against the use of ranch-bred animal pelts, as well as those from animals trapped in the wilds.

“The animals that are naturally wild are confined in small cages, where no attention is paid to their social or behavioral needs,” explains Helen Jones, president of the Society for Animal Rights, founded in England in 1959.

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“The most recent figures show that more than 100,000 animals are held captive in those small cages. It is a form of prolonged torture for them. Death is usually by gas or a broken neck.”

The anti-fur movement in Europe has been effective. In London, there is virtually no market for fur coats anymore. The Royal Family refuses to be seen in fur.

The movement has not been nonviolent, however. Last year, a fur store in Santa Rosa, Calif., was set ablaze. A statement read to the Associated Press by a caller claiming to be a member of the ALF said the fur industry “is a perverse business which needlessly murders millions of animals each year to provide humans with deplorable status symbols.” Such acts of violence have been relatively infrequent in the United States.


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