At the recent opening night of Opera Pacific's "La Traviata" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, there was more fur worn by patrons than seen at some zoos.
Women came in from the cold--some in pairs and even threesomes--dressed head to toe in long minks, short sheared beaver jackets and fox-trimmed coats. As one thirtysomething woman remarked to her date, "I guess in Orange County it's not politically incorrect to wear fur." Indeed, fur is in no danger of extinction in Orange County. A chilly winter has brought furs out of hibernation from their storage lockers. Fur coats can be seen in abundance at the county's fine resorts, restaurants and winter balls.
Overcoming protests from animal-rights activists and a recession that cut deeply into fur sales, local furriers say people are once again buying fur. Sales for the past year are on the rise; some say 1994 was the best sales period they've seen since the mid-1980s, when people weren't watching their wallets and could afford luxury items.
"This is the best year we've had in seven years. Business is up 10% to 15%," says Arnold Surfas, owner of Surfas Furrier Ltd. in Tustin.
Bizakis Furs, a furrier in Orange that owns a factory where pelts are sliced and stitched into coats and jackets, has also seen an increase in sales.
"This year more than ever the economy is turning," says Ted Bizakis, owner. "We're selling more of the big-ticket items." His customers are more willing to splurge on some of his pricier furs, such as a $50,000 Russian lynx coat.
That fur has not disappeared from the Orange County social scene distresses animal-rights activists, who deplore the wearing of fur on the grounds that the methods of trapping, raising and killing the animals used for fur are cruel and inhumane.
"We went to the Performing Arts Center a couple of weeks ago, and we were not pleased to see the amount of fur still being worn," says Ava Park, founder of the Irvine-based Orange County People for Animals. "But it's less than it was years ago. People aren't buying fur the way they used to."
To dissuade people from wearing fur, members hand out small cards to fur-wearers at the center and other places where fur is likely to be worn.
"The cards very politely talk about the cruelty of fur," says Park, who says she can tell at 50 yards whether a fur is real or fake.
Furriers dispute the activists' claims that their methods are inhumane and counter that fur is better for the environment than manufactured fur because it does not involve the use of non-renewable petroleum byproducts.
"There is little or no pollution when a garment is made, as opposed to making man-made fibers," Surfas says.
Furriers say it's hard to measure how much effect the activists' protests have had on their business. Joyce O'Connell, owner of Exclusifurs in Newport Beach, says activists have intimidated some people, making them afraid to wear fur.
"They put fear into people. People don't want someone to come up and throw paint on them," she says. "You should be able in this country to go where you want to go, wear what you want to wear and eat what you want to."
Yet despite the activists' protests and anti-fur ad campaigns featuring super-models Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford, there are still plenty of people who won't give up their fur coats.
"If you're a female, there's nothing that makes you feel more female" than wearing a fur, O'Connell says.
Verlynn Russell of Tustin owns a couple of fur coats.
"It does make you feel special," she says. "I'll even wear them with my jeans."
The fur industry has benefited from the popularity of both real and fake fur on fashion runways. Leading fashion designers, including Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, have shown fur in recent seasons. Karan used faux fur as trim for her DKNY collection, but her choice of imitation fur over the real thing was based on cost considerations, not anti-fur sentiment, says Patti Cohen, spokeswoman for Donna Karan in New York City.
Due to the designers' influence, furriers have introduced more fashion-forward styles that have brought in younger customers. Trendier styles feature furs that have been sheared, dyed outrageous colors or stitched with contrasting skins to create different patterns.
Bizakis has coats with scalloped hems, zigzag patterns and even intricate floral and geometric motifs made from different colored fur. Among the more flamboyant offerings: a sheared beaver cape with colorful musical notes ($12,000). There are mink and beaver jackets that are dyed red, green, coral and pale peach. One jacket is made of muskrat dyed cobalt blue ($1,300).
"Today's market is not what it used to be," Bizakis says. "In the old days, people wore a straight, simple coat with cuffs. Today they want to be different."
Coat shapes have loosened up. There are a lot of swingy A-line coats that hit at the knee.
Shorter-hair furs, such as minks, sables and muskrats, are more popular than the longer-hair fox and raccoon, O'Connell says. Typical of the genre: Exclusifurs' sheared mink swing coat dyed hunter green with a mink shawl collar ($8,500).
"It has a velvety feel--like putting your hand in a barrel of flour," O'Connell says.
Along with the cutting-edge looks are classic coat styles that change very little over the years.
"You show me what other garment will last 40 or 50 years and will still be in style," Surfas says.
"Women feel luxurious in fur. They feel warm. It has a feeling of elegance."
Those who would rather sport fake fur should wait for the fall, when such stores as Emporio Armani in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, bring out their faux chinchillas and imitation minks.