Warming Trend

Peter McQuaid last wrote for the magazine for the Men's Fashion Issue.

After a decade in which only the most stout of heart (or tone-deaf) would risk provoking a faux bloodbath by wearing an authentic fur, the fashion world--and the women who follow it--are in a fuzzy frenzy.

Fur has returned--in giant slashes of cobalt blue and sea-green at Sonia Rykiel, in primly tailored jackets and stoles at Lanvin, in luxurious coats at Dolce & Gabbana, and in rock-star rags at Roberto Cavalli. In pink, yellow, baby blue and white, it’s adorning collars, cuffs, hats, handbags, shoes, scarves and sweaters at designer boutiques and mainstream stores such as Bebe and Nordstrom.

It might be reasonable to assume that Los Angeles would be impervious to this trend--that its climate and commitment to informality would inoculate it against dressing and adornment rooted in cold weather and convention. But fur is here now, even in August.

A number of L.A.-based designers are showing furs and hides in their collections, among them Richard Tyler, who is making jackets and trimming collars with it; Magda Berliner, who has shown fur in every permutation; and Sheri Bodell, who recently designed a fur coat for rock star Tommy Lee. Former L.A. designer Rick Owens now makes his home in France after being tapped by venerable Paris furrier Revillon to design a clothing line and revamp its approach to fur.


Bodell, who also designs cocktail and evening dresses and sells to Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Fred Segal, says her fur and glam-rock-flavored jackets are “my favorite thing to do.” She works with silver fox, goat shearling and “a lot of rabbit,” which makes her jackets, ranging from $400 to $1,000, a relatively affordable way to crash the craze.

Berliner, a native Californian, uses and wears fur year-round. “Most of what I design is pretty seasonless,” she explains. “Here fur is not so much about warmth or survival, but really about its decorative aspect. My work is pretty classic, but I think the novelty of it lies in the different textures I use.” She is especially partial to Mongolian curly lamb, rabbit and, for her next season, kangaroo--"it’s incredibly soft and silky.” Her capelets and bolero jackets in Mongolian curly lamb are “really meant for evening to keep your shoulders warm. I wear them when I go to the opera or the movie theater.”

Fur’s resurgence is in line with Americans’ rising awareness of--and lust for--luxury, and this city has never been one to avoid displays of comfort or success.

But that is only part of the story, because in the last decade the fur industry has undergone its own tech revolution. Thanks to innovations in processing, fur now is lighter, available in colors seldom seen in nature (at least on predators and rodents) and has emerged from its hibernation more suited to most women’s informal lifestyles. Pieced into crocheted or knitted tops or shawls, worked into shrugs and scarves, and used to trim sheer blouses and dresses, fur is assuming the role once reserved for beading and openwork.

What also has happened is a thaw in the discourse about fur. Although animal-rights groups have been remarkably effective at drawing a red slash through the use of animals for adornment, the take-no-prisoners approach of some of its more strident supporters may have fueled something of a backlash.

There is no shortage of people who regard wearing fur as repugnant, but the shrieking matches seem to have abated somewhat in favor of discussion. Some women avoid fur that has been trapped, but feel comfortable with ranch-raised animals. Others will wear fur or skins of animals that are used for meat. And some feel comfortable letting the fur industry and international conservation agreements help make choices for them.

Julie Miller, 38, manager of label relations and music programming for an online firm, owns a number of fur jackets and coats by Bodell and other designers. “I eat meat. I wear leather. Why be a hypocrite? I’ve accepted the fur,” she says.

Although designers and retailers credit the colors and new technology used to make furs with its renewed fashion success, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals spokesman Michael McGraw sees something more sinister at work. “All that dyeing and shearing just makes it look less like it came from an animal,” he says. “And consumers may be buying it without knowing it’s real because it looks so fake.”

In a smart marketing move, PETA is showing fashionable alternatives to animal-based clothing. “We’re continuing our protests, but in addition to that we’ve fostered a good relationship within the fashion community,” McGraw explains.

PETA’s “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” billboard campaign continues, and the group also sponsors animal-free designer shows at Seventh on Sixth in New York. McGraw says the turnout by fashion editors and stylists is good. “We get editors from Vogue, Elle, Women’s Wear Daily. It really is encouraging.”

“It’s really an attitude,” says Donna Pappas, who with her husband Michael owns Somper Furs in Beverly Hills. In business for 64 years, Somper is an institution. “We used to make cheetah and leopard suits for Lucille Ball,” she says. “Now we work with Beyonce Knowles and Christina Aguilera.”

Pappas, who has worked in fashion most of her life, married into the fur business. Her husband is a fourth-generation furrier who spends his days making garments for the store as well as private-label clients. She oversees the front of the house, where her customers include full-on divas, starlets and regular women with real-life incomes, looking for that exclamation point to give their outfits an edge. At the Canon Drive salon, fox jackets and shrugs in pink and baby blue compete with full-length natural sables, lynx and a suit made of lippi (a Chinese feline with markings similar to those of the leopard). A rabbit jacket can go for $400, while a full-length sable coat may sell for $75,000.

Pappas credits technology with the renewed interest in fur. “They’re knitting furs, dyeing them in colors they just didn’t have years ago, like hot pink, purple, gold, lavender, mauve. Color has been a major force. There’s laser-cutting, which makes it lighter than ever; there are new ways to shear it; they’re joining it with sheer fabrics and lace.”

Rabbit is driving the younger market, because it’s fairly inexpensive, takes dye well and lends itself to knitting. This involves creating yarn from thin slices of the pelt, which then is used in much the same way as wool yarn but to much more sensual effect.

L.A. stylist Cary Fetman, who is known for his and his clients’ willingness to take risks in the service of celebrity, observes that clever reimagining is playing a role in fur’s revival.

Faced with putting together Joan Rivers’ look for an opening night several summers ago, Fetman turned to Dolce & Gabbana, which offered him a crocheted gold mesh jacket embellished with chinchilla.

“I was sure they were trying to put something over on me,” he says. “I mean, fur in the summer? So I take it to Joan, who has always worn fur but never in summer, and she said, ‘Are you sure?’ And I said, ‘Seasonless fur. You’re the first to start it.’ And she and I both looked at each other like, ‘Are we insane?’ And now it’s a category--seasonless furs.”

Despite the colors, the lightness and new methods of incorporating it into garments, some fans of fur do have reservations, though not necessarily moral ones.

Helen Murray, 49, a photographer’s agent and a former West Coast editor of Harper’s Bazaar, says she understands the idea but can’t see herself reaching for anything trimmed with fur when it’s hot outside. “No matter how light it is or what color, I just can’t wrap my head around the fur-trimmed cardigan when it’s 85 and humid,” she says. “And I have a very difficult time stifling laughter when it’s 60 degrees here and I see a woman in a fur coat.”

She does, however, stash a black ranch mink at her mother’s house in New York for use during winter trips. “I go back several times a year and fondle it,” she says with a laugh.

Brentwood publicist Jann Berman, 60, acknowledges being “a fur fiend.” Among the many furs she owns are a pink fox muff, a long fox coat, a pink sheared beaver reversible raincoat, a powder-blue sheared beaver bomber jacket and a knitted rabbit stole that she calls “darling.”

Berman says, “This is not serious, sophisticated stuff. I’m from the South. I put myself through college entering beauty pageants. Fur, for me, has always been a glamour kick. It was always about the Doris Day-Debbie Reynolds look.”

Julissa Marquez is most definitely not about that particular look. The 29-year-old actress instead favors Roberto Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana and Missoni. She has a full-length sheared mink that she keeps for winter trips out of town, and a jacket and matching hat in lippi that she wears in L.A. in the winter. She also has a cashmere coat with a chinchilla collar and cuffs, and an assortment of fur handbags. “I love that they’ve started making it for the younger generation,” Marquez says. “I always felt you had to be in your 40s or 50s to wear it. Now I can rock in it in jeans and cowboy boots.”

Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Fur Information Council of America, believes renewed acceptance of fur is, in part, a sociological phenomenon.

Fur wearers who matured in the last 15 years, when the anti-fur lobby made its greatest inroads, may be reacting to what they perceive as an orthodoxy not of their own making. “Generations naturally go against the preceding one,” Kaplan says.

Which means that the Hancock Park matron hoping for a 40-degree fur-friendly evening now is joined by her granddaughter, who wouldn’t know Maximilian from Maxi Priest and thinks that Jennifer Lopez is leading a fashion revolution as she strolls down the red carpet swathed in white mink.