Pug o’ my heart

Times Staff Writer

BIT-BIT and Tinkerbelle, your days are numbered: The Chihuaha’s status as the haute dog, the 2-pound furry accessory of celebrities, is coming to an inglorious end.

That snorting noise behind you is the sound of the pug usurping your role as the “it” dog for stylish people. Sure, Chihuahuas like Paris Hilton’s Tinkerbelle and Britney Spears’ Bit-Bit have had the paparazzo pages all to themselves for a while, but now pugs, such as Tori Spelling’s Mimi la Rue, are the new boldface dog.

Packs of the little flat-faced canines are showing up in advertisements for Barneys New York, in the windows of Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, in the arms of celebrities such as Jessica Alba and Balthazar Getty and fashion designers Valentino and Tommy Hilfiger, and not incidentally, in this year’s best of breed winner’s circle at the Westminster Dog Show. Mimi la Rue even has her own loyal fans on Spelling’s new VH1 show, “So NoTORIous.”


The pug’s place at the stiletto heels of fashion’s discerning tastemakers has reaffirmed the ancient breed’s everlasting appeal. It’s as if fashion is saying, “Pugs, this is your moment -- and try not to drool.”

Simon Doonan, Barneys creative director, says pugs are “very jolie-laide.” That’s a French term for a woman who is oddly attractive though not conventionally beautiful. And that, says Doonan, “is very much what is happening in fashion right now.” In canine-themed display windows that pay homage to customers who shop with their dogs, Neiman’s currently features pugs -- fiberglass ones -- in the prominent position at Wilshire Boulevard and Roxbury Drive. Two pugs are leashed via matching gem-and-gold-link necklaces to a mannequin wearing Dolce & Gabbana shades, a Marni trench coat, an Yves Saint Laurent sweater set and Tuleh cropped pants -- all the best names. (Let’s not even start with the owners-who-look-like-their-dogs comparisons.)

And though pugs aren’t whippet thin or greyhound graceful, they have an appealing look that has landed them high-profile ad campaigns for HSBC Bank and Lee Jeans, as well as Barneys. The boutique soap maker Gianna Rose Atelier offers a petite pug-shaped soap that, thankfully, is scented with floral-wood notes, not pug aromas.

Pugs seem to pose naturally for the paparazzi, who have captured many pug-owning celebrities with their pets, including Jenna Elfman, Paula Abdul, Mickey Rourke, Billy Joel and Chris Kirkpatrick of ‘N Sync.

When she’s filming, Alba takes her pugs, Sid and Nancy, with her. She also posed with them for the cover of Animal Fair magazine. Italian couturier Valentino is such a fan that he’s had more than a dozen pugs in his lifetime, as many as seven at one point. He even named his Oliver collection after his first tawny-and-black pug.

Spelling’s pug is a near-constant presence and punch line on “So NoTORIous,” a fictionalized show inspired by Spelling’s life. On and off the set, Spelling dresses her pug in the latest fashions. At home, Mimi la Rue has her own armoire, filled with satin dresses, bathing suits and, for casual days, T-shirts.

“When she dresses up, she looks like a little man in drag,” says Spelling of her 4 1/2-year-old dog. “When she’s in this frilly pink dress, she looks like Bette Davis in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ ”

Perhaps it’s their combination of deadpan seriousness and comic malleability that makes the pug the right dog for our times. The pug population is growing in major cities like Los Angeles and New York, where they are the eighth (L.A.) and 10th (N.Y.C.) most popular dogs, according to the American Kennel Club’s 2005 statistics.

Small- to medium-sized dogs have gained in popularity since the turn of the millennium, according to the AKC. “People are traveling more with their pets,” says Janet McCulley, a co-owner of Muttropolis, an upscale pet boutique in Newport Beach’s Fashion Island. “Tiny dogs are portable, but the pug is more robust.”

While Chihuahuas rank 11th nationally, they don’t make the top 10 in L.A. or New York, centers of the “fashion dog” trend that had fashion victims toting undersized, over-accessorized breeds like Yorkshire terriers, Chihuahuas and Pomeranians. Since 1994, pug adoptions have zoomed more than 50%, according to the AKC.

Pugs aren’t, however, as portable as a 2-pound teacup Chihuahua or miniature Yorkshire terrier. They can tip the scales at 18 to 20 pounds -- or more.

“You might have to tote them on a trolley behind you,” says fashion stylist Kimberly Holly, owner of Claude, the plump pug featured in a recent Barneys catalog. Pugs are notorious foodies, and Claude, says Doonan, “is a bit of a gourmand. She goes to one too many photo shoots where the catered food is irresistible to her.”

Their tendency to gain weight also makes them more endearing, but it doesn’t close the doors of fashion for them, says Los Angeles designer Lara Alameddine, creator of the couture dog clothing line Little Lily and of the custom TV wardrobe for Mimi la Rue. Creating pug clothes is, says Alameddine, “sort of like designing for a full-figured woman.” She made Mimi la Rue a swimsuit coverup because “she’s hairy, a little voluptuous and a little self-conscious.” Like us all, then.

Pug owners invariably describe them as the clowns of the dog world because of their animated expressions and distinct personalities. According to “The Encyclopedia of the Dog,” by veterinarian Bruce Fogel, they’re “extremely tough and opinionated ... independent and resolute.” Perfect, in other words, as a symbol for today’s fashions.

Fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo has featured pugs in drawings for his clients, including illustrations for the Daily Candy style website. “Fashion, being so subversive, has insisted on taking the pug as the new mascot,” Toledo writes in an e-mail. “It’s like taking your grumpy ol’ grandma out to party with you.” Toledo likes to include them in his drawings because pugs “have just the right slightly cynical, sweet, straight-shooter look to them. They tell it like they see it.”

Anything or anyone posed next to a pug suddenly looks more beautiful. And in the end, that may be why in the narcissistic world of fashion, they’ve become so popular.