Fur popular among the younger set


Listening to anti-fur activists, it’s easy to assume that fur in fashion is, as the ad campaign goes, dead.

After all, the cause — spearheaded by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA — has progressed from a red paint-splattering fringe movement to a darn-near mannerly animal advocacy group boasting top-shelf celebrities, including Eva Mendes and “Project Runway’s” Tim Gunn as spokespeople.

“Fur has become so far removed from the mainstream, it’s now a very niche market,” said Dan Mathews, senior vice president of campaigns for PETA.

But even a cursory glance at the fashion industry reveals that fur is still, for many, a hot commodity. And though furriers and the people who patronize them are less likely to shout their fur amour from the rooftops (it’s definitely not PC), selling, buying and wearing fur in the U.S. is still big business — $1.36 billion in 2008, according to the Fur Information Council of America.

Even more surprising, perhaps, is that fur seems to have recently taken on a much higher profile in the subculture that counts on designers, celebrities and actors to fill its ranks.

In fashion’s inner circles, fur is still a mainstay — magazine editors such as Vogue’s Anna Wintour and Andre Leon Talley (and their Connecticut-bred interns) wear fur with abandon, as do contemporary style icons, including Kate Moss, Diane Kruger, Kanye West, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. And then there’s fur’s enduring popularity among the female social set in Los Angeles — attend any winter charity event in town and you’re sure to see a number of fur-wearing attendees.

And though PETA’s been slowly winning over veteran designers such as Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren — both of whom have agreed to go fur-free in their collections — and Karl Lagerfeld used 100% faux fur at his über-hairy fall 2010 Chanel show, fashion’s younger generation has cleaved to pelts this season with surprising enthusiasm.

Counting all four major fashion cities — New York, Milan, Paris and London — there were more than 1,500 looks presented at the recent runway shows that included fur. That’s up from 385 from fall 2009, said Keith Kaplan, executive director for the Fur Information Council of America. “It was an unbelievable year for fur,” he added. “Young designers have come to feel and recognize that fur is a right of passage if you want to be a luxury brand.”

It’s true that an inordinate number of designers from the industry’s youngest, hippest ranks used fur this season — including Brian Reyes, Alexander Wang, Derek Lam, Thakoon and Proenza Schouler.

Reyes, a former protégé to Oscar de la Renta, said he added fur to his line because he “wanted to add layers to the collection,” adding that he had no ethical or political reasons not to do so. “I’m open to using any sort of material,” he noted. “I love luxury. I wear leather. If I were a vegan, maybe it would be different.”

And after a recession-fueled slowdown, top-tier retailers are asking for fur again. Susan Sokol, president of high-fashion, fur-heavy brand J. Mendel, said, “We sell to the best stores in the world, and I can tell you, every single store is interested in fur.”

Donna Pappas, owner of Los Angeles-based Somper Furs, a fur retailer and manufacturer that has made pieces for local designers including Monique Lhuillier and Kevan Hall, among others, said she’s “coming off of one of the best seasons I’ve ever had.”

Why then, just as anti-fur activism is beginning to gain ground as a mass-friendly movement, are we seeing so much fur in fashion?

Fur is “a clear statement of luxury on the runway,” said Claire Hamilton, an analyst for WGSN, a London-based trend forecasting company, which provides trend analyses for the fashion and style industries. “With fast fashion always at the heels of the designer market, brands are more conscious about offering clearly elevated luxury product that is not easy, or cheap, to replicate.”

Pappas credits her store’s recent robust sales — she says they are up 47% for the winter 2009-10 season, compared with the 2008-09 season — to L.A.’s fashion-forward set. She said the store has been selling more fashion-based pieces — coats with unusual trims, colors and combinations of fur — than ever before.

And there’s been a shift in who’s doing the buying. “Traditionally, 20 years ago, furs were purchased by men for women,” Pappas said. “Now 90% are bought by women.”

Colleen Sherin, fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue — which operates fur salons all over the U.S. — said she believes fur is making a comeback, in part, because “fur is being treated in more innovative ways. We’re seeing lighter-weight furs, furs that are being mixed. There’s more innovation happening in the market.”

Those innovations have made fur cheaper than it’s ever been, Pappas said. Furriers can now “knit” fur (using yarn made from animal hair) and use other cost-effective treatments to lower costs. And price also boils down to style; the dream of having a full-length sable or mink coat has given way to shorter, sportier looks. “Fur now comes in so many colors,” Pappas noted. “Now you can have a pink knitted fox coat — that didn’t exist before.”

Trends aside, Kaplan said the uptick in fur prominence could also be attributed to the “widespread” adoption of the fur trade-created Origin Assured initiative — which “gives assurance that the fur in a garment or fur product that bears an OA mark originates from a country where national or local regulations or standards governing fur production are in force.”

Anti-fur activists insist that the regulations are a smokescreen for time-honored animal cruelty wrapped in a more consumer-friendly package. But those in the fur trade contend that it’s an important step in holding fur manufacturers ethically accountable for their product —and thereby putting fretful consumer minds at ease.

“I think young designers [became aware of] OA, and they had always wanted to use fur, and now they were sure they could work with the product,” Kaplan said.

Young designers are also aggressively courted by the fur industry — and have been for years. Companies such as Toronto’s North American Fur Auctions and Denmark’s Saga Furs, a marketing firm that represents 3,000 Scandinavian fur breeders, regularly treat young, buzz-y designers to free product samples and sponsor “designer junkets” in far-flung locales such as Copenhagen, where they are flown for free.

The fur designers and customers may be changing, but retailers say there was never a time when the category was in danger of becoming extinct.

Fur sales at Saks Fifth Avenue “are always pretty consistent,” said Sherin, who added that New York, Beverly Hills, Chicago, San Francisco and Bal Harbour, Fla., rank as the department store’s most lucrative fur markets.

Pappas, who’s been in the fur business for more than 30 years in L.A., said in the last year or so, “the customer has been a much younger age than [she] was traditionally. But the customer is always there — the only thing that changes is who she is.”