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How did fur, once taboo, become so acceptable – desirable even – again? Elizabeth Day investigates an ethical dilemma that goes to the heart of the fashion industry.

Keira Knightley wearing fur

Keira Knightley wears a fur jacket to an awards ceremony. Photograph: Richard Young/Rex FeaturesOn an otherwise unremarkable grey autumn day in London last month, a few hundred protesters took to the streets around Knightsbridge armed with home-made banners and loudspeakers. Some of them had their faces half-obscured by scarves. Others came with  their children, holding their hands tightly against the scrum.Escorted by police, the crowd marched to several high-end clothing stores, stopping outside Giorgio Armani, Fendi, Joseph and Gucci. If it had not been for the banners and the chants and the drum beats, one might have thought they were on a guided tourist walk of the capital’s best retail locations. But these were no ordinary shoppers. These were members of the Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade, who were out to target the specific shops that continue to sell clothes made from fur.When they reached Harrods, one of the few  department stores in the UK that still stocks real fur, the crowd started to chant and jeer. But their sentiments were perhaps best expressed by one bespectacled woman, wrapped up against the cold in a hat and coat, who carried a handwritten sign that read simply: “The Devil Wears Fur”.Six months before the Knightsbridge protest, the catwalks of New York, London and Milan fashion week were filled with animal skins of all description. Fur coats made an appearance at Versace, Alexander McQueen and Jean Paul Gaultier. Karl Lagerfeld covered motorbike helmets with mink and chinchilla. Dolce & Gabbana added bright-pink fur sleeves to jackets, and fur  was also shown at Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Prada.

In London, Issa showed fur for the first time – ironically, the star turn on their catwalk was Naomi Campbell, who in 1994 appeared alongside her fellow supermodels in an advertisment for Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) claiming she would “rather go naked than wear fur”. Now Campbell fronts a campaign for the luxury furrier Dennis Basso.

White Rex Rabbit Cropped Sleeve Jacket with Fox Fur Collar, exclusively from Marc Kaufman Furs in NYCThe November issue of French Vogue included a 12-page story entitled “Fur Play” featuring the Brazilian supermodel Raquel Zimmermann in a flurry of fur and tribal-themed leopard print, and the trend has been enthusiastically embraced by the British high street. Several shoe chains, including Nine West and Dune, have in the recent past stocked boots lined with rabbit fur. And while real fur still remains beyond the price range of the average customer, the look of fur has become increasingly sought after: convincing imitation jackets and stoles have sprouted up in Mango, H&M, Warehouse and Miss Selfridge. The Spanish high-street retailer Zara, meanwhile, has received criticism for trimming some items with real rabbit fur.

Where once celebrities were wary of walking out in a fur-trimmed jacket for fear of being drenched in red paint by animal rights activists, now there seems to be no such stigma. Keira Knightley recently attended an awards ceremony in a black karakul lambskin coat, and Jennifer Lopez has worn an array of mink and chinchilla at red-carpet events over the years. Madonna, Eva Longoria, Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss and Lindsay Lohan have all worn fur in public.

“Fur has never been more popular,” says  a spokesman for Origin Assured, an initiative developed by the International Fur Trade  Federation that states that it sources “ethical” fur. “From 1998 to 2008 there has been year-on-year growth in global sales for fur. People now are more comfortable showing their love of fur.

“The younger generation seems to be saying: ‘We’ll make up our own minds’, and part of that has its core in the rise of hip-hop culture – we’ve just heard that Rihanna’s new album cover is going to feature her in a white fur coat. It’s also to do with the fact that young designers are featuring fur in their collections.”

The shifting tide of public opinion is reflected in the figures. In 2007, fur sales worldwide totalled £10bn, up 11% on the previous year, with nine years of continuous growth. Last year, the fur trade contributed £13bn to the global economy, and although fur farming was banned in Britain in 2003, the UK’s fur trade turnover is about £400-500m a year.

In the 15 years since Peta’s original “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” ad campaign, we seem to have gone from a nation that equates fur with inexcusable animal cruelty to one that views it merely as an occasional fashion statement. As a measure of just how much the climate has changed, one need only look at the five supermodels featured in that first campaign. From a line-up that included Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer and Elle Macpherson, only Turlington has stayed true to her word. All the others have, at one time or another, chosen to promote or wear real fur in the intervening years.

Fur used to be the mark of a social pariah . Yet now we barely blink an eyelid when Kate Moss is photographed popping to the shops in a pair of sealskin Mukluk boots. What has driven this change in attitude? How has fur become fashionable? And most importantly, do we care about whether the wearing of fur is ethically defensible, or has it simply become another trend, like shoulder pads or bodycon dresses, whose desirability is determined only by how quickly it dates?

Long Hooded Mink Jacket, exclusively from Marc Kaufman Furs in NYCIn a historic building in central Copenhagen, the lobby is filled with the murmur of  cocktail chatter and the clink of glasses. The guests are up-and-coming fashion designers from around the world, flown here for an all-expenses-paid trip arranged by representatives from one of the world’s largest fur companies, Kopenhagen Fur.

As part of their programme, the designers will be taken to the company’s studio, where they will have a chance to look at the merchandise on offer – mink, fox, chinchilla, seal, sable, rabbit and karakul. They are assured that the animals on Kopenhagen Fur farms are treated well, with fresh food, regular vaccination programmes and housing in open sheds. Some of the designers will visit the fur farms; some choose not to. In return for their attendance, they are then offered free samples of top-quality fur to use in their collections.

“There are loads of people on these jollies,” says one designer who has worked with Kopenhagen Fur but does not want to be named. “They take you to a plush house and ply you with champagne, and at the end of it you get to work with fantastic material – they give you free fur,  make it to your specifications, and then you put it down the runway and they hopefully get a lot of publicity for it.”

Over the last few years companies like Kopenhagen Fur or Saga Furs – powerful international suppliers that dominate the luxury market – have been spearheading a quiet campaign to break the fur taboo. From the designer’s perspective, the offer of free top-quality material in a tough economic climate is often too good to turn down, especially if they are relative newcomers struggling to make a name in the industry.

In return, the fur provided gets exposure on the catwalk and becomes associated with a younger, edgier type of fashion that is far removed from the traditional, fusty image of a mothballed coat your granny might wear. Slowly but surely, so the reasoning goes, there is a trickle-down effect and fur becomes gradually more acceptable to a whole new generation of potential customers.

“We don’t force anybody to use fur; we don’t pay anybody,” insists Michael Holm, design and production manager for Kopenhagen Fur. “If people are interested, we like to work with them. If people don’t like fur, fine – that’s their opinion.

“Younger designers are more innovative when it comes to using fur as a fabric. They are not so afraid of the material as prior generations.”

For Todd Lynn, a Canadian-born designer who has used fur in his collections provided at no cost from Saga Furs, the most important thing to consider is whether he is comfortable with the company’s farming standards. He refuses to buy fur from China, where farming is unregulated and where no law protects the millions of animals that are routinely skinned alive.  “I am very careful about where my products come from. I work with Saga fur – it comes from Finland, they have a vested interest in proper product and breeding, and the animals have to be treated properly. I’m not a heartless person, but for those of us who work in high-end fashion, there are certain things we need to use. Fur is something my clients want. You make the choice. We don’t do a lot of it – it’s just part of the collection, the way leather is.”

But leather is a by-product, whereas animals are killed solely for their fur. Can it ever be truly “ethical”? “I don’t have a problem with people following  their principles, but what bugs me is when people pick and choose,” says Lynn. “People are really misinformed about the products they wear. Nobody argues with the pesticides used on cotton plants that will kill wildlife. To think that silk or cotton doesn’t do damage to the environment is a lie.”

The fur apologists insist that real fur is natural, renewable, biodegradable and energy efficient in comparison to the synthetic versions. The truth of this is somewhat difficult to establish. According to the British Fur Trade Association, it takes a gallon of oil to make three fake-fur coats. Animal rights groups tend to hit back with a study by researchers at the University of Michigan that claims the energy needed to produce a real fur coat from farm-raised animal skins is 20 times that required for a fake one. But when I look for this study online, it turns out to be from 1979 and there is a limited amount of more recent academic research.

In any case, many of the designers I speak to say that their use of fur is a simple question of providing what the client wants: demand for the material in the high-end, luxury market  has never gone away. If anything, the influx of Russian money has prompted an increase in demand: an oligarch’s wife who has grown up in a sub-zero climate with a taste for conspicuous consumption is unlikely to think twice about buying fur. The rise in  “bling” culture, spearheaded by artists such as Beyoncé and P Diddy, has also played its part in making fur a status symbol for the modern jet set.

Karl Lagerfeld, perennial bete noire of the anti-fur lobby, is unapologetic about using it: “In a meat-eating world, wearing leather for shoes and clothes and even handbags, the discussion of fur is childish,” he said in a radio interview earlier this year.

Black Sheared Mink Jacket with Silver Fox Collar & Trim now $1495 on Clearance from Marc Kaufman Furs kaufmanfurs.comOf course, part of the attraction for Lagerfeld is that, whatever the ethical ramifications, fur remains a remarkable material to work with. “It reacts in a different way,” says Geoffrey Finch, director of cult womens wear label Antipodium, who is including a kangaroo-skin gilet in his next collection. “There is something luxurious about it. I love the texture and I love the colour. There’s something a little bit racy about fur.

“Personally, I love a bit of fur. No one wants to go out and shoot an endangered species, but people can buy ethically. I came across a supplier of kangaroo fur from Western Australia where, because of changes to the environment, kangaroo numbers have become far too high in areas and the vegetation has been destroyed,  so they have to be culled.”

For Finch the rising popularity of vintage fashion has had a “big impact” on changing attitudes towards fur in a younger generation which is “socially aware and quite happy to jump online and do their own research. Maybe big advertising pushes [like the Peta campaigns] don’t have as much punch to them now”.

And while the Peta anti-fur campaigns were extremely high profile in the early 1990s, there now seems to be a growing concern for bigger global issues like climate change or child poverty. Fur has begun to look like a bit of a side issue, a slightly old-fashioned thing to get het up about. “Certainly other environmental and ecological issues seem to be more prevalent in people’s minds,” agrees  Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue. “There aren’t the same reservations about wearing vintage fur as there are about new. But there is also quite a fuzzy-wuzzy attitude to the wearing of fur in general. If you go to a market like Portobello, there is rail upon rail of old fur coats and jackets with fur trim which people seem to be perfectly happy to buy. If you asked some of them whether they were happy with the fur industry, many of them would probably say no, but they don’t have the budget to go out and buy a new mink or chinchilla, so it’s not a choice they are really making.

“I wear the odd piece of fur; I don’t have  strong personal feelings against it, but I would feel uncomfortable swathed in a mink coat. It would seem unnecessary, ostentatious and somewhat unfeeling, though I can’t explain it more than that.”

Shulman says that, “broadly speaking”, British Vogue does not feature fur, other than fur advertising, which is not in her remit. “However, there is an element of common sense to my policy on this which dictates that since we are there to report on fashion trends, if those trends include fur we will, for instance, show catwalk images that include fur. We do carry some skins like sheepskin, and occasionally a fur trim creeps in.”

Across the Atlantic it is a slightly different story. Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, has consistently run pro-fur editorials and  had fur-themed photo shoots.

Anna Wintour attends a New York fashion week show                Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of US Vogue, is repeatedly targeted by anti-fur activists. Photograph: Joe Kohen/Joe Kohen/WireImage.comWhen anti-fur protesters surrounded the Condé Nast offices during the company’s Christmas party several years ago, Wintour retaliated in inimitable style by sending them down a plate of roast beef. In the past decade, Wintour has had a dead racoon dumped on her plate at the Four Seasons and her front steps splattered with red paint. She remains unrepentant. “Fur is still part of fashion,” Wintour said earlier this year, “so Vogue will continue to report on it.”

Ingrid Newkirk once offered to give Wintour a brain scan for her birthday. “There is this thing called a ‘mirror neuron’ that allows you to empathise,” explains Newkirk with a wry smile. “In some people it’s not developed, so I said: ‘If the result comes back and it’s not developed, then it’s not your fault that people loathe you.'”

Newkirk, the president and co-founder of Peta, has spent much of the past decade attempting to change Wintour’s mind on the issue of fur – the dead racoon was very much her idea.

“Oh that!” she laughs when I ask whether such stunts actually backfire and risk losing public sympathy. “I don’t believe that’s the case. It’s had to escalate to such a point – that’s after the polite inquiry, the begging letter asking: ‘Please watch this video’, the standing quietly outside their office – by the time it’s got to a racoon on the plate, we’ve tried everything. At that point, it’s just: ‘Shame on you’.” She shakes her head slowly. “‘Shame. On. You.'”

Newkirk does not look like an extremist. At 60 she is slim, blonde and neatly dressed, the sort of woman one can more easily imagine running a florist’s shop in Guildford than being the mastermind behind the world’s largest animal rights organisation. Born in Hertfordshire, she moved to America with her family when she was 18 and founded Peta almost 30 years ago from her house in suburban Maryland after being outraged that a dozen abandoned cats she had taken to a nearby animal shelter to be looked after were immediately put down.

Since then, Peta has become one of the most headline-grabbingly effective campaigning groups of modern times and is supported by a string of celebrities including Pamela Anderson, Chrissie Hynde and Eva Mendes. The group’s basic premise is that animals have as much right to be here as humans, and that our treatment of them – killing them for food or clothing simply because we are able to – is the abiding moral outrage of our times.

Whatever you might think of Peta’s tactics, which include placing caged, naked women in city centres, and billboard ads promoting vegetarianism with the illustration of an overweight woman in a bikini, there is no doubt that Peta activists know how to make themselves heard. They have thrown buckets of money soaked in fake blood on audiences at the International Fur Fair. They have stormed the offices of French Vogue wearing leg traps around their feet. A recent Peta ad campaign even compared the slaughter of animals for food to the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

For Newkirk “ethical fur” is an oxymoron. “It’s a bunch of poppycock,” she says calmly, sipping on a soya-milk coffee in Peta’s London offices. “You can easily find wonderful, fashionable, glamorous alternatives to anything you have to steal from animals or kill animals to get… If you look at the amount of British thermal units of energy used to make a real fur, especially to farm a fur, versus even the most synthetic of synthetics, the real fur is the loser environmentally.” (Later I look for evidence of this statement online and come up with a study from the Scientific Research Laboratory at Ford Motor Company that found a synthetic fur coat required 120,300 BTUs compared to the 7,965,800 needed to produce a coat from a cage-raised animal. Again, its findings are 30 years old.)

Is Newkirk worried about the resurgence of fur on the catwalk? “These designers who are given junkets to Scandinavia and are given free material – I hate to call fur a ‘material’ – I suppose they must be desperate. If you’re truly creative, you don’t design with something someone hands you. Fur has lost all its cachet. It’s yesterday. I see prostitutes in Atlantic City wearing fur.”

She points instead to the work done by Stella McCartney, who refuses to use leather or fur in her designs, in developing viable alternatives: “Stella has got wonderful materials infused with nettle fibres. You can wear a warm thing that doesn’t weigh 20lb and make you smell like a bear.”

“If you stop seeing animals as handbags, hamburgers or amusements, if you see them as fellow animals and you know that they feel joy and pain and all the same things we feel, how can you kill them for fur?” asks Newkirk.

It is a subject about which Newkirk feels so strongly that she cannot stop herself from accosting women in the street if she sees them wearing fur. “I’m always polite. I say: ‘That’s a beautiful fur. You’d look so much better without it. It makes you look cold-hearted.’ I used to wear fur and I wish there had been someone who jogged my conscience. I used to have the most amazing coat made of 100 squirrels. I got so many compliments wearing it. I deeply regret that. It didn’t occur to me what had happened to make that coat.”

Although she denies it, there is no doubt in my mind that Newkirk holds an extreme view. This is, after all, the woman who opted for a voluntary sterilisation at 22 because “the world has enough babies” and who has stipulated in her will that her feet be turned into umbrella stands “as a reminder of the depravity of killing innocent animals”. Over the years she has attracted respect and revulsion in equal measure for her  initiatives and her refusal to bend her opinions to the wind of public opinion.

But perhaps we need someone like Newkirk to remind us of the choice to be made; someone who, each time we pick up a fur-trimmed jacket, to make us think a little bit about what we are doing. We might decide to ignore her. We might even decide there are bigger things to worry about. But at least we have been asked the question. Because however ethical a fur coat might or might not be, an animal has still had to die for it to end up on the hanger. That is probably worth thinking about, no matter how fashionable it might seem.

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