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Is Animal Fur Losing Its Luxury Luster?

Fur is out, at least at Chanel, which earlier this month became the latest in an expanding roster of luxury brands to declare animal pelts déclassé.

The announcement marked a stunning reversal for creative director Karl Lagerfeld, who claimed as recently as 2015 that he didn’t understand the fuss over fur. “For me, as long as people eat meat and wear leather, I don’t get the message,” he told the New York Times. “Its very easy to say no fur, no fur, no fur, but it’s an industry. Who will pay for all the unemployment of the people if you suppress the industry of the fur?”

Though the couturier incorporated mole, rabbit and squirrel pelts into his designs at Fendi, Chanel uses little fur, if at all. In fact, Lagerfeld told WWD he couldn’t remember the last time he “did fur” at Chanel. Founder Gabrielle Chanel might have owned a panther coat and a sable top, he said, but if “you look at old collections, there was not much fur.”

Still, Chanel is outlawing fur, along with exotic skins, Lagerfeld said, because “it’s in the air,” though not, as he insisted, “an air people imposed to us.” 

Whatever is wafting around, it’s definitely catching. Once seen as the height of opulence, fur is falling out of favor with the foremost purveyors of glitz and glamor. The Yoox Net-a-Porter Group, which operates luxury e-tailer Net-a-Porter, refuses to traffic in it. Neither will Burberry, Coach, Gucci, Giorgio Armani, Hugo Boss, Jimmy Choo, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren or Versace, which have all gone from yea to nay on fur in the span of a few years, albeit for slightly different reasons.

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“Modern luxury means being socially and environmentally responsible,” Marco Gobbetti, CEO of Burberry, said in September. Fur is “not modern” and in fact a “little outdated,” Marco Bizzarri, president and chief executive of Gucci, told Business of Fashion in 2017. Advances in fabrication technology can now “create a luxe aesthetic using non-animal fur,” piped in Michael Kors the same year. Protecting the environment and caring for the animals are “critical issues,” Giorgio Armani averred in 2016.

Stella McCartney, whose label famously uses no leather, skins, feathers or fur, has also done her best to dampen the gilded allure of the mink stole or chinchilla coat.

“I think the reality is that, for me, real fur is extraordinarily old-fashioned. I think you look old. Even if you’re 20 and you’ve got a real fur coat, you just look like an old, unaware, unconscious being on the planet,” she told CNN in 2015. “It’s not relevant, it’s not sexy, it’s not fashionable and it’s not cool.”

Brands are not the only ones eschewing fur. In September, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to ban the sale and manufacture of most fur products within its limits. If enacted into law, the City of Angels will become the largest city in the U.S. after San Francisco to make fur sales illegal, down to the smallest “lucky” rabbit’s foot. 

Across the pond in Britain, where fur farming has been verboten for almost two decades, ministers of parliament are mulling getting rid of fur altogether. In a landmark debate in London’s Westminster Hall in June, several legislators condemned the fur trade, describing it as “vile,” “loathsome” and the “grimmest of human activities.”

“Fur farming was banned in England and Wales in the year 2000 and two years later in Scotland on the grounds of public morality, and the fact that fur produced in the same methods is allowed to be imported into the country is fundamentally illogical and surely it must be immoral too,” said Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol East. “A lot of our fur imports come for countries where animal welfare standards are even lower than the U.K.’s were before we introduced a fur-farming ban. In some countries you could say the standards are simply nonexistent.”

In an echo of that sentiment, London Fashion Week became the first of the major fashion weeks to go fur-free this fall—not, as it would appear, on purpose but because none of the designers participating in the official schedule said they planned to use it.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is naturally delighted by this turn of events.

The animal-rights group, which first paraded supermodels in the nude for its “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign in the ‘90s, has long excoriated conditions on fur farms in China, Europe and elsewhere, where animals are confined to filthy, tiny wire cages, bludgeoned, drowned, gassed and electrocuted to death or skinned alive.

In the wild, foxes and coyotes caught in steel-jaw traps can suffer for days from frostbite, blood loss, gangrene and attacks by predators before they’re strangled, stomped on or shot to death by returning trappers. Beavers, muskrats and other animals captured by water-set traps can struggle for more than nine “agonizing” minutes before drowning.

Millions of dogs and cats are killed every year, too, for fur trims and tchotchkes that are “deliberately mislabeled,” PETA said. “So if you wear any fur, there’s no way of knowing for sure whose skin you’re in.”

After Chanel issued its edict, the champagne corks were “popping” at PETA HQ, the organization wrote on its website. “There’s nothing trendy about using stolen skins from tormented animals for clothing or accessories,” it added. “It’s clear that the time is now for all companies, like Louis Vuitton, to follow Chanel’s lead and move to innovative materials that spare countless animals a miserable life and a violent, painful death.”

Louis Vuitton is hardly an outlier in using fur. Balenciaga, Dior, Fendi, Saint Laurent and Marc Jacobs are just some of myriad luxury brands that continue to include mink, fox, sable, chinchilla and rabbit pelts in their lineups.

Indeed, for all its detractors, fur remains a thriving, even booming industry. Global fur sales have more than tripled from $15.6 billion in 2011 to more than $40 billion in 2015, according to the International Fur Trade Federation, a trade body that represents 56 member associations in more than 40 countries. China, with its burgeoning middle class, is by far the largest buyer of fur, ringing up retail sales of almost $17 billion. (Russia, the second-largest single market, doesn’t even come close at barely $1.5 billion.)

The fur industry has made several pivots over the years, moving with the progression of technology to develop lighter-weight furs fused with textiles for warmer, affluent climes like Dubai. Modern furs are less fusty, too. These days, fur is just as likely to manifest as a trim on a jacket (à la Canada Goose, which uses coyote pelts), a punchy dyed accent on a shoe or a fuzzy pom-pom dangling from a purse. It’s a conscious tactic, the fur industry admits, to shed the stigma and get ‘em while they’re young.  

“We start with the young consumer buying a fur key ring. Then maybe a little later she has more money for a fur bag,” Julie Maria Iversen, vice president of design and creativity at Denmark’s Kopenhagen Fur told National Geographic in 2016. “Eventually she buys a full coat. [It’s] all part of the agenda, to inspire the upcoming generation of women.”

Is the tack working? Maybe. Countering the image of the diamond-dripping, fur-draped dowager, 55 percent of the people who buy fur today are under 44, according to the Fur Information Council of America, a U.S. trade association. Certainly fur-flaunting celebrities like Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and Kanye West prove that fur maintains some social currency among the hypebeast set. “You see a carcass, I see a museum pièce de résistance,” Lady Gaga quipped about her full-length white pelt in 2012.

That’s not to say interest in faux fur, typically made with plastic (which is another topic of discussion altogether), isn’t also growing, particularly since new techniques are making it increasingly difficult to distinguish artificial from real. In the United States, wholesale sales of faux fur reached $250 million in 2010, according to Pell Research. Faux shearling, in the form of sherpa and teddy-bear coats, is trending this winter, as are the boldface names—Dua Lipa, Miley Cyrus, Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner among them—who have been faking it on the streets.

Fur may still be popular, but given that technology can now produce faux fur with the “same level of softness, quality, and warmth as the real thing,” the argument for the genuine article is simply “much harder,” Hannah Weiland, founder of faux-fur brand Shrimps, told Business of Fashion in 2015. “Modern technology has paved the way for faux fur to be unique and luxurious in its own right,” she said. “I hope that one day it will become the natural decision for people thinking of buying a winter coat.

One theory holds that the reason so many real-fur products are being sold as faux—rather than the other way around, which would make more fiscal sense—is because manufacturers and retailers are struggling to meet the demand for the ersatz stuff.

“The lines between real and fake have gotten really blurry,” Dan Mathews, a senior vice president with PETA, told the New York Times in 2013. “In this global marketplace, there are fur farms in China that raise dogs for clothing that is labeled as fake fur here in the U.S. because that’s what the market best responds to.”

But whatever you do, don’t call faux fur a trend, Weiland said. The term implies a fad with an expiration date, which doesn’t seem to be the case here.  

“I think it’s a lifestyle that clients and buyers are increasingly comfortable embracing,” Weiland added.