Fur Special: The skin trade

Fur is back - top designers are unafraid to use it, despite the animal-rights campaigners' graphic adverts and headline-grabbing demonstrations. Has there been a resurgence in the trade? Who wears fur? And can it be morally justified? Paul Vallely reports
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It was, in effect, a declaration of war. The British fashion designer John Galliano, controversial and combative as ever, put up a whopping great sign backstage at this year's Christian Dior winter show. It exhorted his models to "keep the fur flying". He then sent them out on to the Paris catwalk swathed in candy-coloured Peruvian-style jumpers adorned with balls of mink. The Fur Wars had begun.

It was, in effect, a declaration of war. The British fashion designer John Galliano, controversial and combative as ever, put up a whopping great sign backstage at this year's Christian Dior winter show. It exhorted his models to "keep the fur flying". He then sent them out on to the Paris catwalk swathed in candy-coloured Peruvian-style jumpers adorned with balls of mink. The Fur Wars had begun.

It took the animal rights movement by surprise. For the past 10 years they have been accustomed to strut the fashion world unchallenged. True, designers had begun to use fur again a couple of years back. But on the field of battle the antis still held the moral high ground; they seemed unassailable by fur-lovers, whose only defence was bare-faced hedonism. Suddenly the campaigners found themselves under attack.

They regrouped for a counter-attack. The singer Sophie Ellis Bextor, one of the new generation of antis, posed for an ad clutching a skinned fox alongside the slogan, "Here's the rest of your fur coat". She was photographed by Mary McCartney, the daughter of the former Beatle Paul and his militant veggie wife Linda, on behalf of the campaign group Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which has campaigned against the fur trade for more than 20 years.

Then came Peta's second high-profile stunt in a week. On the catwalk during the Victoria's Secrets fashion show in New York its activists jumped on the catwalk and surrounded the Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen. They shouted slogans and waved placards insisting that fur was a badge of shame. The model, whose outfits are scrutinised closely by millions of women worldwide for hints of new trends – had signed up to spearhead a glossy new advertising campaign for the American fur company Blackglama, for a reported fee of £320,000 plus two black mink coats.

Despite the swift response, Peta and its friends still felt wrong-footed and on the defensive. Fur was back on the catwalks, and on the backs of celebrities. Some 400 designers have used it in their collections this year, compared with only a tenth of that number 15 years ago. The recusants include most of the industry's superstar names. To be anti-fur is now "so very last season".

More alarming for the campaigners was the conversion of designers of the new generation, such as Tristan Webber. He not only showed rivulets of finely-worked plum mink ruffles on the collars and sleeves of his evening coats, but also he said: "The moral issues were worked through in the late 1980s. For me, fur is no different from leather." All at once refuseniks such as Stella McCartney, Mary's sister, who was so recently the hippest of new designers, seemed like hopelessly old-fashioned hippies in their principled refusal to touch fur or leather.

Celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Halle Berry, P Diddy, Posh Spice and Sophie Dahl are appearing decked in the stuff. Even many who once took part in anti-fur protests – Madonna, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss – are kitting themselves out in sable, mink and the new political incorrectness. Vogue has featured full-on fur again for the first time in years, and last month the hip French fashion mag Numero had a shoot based entirely on fur.

And far from being confined to the rarefied and febrile stratosphere of the fashion and media worlds, the fur comeback has filtered down to ground level. It's back in the high street. Figures from the International Fur Trade Federation show a rise in worldwide sales of 7 per cent last year, to reach £6.28bn. But, according to the British Fur Trade Association, sales in Britain rocketed by 30 per cent in 2000-01, the last year for which figures are available. It may be even higher, claims the association's Andrea Martin, because "high-street sales are hard for us to monitor". It is the revival that the anti-fur campaigners thought could never happen.

The battle against fur has been a long one. The historic symbol of wealth and status acquired a new potency last century thanks to Hollywood, whose photographers discovered in the Thirties that white fur perfectly framed the female face and added instant opulence. In the decade that followed fur stoles, cuffs and collars became the standard starlet uniform. By the Fifties it had gone decadent, with Diana Dors's mink bikini and Elizabeth Taylor's huge collection of full-length coats. Fur was where power, money and sexuality met.

It was in the Seventies and Eighties that the anti-fur campaign began. A pressure group, Lynx, began to issue ads such as the one showing a beautiful blonde model in a white fox-fur coat, trailing the bloodied corpse of a fox behind her. Pickets began to be formed outside West End furriers every Saturday with protesters chanting, "Fur trade, death trade". Menacing "we know where you live" letters were sent to the home addresses of staff and customers. In the early Eighties, Greenpeace commissioned David Bailey to make the famous cinema advertisement with the slogan, "It takes more than 100 dumb animals to make a fur coat, but only one to wear one".

It seemed the campaign was working. UK fur sales fell from £80m in 1984 to £11m in the first half of 1989. Around 90 per cent of fur shops closed in the Nineties. Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Harrods shut their fur departments after declining sales and constant sabotage attacks (usually involving chewing gum). In 1992, 41 Anglican bishops signed a statement refusing to support or wear fur on moral and theological grounds. Even charity shops started refusing to take old furs.

The momentum continued to build. In 1994, Peta launched its "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur" poster, featuring five supermodels – Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford and Elle Macpherson – doing just that. (Today only Turlington and Macpherson remain fur-free.) Even the disastrous attacks on mink farms by animal rights protests – in which thousands of animals were released from their cages into the countryside, where they have eventually threatened the water vole, otter and polecat populations with extinction – did not seem to harm the crusade. By 2000 anti-fur groups had succeeded in persuading the Government to outlaw mink farming. Despite the Queen mischievously turning up at the state opening of parliament to announce the Bill wearing a stunning fur coat, the law was passed. Fur farming becomes illegal from the end of next month. Some 13 mink and fox farms have closed and all that is left to the farmers is to haggle over compensation.

And yet. Some observers of the industry are starting to say that the great crash in pelt production to an all-time low of 20.4 million in 1993 wasn't the result of the anti-fur crusade but merely a reflection of the world-wide recession of the late 1980s – and that current production, at more than 31 million, is creeping back towards the 42 million high point of 1988.

If so, many – both pro and anti – put the turnaround down to the efforts of a single company. Saga Furs is the largest fur producer in Europe. The continent produces and consumes 85 per cent of fur bought internationally. Saga, a huge coalition of Scandinavian fur farmers, produces 65 per cent of the world's mink and 70 per cent of the world's fox fur. In 1988 the company opened a research centre outside Copenhagen where research scientists work on constantly inventing new ways of using fur – dyeing it, lasering it, shearing it to create different effects, spinning its silky hairs into yarn – making patchworks, spirals, wool mixes, stripes and every colour under the sun. It is, says Saga's global PR man, Tom Steifel-Kristensen, "dedicated to experimenting, finding the endless design possibilities with fur and pushing the material into the 21st century".

Saga has a turnover of £700m a year. Instead of spending its promotions budget on advertising the firm, in the words of Mark Glover, the campaign director of Respect for Animals, it prefers to "wine, dine and schmooze journalists and fashion designers". Over the past 10 years Saga has entertained 20,000 people from the industry, he says. More significantly, Saga "generously" offers its research findings free – not just to big-name European designers, but also to students at top fashion colleges around the world, such as Central St Martins in London, where it funds workshops and provides students with free raw materials.

Which is why those leading the fur revival are not just the obvious designer labels such as Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton. They are also some of London's smartest cutting-edge designers, such as House of Jazz, where the 30-year-old Hazel Robinson and her partner Pablo Flack use red fox, courtesy of Saga, as dangling pom-poms on knee-high boots, or the hooded sleeveless gilets that are part of a streetwise collection aimed at young hip Hoxton-set urbanites like themselves. They are part of a generation, like Tatanaka, Robert Carey-Williams, Markus Lupfer, Russell Sage, Sophia Kokosalaki and Raphael Lopez, who – had they been around 10 years ago – would have shunned fur as morally unacceptable but who now offer Saga an entry point to credibility with a whole new generation.

Yet if the names are new, the arguments surrounding fur are the same as ever, as hefty recent treatises by both sides show, with Professor Andrew Linzey, who holds the world's first post in Theology and Animal Welfare at Oxford, in the anti-fur corner, and the right-wing environmentalist Richard D North, of the Institute for Economic Affairs, wearing the pro-fur colours.

The pair dance a familiar gavotte. It is cruel to kill animals for their fur, says Linzey. No more so than killing cows for leather or pigs for bacon sandwiches, says North. It's worse because leather is at least a by-product of food. No, separate cattle are farmed for soft leathers, they are not sidelines of the meat industry.

The fur trade is an affront to the responsibility humans have as stewards and guardians of creation. No, it's a green sustainable industry, feeding mink on waste from abattoirs that could not go into the human food chain; selling their manure to farmers; rendering their bodies to make a prized oil; and making clothing from a sustainable resource rather than from the synthetic textile fibres beloved of veggies which are produced from oil – a diminishing and irreplaceable resource. Yes, but at a cost to the animals' welfare, as fur-chewing and self-mutilation of tail tissue reveal. No, farmed mink grow and breed well, the best indicator of species' well-being.

Ah, but the issue is not just physical cruelty. The confinement of wild creatures in barren enclosures where their behavioural needs cannot be adequately met, inevitably causes suffering. Such imprisonments cannot by their nature be made "animal-friendly". The evidence shows that it is unreasonable, even perfidious, to suppose otherwise. No, the evidence shows that mink have changed in the 70 generations since they were removed from the wild and shoved into cages. Intensive selective breeding has ensured the strains of animals which could not thrive in captivity were bred out.

Well, even if we accept that the infliction of suffering can sometimes be justified, fur farming fails a basic test of moral necessity. It is wholly unjustifiable to subject animals to prolonged suffering for trivial ends, such as fur coats or fashion accessories. Fur is a non-essential luxury item, which makes the suffering morally outrageous. No, the need for luxury is a fundamental human essential. Wrong, human wants are different from human needs.

Can this circular dispute ever be resolved? The philosopher Roger Scruton suggests not. "What we see produced here are a priori arguments improvised around a psychological need," he suggests. If so, that is probably true of both sides – though Scruton, famously pro-fox hunting, then reveals his colours by adding that the psychological need of the antis combines "sentimental feelings about furry cuddly creatures with class resentment, envy of wealth and a fairly large helping of spite". Andrew Linzey ripostes that the pro-hunting lobby has its own psychological needs based in the callous self-delusion of the sybarite. The same arguments, he says, have been employed against every animal cruelty proposal since the moves in 1800 to abolish bull-baiting. A leader in The Times then thundered that "whatever meddles with private personal disposition of a man's time is tyranny direct".

Even so, there is something undeniably unpleasant, if not spiteful, in the tone of much of the antis' rhetoric. "Murderer," is the shout at people entering furriers. "Rich bitch, poor bitch," said one early Lynx poster. "Traitor," is the least unpleasant epithet shouted at the model Naomi Campbell after she turned her back on the antis and swaggered down the Fendi catwalk swathed in a massive sable coat. ("I made a mistake with Peta," she said. "I found them quite violent and I wanted to dissociate myself from them. I respect people's beliefs against fur but I don't like the way that particular organisation does its promotions." Her agent made matters worse when he said her affiliation with the anti-fur league had been part of her youth, and that she had now "grown up".)

It can only get worse. Stella McCartney has fallen out with her fur-wearing chum Madonna. Kate Moss and her friend the anti-fur designer Sadie Frost aren't speaking over a flashy silver fox-fur waistcoat. "I don't care what Sadie thinks. She has her own mind and I have mine. I wear what I want to wear," Moss said. The gay comedian Graham Norton has provoked the wrath of the crusaders by calling for countless "furverts" to come out of the closet declaring: "Fur campaigners are so dull ­ why don't they just lighten up and find a new topic to bore us about?"

Today the fight is not with the old guard of wrinkly, rich, staid, conservative and ignorant full-length mink wearers. It is with a young generation which is hip, colourful, wild, glamorous, nonchalant and knowing. A trend setter such as Katie Grand, editor of the fashion magazine Pop, wears her new mink jacket to walk to work in the morning without shame. Her father is a scientist, she says, and "from a young age, I was used to the idea that he experimented on animals. It never really bothered me."

The average fur buyer today is in her mid-thirties, on an average income, and buying Chanel rabbit ear-muffs or a Zara coyote-collared high-street winter coat for under £100. And instead of cocking a snook at the old establishment, as the antis sought to do, she is showing two fingers to the new establishment of liberal/left/green political correctness. A guilty conscience is as out of fashion as a pashmina shawl. The only consolation for the anti-fur lobby is the hope that, fashion being as fickle as it by definition is, before too long fur will be as out as ever it was.