Sheep chic

Vivienne Westwood is one of 21 designers whose work with `shearling' now on show in Paris challenges haute couture's love affair with fur. `If you eat the sheep, you should use the skins.' By Tamsin Blanchard
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The past week's haute couture shows in Paris marked a resurgence in the use of animal skins. We saw mink, crocodile, fox and chinchilla at just about every show, including those of Givenchy, Dior and at Valentino, where almost every dress, jacket and skirt was edged in mink. Within the world of haute couture, the fur issue is not even discussed. But on Tuesday, 21 designers, from Calvin Klein and Prada to Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, put forward an alternative in the form of sheepskin.

"If you're going to eat the sheep, you should wear the skins," said Vivienne Westwood, standing next to her soft, furry, leopard-printed coat. "I'm not anti-meat. I used to be vegetarian many years ago, because I didn't want to kill animals. I started eating fish again and then meat because it gets a bit anti-social if you always have a problem with the menu. I don't eat much meat, but I do like lamb.

"Someone wrote to me recently saying why not use human skin after death, not just animals. We shouldn't be hypocritical about it. Everything should be recycled. If we're going to use animals for laboratory tests, maybe we should use their skins as well. Why not have chimp fur? The debate about fur is too hysterical. I've never done a fur coat, except for a sheepskin. I'm always wary of it.

"I wouldn't wear a mink coat and of course, I don't think you should use leopard skin. The anti-fur brigade's argument against fabric that looks like fur is silly, though." Westwood uses sheepskin because it is a by-product of the meat industry. It is not farmed for the skin alone.

The shearling event was a joint effort between Italian Vogue, Ruffo, the suede and leather manufacturer for Versace and other designers, and the Spanish tannery Colomer. The raw material came from Spain, Britain, Ireland and Greece. The clothes and accessories will be auctioned off in New York in October, with all the proceeds going to NY's Fashion Institute of Technology.

Going under the hammer will be an extraordinary pair of orange and red striped boots with great puffs of brightly coloured sheepskin circling the legs by Manolo Blahnik, a shaved lambskin Flintstones dress with flowers burnt into the skin by Alexander McQueen, an embroidered and hand-stitched bustier dress with a corsage of shearling flowers at the shoulder and matching gloves in pearlised baby blue by Antonio Berardi, and a textural, curly-haired zip-front coat by Rifat Ozbek. Each piece uses the skin to different effect. One coat, by the Italian designer Alessandro del'Aqua looked, and almost felt, like mink.

"We are promoting an alternative fur," said a spokesman for the event. "Animalists are never going to wear shearling, but it is a more humane alternative. We don't work with animals for fashion alone. They are farmed for meat and then we use the skins." The wool can be treated in many different ways: ironed to make it look as soft and silky as other furs, curled for texture like Tibetan wool or used skin side out for suede.

"I wanted to use sheepskin in a way it isn't normally used, with embroidery and lacing on the seams," said Antonio Berardi. "I would never use fur. Never. You can still create beautiful things without using fur.

"People use fur for the luxury of it and automatically think it's beautiful, but it isn't, it's vulgar. Sheepskin is a by-product. You can go to John Lewis or Marks & Spencer and buy sheepskin gloves - it's not that precious. But I've tried to make it look precious. You can do that with anything"n

Antonio Berardi's report from the Paris couture shows appears on the fashion page next Wednesday.