One fine day, just after I had been put in charge of PETA's anti-fur campaign, someone sent me a page torn from Vogue. It was about designers who use fur, their bold names circled in red ink and "Get 'em" scribbled in the margin. The suggestion had potential, so I pinned the frayed cutting to the wall beside my desk for inspiration. As the fight against fur in the 1970s and 1980s had largely involved often futile attempts to ban leghold traps or to pressure monolithic department store chains to stop selling fur, it seemed that shifting the focus to high-profile designers would be a terrific way to update the debate and energise the issue. A personal target, especially someone famous, is much more exciting than a faceless corporate target.
At the time, the most mainstream name in fur was Calvin Klein, who had been designing an annual fur coat collection since Jimmy Carter was president. I set my sights on Calvin not just because he was America's most successful designer, but because I thought he might be the most sensible; he didn't seem as pompous, arrogant, haughty, indifferent, and selfcentered as the other designers.
I could actually imagine us being friends. Yet Calvin, like the other designers trumpeted in that Vogue article, never responded to our earnest appeals sent by mail. I imagine that the videos of squirming minks being injected with weed killer and panic-stricken foxes being anally electrocuted never reached the actual people who, without thinking much about it, envision clever ways to turn the decomposing, chemically-treated remains of these animals into expensive accessories. Rather, I bet these videos were deemed a nuisance and tossed into the trash.
What did we have to do in order to find 15 minutes on a designer's agenda?
I proposed that we show up en masse at Calvin's office and refuse to leave until he renounced fur. We weren't sure that Calvin would comply, but we figured an occupation would make all our targets realise that if they ignore the reasonable concerns of a peaceful group plodding along outside department stores, they might face an angry mob in their office. Upon further discussion, we reasoned that since we'd quickly be tossed out, we should leave a calling card, such as stickers on the walls and leaflets on desks. One thing led to another, and we were soon mapping out a full-scale raid, including bullhorns and paint. Since this was the first volley in our designer initiative, it had to be jarring enough to prompt everyone in the frivolous fashion world to have at least one short, serious thought about the sadistic industry that so many of them gratuitously promote.
The raiding party consisted of a cluster of Manhattan's most spirited animal activists, among them Kat, very chic with short black hair and spit curls; Emily, a tall blonde whose friendly facade masks an alarmingly raucous New Yorker; and Anne, a 50-something Irish mother with long red hair, an easy smile, and a son who was a Midtown cop. The crucial role of spray-painter went to the steady-handed Lisa Lange, who came up from Washington to join us.
We faxed a short advisory to a few key news desks stating that members of PETA would occupy a major fur designer's office - we didn't say who - and invited photographers interested in covering our surprise party to meet us at the corner of 39th and Eighth at 10 am sharp. A good handful showed up – as well as a few uninvited TV crews that had somehow been tipped off. This made me very, very nervous, as I couldn't imagine finagling the whole lot past security.
I led the six well-dressed trespassers into the building like an anxious teacher shepherding students on a field trip, our posse trailed by a slew of cameras. A security guard surveyed the group and rose with a quizzical look on his face.
"What's going on?" he asked.
I prodded all of the protesters - and the photographer from the Associated Press - down the hallway and into an elevator that had just opened. Not to be left behind, the other photographers and crews tried to elbow past the security desk and get into their own elevator.
"Just a minute, you've got to wait," the guard directed the group behind us.
"Yeah, well, we didn't come here to sit downstairs and miss all the action," replied an agitated reporter.
"What action?" The guard instantly cast a suspicious glare at those of us cramming ourselves into the lift.
My heart started jack-hammering. The bell rang, the doors opened on floor 10, the Calvin Klein offices, and out we exploded like a ferocious pack of Keystone Kops. At first, the group of people innocently waiting in the lobby for an appointment looked up at the unlikely marauders with a simple jolt. Then, as the yelling and painting began, they gasped and looked around in a panic, realising there was no easy way out. Lisa tidily sprayed "Kills Animals" beneath the Calvin Klein logo while Anne and Emily chanted slogans and spread leaflets all around, leaving them on the little tables and forcing them into the hands of the mortified bystanders.
"Good morning," I said as politely as possible. One should strive to be civil even in combat. "We're here to protest Calvin Klein's use of fur, and we'll be taking over your offices until he gives it up."
"Someone, call the police!" she shrieked the receptionist, disappearing into the inner offices. Sexy Kat, wearing black tights, leaped over the counter like Batgirl and was followed by her cohorts. They prowled through the offices, one of them shouting "Fur pimps!" on the bullhorn, the other plastering stickers on phones and leaving leaflets on desks. You could hear a stampede of expensive shoes scurrying to emergency exits, followed by earsplitting alarm bells.
"Where's Calvin?!" Kat forcefully hollered over the din.
"Calvin's not here!" pleaded someone. It was true; he was out at a meeting.
When it was clear that the siege was unfolding pretty much as we'd planned, I took the next elevator down, with the brash notion that I might be able to bring up the rest of the press. As if. The door opened on the ground floor to a swarm of New York's finest, who commandeered the lift and headed up to the 10th floor. Other officers were scattered throughout the foyer, and one of them, unaware that I was involved in the protest, instructed me to leave the building.
Outside, I found all the reporters who hadn't made it upstairs - and others who had been urgently dispatched to the scene - and gave them the lowdown, as well as copies of the video we had sent to Calvin, showing the gory fate of the animals destined for his showroom. Before long, the police descended, escorting the handcuffed protestors into a paddy wagon.
"Make sure you call my son at the Midtown precinct!" Anne shouted at me with a fighting Irish grin. "Maybe we'll get out quicker!"
The door was bolted shut, the police van pulled away, and though I was elated that our invasion had succeeded, I wished I had been hauled off with my friends, not so much for the camaraderie but because the people you meet in New York City jails have absolutely riveting stories to share.
The next morning, I eagerly wiped the sleep from my eyes, gave my purring pillow mates a kiss, and excitedly read all about PETA's outrageous insurrection in USA Today. I felt fairly confident that our high-fashion offensive had been properly launched.
One remarkable thing about New York, especially among the gays, is how everyone seems to know each other, despite the fact that there are millions of people in the city. In the wake of our raid on Calvin's office, as we were making plans to disrupt an upcoming Council of Fashion Designers dinner at which Calvin was an awardee, I got a call from an acquaintance who wrote for New York magazine.
"Dan, my God!" he exclaimed. "Why didn't you just meet with Calvin?"
"We had a better chance of meeting with Elvis," I deadpanned. "We tried and tried, with him and with everyone else, and never heard back. We're inconvenient, I'm afraid."
"Well, I know him pretty well, and I bet he'd meet, if you promise to leave your paint at home."
"Thanks, just say when and I'm there, but don't get your hopes up."
A few days later, back at PETA's headquarters in Washington, I answered a call from a very pleasant-sounding woman from New York who said her name was Lynn Tesoro; she was Calvin's head of public relations, calling to set up a meeting.
"Can you be back in New York next Tuesday morning?" Lynn asked. "Yes, of course," I said. "And don't worry - I'll bring flowers this time instead of paint." I even wore a suit.
Ironically, I was much more nervous going into Calvin's office as an invited guest rather than as an intruder. There was so much at stake, and there were so many eyes upon us. A columnist from the Daily News had called for an update on the campaign; I told her that Calvin had agreed to discuss the issue in person, and she wrote about it on the morning of our meeting. I figured that the more people knew about it, the more pressure he'd be under to respond sensibly. It was the first thing Calvin brought up.
"Good to meet you, Dan," Calvin said cautiously, in his rich Long Island lilt, as Lynn and I entered his spacious office. "But why did you tell the press about this meeting?"
"Well, first, they asked, and second, nobody said not to," I replied as we shook hands. He smirked and motioned for me to have a seat. I was a bit defensive after his first question, but quickly decided that it was probably good for him to sense some continued recklessness on our part. I tried to appear calm and collected, but inside I was an anxious jumble, trying to discern the best way to steer the meeting based on Calvin's reactions. Was I here just so that he could say he met with PETA and then continue to ignore our concerns? Might he actually be considering dumping fur, and if so, what would the tipping point be?
Like all designers, Klein socialises with celebrities, especially those who frequent the Hamptons, so I tried the namedropping route. "Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger are both PETA supporters," I said, "and they'll be thrilled when you renounce fur." He raised an eyebrow and lightly nodded, but he wasn't reaching for the peace pipe. Maybe it was better to try more intimidation.
"Also, you should know that we have plans to disrupt the Council of Fashion Designers dinner," I said like an unabashed whippersnapper, "but we would love nothing more than to call the whole thing off."
"Dan." Calvin sighed. "Let's just talk this through without threats, okay?"
"Oh, all right," I said, looking down sheepishly and moving on to a simpler, more straightforward, personal approach. "You know, I bet under different circumstances we'd be friends. I can tell that you are a decent guy. But we can't let the fashion industry sweep these animal issues under the carpet. If you would simply allow yourself to see the cruelty you are personally responsible for when you use fur, you would change your mind. This is the easiest decision you'll ever make."
I pulled a video from my black canvas briefcase.
"My words mean very little," I continued. "These images mean a lot. This is a copy of the tape we sent - you really need to watch it and then make up your mind."
"I didn't receive any video," he said, a bit irritated. "But leave it, and I'll watch it."
I scanned the office, and, against the far wall, saw a large television.
"The tape is only four minutes long - we'll watch it now." I crossed the room, put the tape in the VCR, and started pressing buttons.
"I don't really have time just now," Calvin said as I fumbled with the machine.
"I'm not going anywhere until you watch the tape," I declared, relieved to sense the agenda item on which to stake the meeting.
"Fine," he said, throwing his hands up with an exasperated laugh. Calvin called an assistant in to get the TV going, while I steadfastly waited next to it with my arms folded.
Finally the screen flickered on, followed by the images of docile chinchillas being genitally electrocuted, struggling beavers being drowned, minks having their necks crudely snapped, frenzied coyotes trying to gnaw their leg off to escape traps, and baby seals being clubbed to death in front of their shrieking mothers. Calvin watched, at first a bit awkwardly and dutifully, but soon the horror on his face showed that he wasn't heartless. He turned away only when the animals' piercing screams made the tape a bit too much to bear. To go a little easier on my host, I turned the volume down.
There were several seconds of continued silence after it ended. "Well, that's it," he huffed, his moist eyes looking away pensively. "I have avoided looking at that crap for years."
"And . . .?" I prodded, carefully.
"And that's it. I'm out. No more fur."
I wanted to feel ecstatic, but there were uncomfortable details to tend to. I pulled out the latest copy of Fur World and opened it to the page that listed Calvin among the designers who'd just signed a deal to produce a fur collection the next fall.
"What about this?" I asked.
He took it from my hands and looked at the article closely, then plopped it on the table.
"Let's just say you can't believe everything you read," he replied. "Different companies licence my name for different fashion lines, and sometimes it's hard to keep track of what everyone is doing, but that fur line won't happen, and that's that."
"Terrific," I said. "But I need it in writing."
"Lynn!" he called out. "Would you please draft a statement we can release with PETA? We're out of the fur business." The incredible scene slowly started to feel real, but I fought any outward jubilation and tried to remain businesslike as Calvin walked me out.
The following Friday, a headline in the New York Times stated, CALVIN KLEIN SAYS HE'LL NO LONGER PRODUCE FURS. The lengthy article, which detailed PETA's blitzkrieg attack and subsequent meeting, including the screening of the grisly videotape, began:
"Calvin Klein ruffled the $1.1 billion fur industry yesterday, announcing that he would no longer produce furs. Citing 'my own reflections on the humane treatment of animals' and 'the fact that the fur segment of our business did not fit with our corporate policy any longer,' Mr. Klein ended 17 years of licencing agreements."
Pretty soon, more and more designers started speaking up for PETA, most notably Todd Oldham, who did a line of PETA fake-fur hats; Marc Bouwer, who partnered with us for a cruelty-free fashion show, and later Stella McCartney, who got the Gucci Group to back her high-end nonleather shoe line.
Of course, not all designers were sympathetic, but at least, now, many agreed to meet, including Marc Jacobs. I showed Marc the same stomach-turning fur tape that I had showed Calvin.
"Plastic surgery isn't pretty to watch either, but look at the results," he said, matter-of-factly.
Marc's comparison of elective cosmetic surgery to animals being forcibly mutilated and killed was a stretch, but I listened, hoping to discern what makes an intelligent person think like this. I learned that the brain isn't always connected to the heart.
John Galliano invited me to his stately abode in Paris, where we had a very urbane chat in a dimly lit room. He explained, with those ever-bleary eyes and raspy voice, that he wasn't really a "fur person," but that Bernard Arnault, the money man behind his luxury company, insisted he use real fur to keep prices high. John's next collection included an outfit featuring not just fur but a cap made of the entire face of a skinned silver fox, the animal's lifeless eyes sloping down just above the model's lifeless eyes. Priceless.
Most crass of all was Michael Kors, who told me, hands aflutter, "If people will buy it, I'll design anything." This includes karakul-street name broadtail lamb - which is made from the skins of baby sheep who are killed either by a painful induced miscarriage or by being bludgeoned to death just after they are born. Their wool must remain baby soft. Unlike kittens, these lambs open their eyes at birth, just in time to see a violent man hammer them with a club several times. That is their entire experience on this planet.
How could any human being defend this atrocious cruelty, especially when the "fabric" is so easily mimicked synthetically, without any blood and guts? "It's really drapey," was Michael Kors's justification. So much for the notion that all homosexuals are more sophisticated and sensitive.
Why are certain designers and fashion editors so obsessed with fur? One theory is the Cruella De Vil syndrome. Let me explain. Furry animals are naturally beautiful. Fur's biggest proponents are, to be polite, not natural beauties. For those unfamiliar with the key players, Michael Kors has a bulbous red face and receding wiry hair, which he inexplicably bleaches. Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who not only bullies young fur-free designers and models but ran a story on why potatoes are tastier when fried in horse lard, looks as if she has constant, painful gas. This may explain why equally pretentious and vulgar fur lover Karl Lagerfeld always carries that fan. Since the whole point of fashion is to decorate yourself in the hopes of improving your appearance, perhaps, like Cruella, the fur-obsessed try to compensate for their unfortunate looks by stealing the beauty of another.
These are the people for whom the expression "all style and no substance" was invented. I had them in mind when I was asked by Genre magazine, which had included me on its list of influential gays, who I thought was a notable homosexual.
"Andrew Cunanan," I replied, almost instinctively, "because he got Gianni Versace to stop using fur."
The day the issue hit newsstands, I learned that serial killer humour is one of the few remaining taboos. Headlines trumpeted the "sick pointed joke," Naomi Campbell issued a statement that she was "aghast," and a national news crew ambushed me as I sleepily walked off a plane. I instantly phoned the magazine to tell them they were free to disown me.
Astonishingly, Genre's editor Morris Wiesinger defended me on television, saying that the quip was an example of the provocative campaigning that led them to put me on their list in the first place. The publisher went even further and offered me a column. Titled Out on the Road, it gave me the opportunity to file Mark Twainish dispatches from the odd places I ended up and about the characters I encountered.
So began my moonlighting career as a writer. Joking about killing? It's a living.
Extracted from 'Committed: A Rabble-Rouser's Memoir' by Dan Mathews, which is published by Duckworth on 21 May 2009
Fighting tooth and claw: PETA’s history
1980 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is set up in Norfolk, Virginia. It is founded by Alex Pacheco and Ingrid Newkirk.
1981 Pacheco goes undercover to expose Dr Edwarf Taub, who is experimenting on monkeys; this leads to anamendment of the Animal Welfare Act in the US.
1983 PETA closes a Department of Defence lab in which the military planned to fire missiles into dogs and goats.
1989 Avon, Benetton, Mattel, and Hasbro all commit to halt testing on animals following pressure from the group’s Compassion Campaign.
1991 The launch of the ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur’ posters. Naomi Campbell, Eva Mendes and Christy Turlington all pose.
1993 PETA Europe opens in London, the first outside the US.
1996 Activists throw a dead raccoon on Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s table at the Four Seasons restaurant.
2004 Senior vice president Dan Mathews jumps onto a Milan catwalk dressed as a priest and carrying a banner saying 'Thou
Shalt Not Kill”.
2009 The Pet Shop Boys are asked if they will re-brand as the Rescue Shelter Boys. The band say they are “unable to agree, but nonetheless think [it] raises an issue worth thinking about”.
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