Faux pas in fur: It may not be the real thing, but even fake fur creates the wrong image and rubs people up the wrong way, argues Marion Hume

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Glamour is back. 'Hang on,' you might say, 'Last week, and on this page, you told me that a new bulky silhouette was the story of Paris.' And so it is. Bulk is the big picture, the long-range fashion forecast, if you like. But in the meantime, clothes for Hollywood sirens are set to make an entrance again.

During the fashion season in London, Milan and Paris (with New York yet to come) we have seen more than 60 shows and about 6,000 outfits. And that siren, the antithesis of last season's puritan in her sensible shoes, kept showing up in her high heels and crimson lipstick, looking gorgeous.

But at times she struck a worrying chord. Visualise Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson. What are they wearing? Satin, silk, high heels, yes. But what else? Fur.

Fur used to be a byword for glamour. The signs are that it may become so again. Of course, the luxury of fur is the opposite of fashion's recent minimalism and fashion always loves the opposite of what has just gone before. But even so, the return to fur is surprising.

For the past decade, anti-fur lobbyists have struggled to destroy the image of the fur coat as the ultimate in luxury. They have battled to persuade opinion formers that a sable stole is not something to die for but an item something else has died for.

And they have made spectacular gains. In New York - where all the big designers had fur contracts until recently - they targeted Anne Klein. Last month the company backed off fur. They have targeted Calvin Klein: 'Calvin Kills' was their catchline. But he doesn't any more. In January the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) stormed his offices. In February I witnessed kd Lang, a committed anti-fur campaigner, button-holing Klein at a high-profile party. Three days later a fax confirming that Calvin was giving up fur arrived here.

This week Donna Karan has announced that she, too, has backed away from fur. The top models Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Tatjana Patitz may have helped to change her mind. Ditto the actress Kim Basinger. All have posed nude for Peta advertisements, protesting they would rather go naked than wear fur. The implication is clear - fur isn't chic, it isn't smart.

But in Europe a slightly different picture is emerging. The signs are that a taste for the glamour associated with fur is returning. 'Rubbish,' some will scoff. 'The furs you saw on the catwalk were fake, couldn't you tell?' The worrying answer is 'No'.

Bella Freud is British, so it was a safe bet that her floor-length 'mink' was fake. The same goes for Vivienne Westwood's 'chinchilla'. But we were all fooled by Jean Paul Gaultier's 'baby seal'. Last week, the Independent reported that he had mixed real and fake in his Nanook of the North collection. So did Women's Wear Daily, the American trade paper. Now Gaultier insists that it was all fake, that he never uses real fur. But who could tell?

Developments in fabric technology mean that fake fur no longer looks like a mass of shiny nylon filaments or a nursery teddy bear, unless it is intended to. Instead, it looks just like the real thing. No one could have mistaken the bathmats swathing Karl Lagerfeld's snow queens at Chlo for real fur. Nor the 'fuzzy wuzzy' gonk suits he showed at Chanel. But he also designs for Fendi, the most famous furriers in the world. Women's Wear Daily reported that he wanted to show only fakes in that collection, too. However, Fendi and Karl compromised in coats that mixed real and faux. No one, not even the experts, could tell one from the other.

Peta's attitude is that as long as it isn't real, who cares if it looks like it is. But Carol McKenna of the UK anti-fur pressure group Respect is concerned. 'I used to think fake fur was brilliant, but now it is indistinguishable from the real thing, I fear that the designers using it in this way are perhaps promoting real fur,' she says.

I share her concern. It is ironic that fake fur, designed to replace the real thing and welcomed by those who were ethically against fur, now looks set to play a part in promoting its return; for we may be wooed into liking the fur look again, while believing that what we see is cruelty-free.

Many people in the fashion business are unconcerned. They point out that the real thing, ironically again, has many lives once dead. For far fewer pelts are used in high fashion than is often suspected, as these are recoloured, recut and reused over and over. At haute couture, the revamping of last year's fur jacket into this year's fur mini skirt is common practice. Supporters mention that this is about as 'green' as fashion gets.

They have a point. But is it enough? Many deliberately fudge their own position. Several British-born fashion editors, who would never wear fur in London, happily put on coats, stoles and wraps while abroad and, if challenged, take advantage of the fact that few know a fake from the real thing any more.

Others who would never wear a fur coat have been sporting this season's Must-Have scarf during the past few weeks. This is black and velvet. But it looks just like astrakhan, the tightly-curled black coat of Karakul lambs, killed and skinned at one to three days old for their fleece. Strange that such a thing - real or fake - should become fashionable in 1994.

Rifat Ozbek used velvet 'astrakhan' because it reminded him of his native Turkey; he is unmoved by anti-fur feelings. Other designers are, though. 'My god, no] Martine would never use the real thing, she loves animals,' said Carole Deroo of Martine Sitbon, where the designer had revamped that winning Hollywood combination of nightgown satin trimmed with fur. 'Vivienne has never used real fur, but sometimes loves the fact that fakes look so real,' says Westwood's assistant Franoise Rust-Fourteau.

The new and spectacular fakes are easy for a designer to use. While real fur calls for skilled craftsmen and specialist machines, anyone who can cut and sew can handle the fake stuff. This explains why there is likely to be a lot of it in the shops next winter.

And that could be tricky. If fashion experts cannot tell real from fake any more, the anti-fur protestor running up with a 'Yuk, your disgusting fur coat' sticker or a bucket of red paint will not have a clue. So buyers beware.

Personally, if I were to feel a sudden urge for utter glamour, I would opt for a floor-length velvet opera coat, without the trimmings.

(Photographs omitted)