Focus: Why Do We Still Wear Fur?

Katy Guest finds out why - and uncovers disturbing truths about coats made from cats and dogs
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The Independent Online

Ahigh-profile woman with a desire to appear fashionable 10 years ago would rather have walked out wearing nothing but Christmas tree baubles than be draped in a dead animal. In the animal-friendly days of 1994 a woman parading the streets of Liverpool in a £1,300 fur coat could reasonably have expected to be pelted with rotten eggs - even if she was the fiancée of England's finest footballer. But when Wayne Rooney's partner, Coleen McLoughlin, did just that this last week, she was only pelted with a few cantankerous words from the tabloids, mostly complaining that her jacket bore the words "Fuckin' Freezing".

The fur industry in the 1990s seemed as dead as a skinned mink. Calvin Klein had renounced the use of animal pelts in his designs. David Bailey was shooting a graphic billboard campaign jeering "It takes 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat ... but only one to wear it." The most glamorous models in the world were falling over themselves to appear in adverts for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), promoting fake fur and damning the real thing.

A decade later, some of them are exercising a model's prerogative to change her mind. Naomi Campbell was sacked as a spokeswoman for Peta seven years ago after modelling fur on the catwalk - and last week the latest shot was fired in a battle between Peta and another former ally, Cindy Crawford, who recently signed up as the face of Blackglama fur coats. Her spokeswoman now claims that Crawford never rejected fur and was only doing a favour for a photographer friend when she was pictured promoting a fake fur hat. This week Peta demanded to know why, in that case, Crawford signed a petition promising to "speak up for animals by refusing to wear fur".

Perhaps as a result of last year's ban on fur farming in the UK, imports of fur are now at their highest since 1999. "Up until fairly recently the wearing of fur, particularly in this country, was restricted to the wealthy and ultra-conservative, people who would have been seen as far from fashionable," explains The Independent's fashion editor, Susannah Frankel. "Fur was a status symbol and a fairly crass one. A general shift in designer fashion away from experimentation and towards luxury has meant that now some young, stylish people are happy to wear fur. Many of London's young designers, hitherto seen as anti-establishment, are also prepared to work with it."

While The Independent has a no-fur policy, other publications do promote it. "Elle magazine has for many years maintained an anti-fur stance," a spokesperson said last week. "However, we do recognise that tastes in fashion change. The decision to carry the Fur Council 'advertorial' last year was a commercial one taken by the international management of the Elle brand and the supplement appeared in 20 issues globally."

The September issue of British Vogue, a magazine that has claimed to be anti-farmed fur but tolerant of by-product such as rabbit and shearling, ran a six-page, £40,000 promotion by the International Fur Trade Federation entitled "Fur Ever". Carried in 10 international editions too, it told readers, "Women everywhere are embarking on a love affair with fur."

Even the most love-struck fashionista, though, would probably turn up her perfect nose at some furs - if she knew what they were. "It's perfectly legal to import dog and cat fur," says Nicki Brooks, director of the pressure group Respect for Animals. "Cat and dog fur comes under 'other fur' in the DTI's figures and nobody knows how that breaks down. I believe there is dog and cat fur here, sitting in bonded warehouses somewhere, waiting to be sold on. Most of it comes from China, and the animals are kept in absolutely horrific conditions."

This suspicion has prompted the Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock to ask the DTI to clarify its policy on imports. His fear is that since the US banned dog and cat fur imports this fur will be coming our way. DTI figures show that in the year after the American ban, the value of British imports of "other fur" rose from £4,654,000 in 1999 to £6,735,000 in 2000. Unfortunately, there is no way of telling what kind of furs these are.

"Nobody has come up with any evidence [that dog or cat fur is being sold in the UK]," says a spokesman for the DTI. "There is difficulty getting a completely reliable test. We're trying to work with scientists to do just that."

The British Fur Trade Association (BFTA) is already insisting that all its members have signed an agreement not to deal in the fur of domestic dogs and cats. But what is so special about domestic animals? The rational answer is nothing, although "people can associate with them more than with minks and foxes", says a spokesman for Peta. "We share our homes with them. We know they're individuals. They feel pain." Peta believes a ban on dog and cat fur might lead by "a logical progression" to other bans. The DTI agrees. "If we ban dog and cat fur, people could say, 'What about rabbits?'"

While the DTI wrestles with the statistics, pressure groups and industry bodies are snarling over the figures: Peta insists the BFTA's claim of a 35 per cent rise in sales in the past year is a lie; the BFTA denounces Peta's videos depicting cruelty on fur farms as propaganda. The moral debate is equally contentious: fur farming is illegal here but we import farmed fur. In the high street, Top Shop is concerned enough at the potential outrage of its customers that it now displays posters promising "All our fur is fake".

But at one fur shop in the West End of London last week the owner was confident: business hadn't been this good for years, he said. It was a good thing that leopard and ocelot were no longer sold, he believed, but on his shelves were beaver, mink, squirrel and musquash: one small fur hat on his shelves was retailing for £480. There was even more fur being worn in the North, he observed - and not just by Coleen McLoughlin.

'People don't hiss at my wrap any more'

When I first ventured out in my grandmother's fur wrap two years ago it was not well received: a woman on the Tube shoved a card in my face that listed 10 reasons why I shouldn't be wearing it; when I got to the front of the queue in Pret A Manger the woman behind the till refused to take my money. "Why? What?" I said. From the way she was looking at the fur around my shoulders, I realised why. In the end, the manager sold me my sandwich while the woman stood glaring at me.

Have things really changed so much? I set out to see if the same anti-fur sentiment still exists, piling myself with real fur - rabbit slung over the shoulders, fox perched on the head. The hat even has a pendulous, Davy Crockett-style brush. I am fully expecting to be hissed at as I get on the Tube. But I barely get a dirty look. Walking up Bond Street I feel at home - the windows are full, after all, with fur, faux and otherwise. A shop assistant looks at me askance, but I think this is because my shoes are scuffed rather than because I am wearing real fur. An older woman in a fur-trimmed poncho gives me an approving smile; a younger lady also wearing a large fur hat gives me a conspiratorial grin. The grin says, I know I shouldn't, but I am anyway.

But how about a vegan health food store? I walk into the organic mecca Fresh and Wild. There are organic mung beans. There are fair-trade kumquats. There is me browsing through the tofu looking like Cruella De Vil after a particularly successful cull. Yet they're perfectly happy to sell me a carrot smoothie. "I don't care," shrugs one of the staff when I ask what she thinks of my furry regalia. "Some of our customers would try to talk you round. But no one's gonna scream."

Outside the store, I'm tapped on the shoulder. This is it, I think: I'm heading for a bucket of red paint. I turn, wincing. It's a young woman swaddled in a thick fur coat. "I just wanted to ask," she says "where you got your hat from? I'm looking for one just like it."

Hermione Eyre

So You Want An Alternative...


If you like the look, but not the thought of traps, slaughter and frenzied animals pacing their cages, try faux fur, made from nylon, polyester, rayon and brushed cotton.


Peta argues that cows, pigs, sheep, and goats are castrated, branded, de-horned and have their tails docked without anaesthetics. The leather trade claims some chemicals used in producing substitutes damage the environment.


Lambs are docked and castrated without anaesthetic, says Peta, and deliberately scarred to keep out maggots. Try Polartec Wind Pro, made from recycled plastic soda bottles, or Tencel, a natural fabric made from wood pulp, which can be used for suiting.


About 3,000 silkworms are gassed or steamed alive to make every pound of silk. Ahimsa silk is made in India from the empty cocoons of moths that have flown away.


Rabbits suffer extreme pain in wire cages and are strapped down for shearing, often a bloody process, claims Peta. Try soft acrylics, brushed cotton and faux fur.