Having been a non-story in recent years, the fur debate has once more been hitting the headlines. Several newspapers, led by The Independent on Sunday two weeks ago, reported that, according to HM Revenue & Customs, record numbers of Britons are buying real fur; meanwhile, statistics from the British Fur Trade Association suggest that sales of fur clothing have increased by as much as 30 per cent since 2005.
At the same time, the fashion industry, which never really ended its affair with fur (it was more of a Rachel and Ross-style "break"), is once again placing it high on its agenda, with a host of designers featuring it prominently in their collections. One of the big highlights of Miuccia Prada's winter show - from a fashion perspective, at least - was a parka with an (omega) animal attached to its back. And, in fact, fur was everywhere in this style-leader's collection: there was a leopard-print coat belted over a fur skirt, a furry motorcycle helmet, and even a fur mane running down the back of a dress. Knowing Ms Prada, it was undoubtedly a brazen two-fingers to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), but more significantly, it announced that fur is most definitely back on the modern style agenda.
But, behind the statistics, and the fact that it is clearly an emotive, highly charged issue, it seems to me that some important questions are rarely addressed. Ever since the notorious and often ingenious anti-fur campaigns of the mid-1980s, Peta's rule-by-intimidation has been unchallenged and its critics largely silenced. Nevertheless, the new phenomenon, which has now seen sales of fur clothing exceed £500m in the UK for the first time, does raise some interesting questions - not least who is buying it and where are they wearing it? Despite the shock tactics and horror stories, there is obviously something that we find compelling about fur. Now, after a long hiatus, its image has been revamped, its desirability reawakened and a whole new generation have started to embrace it again.
Someone who knows all about fashion's long-term love affair with fur is Frank Zilberkweit, the director of London-based furrier Hockley. During almost two decades spent with the company, Zilberkweit has made it his mission to modernise this old-school family business. This year, Hockley reports a 45 per cent rise in trade; its sales figures at its concession in Harrods doubled and business during the month of July, the fur trader's equivalent of the graveyard shift, boomed.
"Women used to come into the shop," says Zilberkweit, "with furs they'd been left by their grandmothers and say, 'I don't know what to do with it. I can't possibly wear it. Can I sell it?' Fur used to be associated with the past." That is no longer the case, believes Zilberkweit who, alongside the Hockley line, also stocks Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, Sonia Rykiel, Jean Paul Gaultier and Lanvin furs in his shop. The pale mink jacket in Hockley's current advertising campaign has been a sensation and his team are about as cutting-edge as its gets - Charlotte Stockdale is in charge of styling the campaigns, fashion photographer Lee Broomfield shoots them, Inacio Ribeiro (the husband half of Clements Ribeiro) designs the collection, and Corto Moltedo and Lara Bohinc create the accessories.
Big sellers from the current collection include sharp little mink jackets (big favourites among his twenty-something clients), rabbit trench coats, sheared mink coats and all the accessories - if money is a problem, his less affluent clients can always opt for a mink-lined scarf or a handbag with rabbit trim. As Zilberkweit concedes, this lust that fur seems to inspire now has not always been apparent. "In the late 1980s and 1990s, it was solely in the hands of the fur trade and all they focused on was a warm, bulky garment that was meant to last forever," he says. "It was enough for their customers to say, 'I've got a mink coat'. But that's not the case anymore. People don't just say 'I've got a car', they say 'I've got a Porsche' or 'I've got an Aston Martin.' Then, when furs started being manufactured in the Far East at massively reduced costs, the fur industry panicked and started to go mad on discounting. That in turn devalued the product - it killed off its mystique, charisma and desirability for a long time - and what you were left with was a fur-and-no-knickers, Alexis Colby anachronism."
Zilberkweit says the "quantum leap", the shift that saved the fur industry from demise, was the reawakened interest in fur by high-end fashion houses. "When designers such as Prada, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Dolce & Gabanna and Burberry started putting their imaginations into using fur and featuring it in their collections, it took on a whole new image," he says. "It started in about 1996 and from then on there has been a growing desire among young design students to work with fur and understand it." Saga, the global organisation set up to regulate fur quality, even set up a design school for fur in Copenhagen. "Something like mink is incredibly versatile," explains Zilberkweit, "so the possibilities for a designer are enormous. The people left in the fur trade started to realise there was more to their industry than they had ever imagined."
Fur has not been entirely rehabilitated into the fashion mainstream, of course. It is worth remembering that all the big style glossies, such as Harper's Bazaar (where I work) and Vogue, draw the line at rabbit fur on their pages. The main auction houses go further and will not touch fur at all. It makes the current popularity of the products all the more remarkable. When I asked a few friends who I know wear fur to talk me on the record about the furs they own, none of them agreed for fear of recrimination. While it is easy to laugh at Anna Wintour (the US Vogue editor who is notorious for her refusal to give up her Prada mink for anyone) being splatted by a tofu cream pie in Paris, there can be more serious repercussions. In recent times, some animal-rights groups have been implicated in violence, bombing campaigns and even the desecration of a grandmother's grave in Staffordshire, demonstrating the extremes this can go to.
But, off the record, there does seem to be some kind of consensus among fashion-inspired women. The resounding feeling is that vintage is fine (the argument, presumably, goes something along the lines of: "It was dead when I found it"); rabbit fur - "it's a by-product and I eat meat" - is also tolerated and worn. Astrakhan (baby lambs fresh from wombs) is definitely out; as is any kind of ostentation, as it was former vulgar associations of fur (Ivana Trump in the mid-1980s and the naff sexual image - think Joan Collins in The Bitch) that repulsed them, more than any kind of fur-farm statistics. They all concede their positions are wildly hypocritical.
My own stance is deeply flawed and full of contradictions, too. I'm an enormous dog lover and incredibly sentimental about animals. When I was 11 years old, my best friend and I used to humiliate my mother by shouting at women wearing fur coats during shopping trips to Harrods. But these days I do wear fur - vintage (I own four furs I bought from Portobello Market) and rabbit. I'd never buy a huge mink coat - even if I had the money - but I have to admit that I do love fur. It just has incredible femininity, sensuality and luxuriousness, and I adore the way it feels and the way I feel in it. And, even though I know this makes me sound as sad as hell, I think Kate Moss looks very cool in her Lanvin goat coat.
Judith Watt is a fashion historian who teaches a course at Central Saint Martins in London called Fur: History, Meaning and Morality. She thinks justifying vintage is totally hypocritical: "It's a hilarious notion: an animal still died, even if it was years ago." And she says that, of course, it's appalling if animals are skinned alive, but she argues that there is something inherently instinctual about fur's appeal. "It's very primal," she says. "I like touching fur much in the same way that I like stroking my dogs. Some people find it repulsive and some love it, but the fact remains it is a very basic instinct whether it's morally acceptable or not."
And it would seem I'm not the only fur hypocrite out there. Peta's success has, ironically, turned us into a nation of unprincipled, uninformed, fearful, closet fur-wearers. And if the figures are to be believed, those closets are bursting at the seams. "Peta has a great deal of money from donations," says Watt. "They are a very rich organisation and that's why they are powerful; they can afford to be bullies. My personal problem with Peta is that they are political - they are for animal rights not animal welfare and all their money goes on promotions and campaigns. None of the money seems to go into projects such as animal shelters. Where was Peta's initiative to re-house hounds and horses when hunting was banned?"
Watt says that throughout history, fur has always gone in and out of fashion. "It doesn't just apply to our times," she says. "Even in the 16th century, people started preferring woven silks from Italy - it was more of a status symbol and they had grown bored with fur." Similarly, the 20th century can't take all the credit for the anti-fur movement. As Watt points out, movements such as "Murderous Millinery" in 1880, which included leading figures such as George Bernard Shaw, showed that dressing with a conscience has long been an issue for some people.
Alongside the fashion houses that sparked the present interest, celebrities like Kate Moss have had an enormous - albeit unwitting - influence when it comes to the re-branding of fur. "Like it or not, celebrity culture is a massive part of the fashion industry these days," says Watt. "If Nicole Richie can sell a bag, she can sell a fur." Watt also sees the Moss generation's appropriation of fur as a new chapter in a great British tradition of protest fashion. Out are the associations with rich bitches and old women; in comes a totally modern interpretation.
So, will the trend for fur be an enduring one? Judith Watt certainly thinks so, and the way in which fur is now bought - increasingly by women, for themselves - is crucial in this respect. "These days, it's not the men buying the furs, it's women," she says. "A bit like they've started to do with real jewellery. We're not talking about a status mink any longer - it's a fur trim, or an accessory or it's a sheared jacket. And what will start happening is that you'll start seeing fabulous hard-core fur pieces on the runway that will then be copied by the same designer in rabbit - that's what will make it on to the shop floor." And another thing is for sure, designers will always continue to use fur because it gives them that all-important association with luxury that is so central and crucial to their brand.
One aspect that is likely to become increasingly important is the provenance of fur. Just as we demand that our eggs are free-range, and our meat is organically reared, so people will want their pelts to have a history (if not a name and a life story). Hockley maintains his company only buys its fur through Saga and only from "European fur farms that comply with government regulations - so that excludes China - and mink farms with a high
standard of 'animal husbandry'." From now on, according to their press release: "All of Hockley's garments will have a swing tag attached to them which explains to the customer where and how the fur was farmed and sourced so that they can be confident that no animals suffered in the making of their garment."
It's clear that Peta ain't gonna buy that line, but these new policies do reveal that, even if they don't care that an animal died in order to become a coat, some customers care about the conditions in which it lived.
The irony is that while Peta might have succeeded in making us too scared to wear fur, it has never been able to stop us liking it. The anti-fur lobby has always underestimated the indifference of the fashion industry and the hard truth is, Naomi Campbell's seemingly effortless about-turn on fur in 1997 had everything to do with fashion and nothing to do with morals. Having Campbell on the Fendi catwalk just proved the Italian fashion giant knew it was time for fur again. It's perception that determines its sales - and, right now, fur is chic, sexy and desirable.
Sara Buys is fashion features editor of 'Harper's Bazaar'Reuse content