Fur and loathing

A decade ago, fur had become so taboo that few image-conscious people would be seen dead in it. Now it's back, with a vengeance. Catwalks bristle with it, while celebrities from Kate Moss to Madonna wear it with pride. What caused such a startling U-turn?
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Remember when fur was taboo? When fur-coat wearers in Oxford Street had paint thrown over them, and Anna Wintour was attacked with a dead raccoon in Manhattan, and David Bailey and assorted supermodels lent their support to campaigns with slogans such as "It takes up to 100 dumb animals to make a fur coat, but only one to wear one"? Back then, it seemed as though fur had become so stigmatised – not least among the image-conscious – that it was unthinkable it would ever come back into vogue. Yet that, today, is precisely what has happened.

Scarcely a decade on from the days when the world's supermodels declared that they'd "rather go naked" than wear animal skins, fashion has fallen in love again with fur. This week is Milan Fashion Week, and over the next four days, the city's superstar designers – Gucci, Versace, Prada and Karl Lagerfeld for Fendi – will show off their autumn/winter 2002 collections. All are guaranteed to use fur with great abandon, as did most of the big names at the recent New York, London and Paris shows. Indeed, it would be simpler to list those designers who won't work with fur than those who do – Stella McCartney, whose reluctance to work with leather or fur was rumoured to have lost her the creative director role at Gucci, being the most high-profile exception.

And while British designers may still be more tentative than those in Milan, the recent London Fashion Week had more than its share of inky minks, full-fox stoles and dripping animal tails embellishing the collections. Jasper Conran showed the definitive "Joan Crawford" black-fox chubby coat, as well as deep fox-fur collars and cuffs on his tailored jackets. Arkadius unleashed a river of chartreuse fox tails on to a black A-line coat; Tristan Webber ran rivulets of plum mink ruffles on the collars and sleeves of evening coats; and Raphael Lopez sent a "Scottish Widows" black-velvet hooded cape down the runway with a fat, black fox trim framing the face. Julien Macdonald's collection, meanwhile, looked like an outtake from 101 Dalmatians: wild fox chubbies over gold lamé skirts; leopard-print duster coats; full fox stoles; black-and-white mink pompom shawls; and skintight pants finished with Mongolian lamb and marabou feathers on the ankle.

Nor is that all. Flick through any celebrity magazines, and the signs are everywhere. Here's Kate Moss, arguably the most influential icon in British fashion, wearing a fox-tail-trimmed gilet at London Fashion Week. There's Graham Norton, having sat front-row at Julien Macdonald's show, saying: "Fur campaigners are so dull. Why don't they just lighten up? Why don't they find a new topic to bore us about?"

In the view of Jan Brown, spokeswoman for the British Fur Trade Association (BFTA), "Kate Moss is the tip of the iceberg. Madonna wears fur, J Lo wears fur, Puff Daddy and Lil' Kim wear fur. So do the Sex and the City girls. These are style icons for a new generation."

Despite the UK's commitment to phase out fur farming completely by December, the pro-fur lobby also seems to be winning the battle for the hearts and minds of fashion consumers. According to the BFTA, production of mink pelts was up 10 per cent year-on-year in 2001, while the retail trade for fur in the EU had a turnover of $6bn (£3.75m) last year.

But while the fickle moods of public taste have certainly played a part in the new fur revolution, British fashion's young designers have far more tangible reasons for using fur in their work. And to understand these reasons, you must look way beyond the trendy boutiques of Bond Street – to a powerful organisation based outside Copenhagen.

It was in 1988 that Saga Furs of Scandinavia, a coalition of Scandinavian mink and fox farmers, opened a research centre outside the Danish capital. Their mission was to reintroduce fur to fashion.

Since then, Saga, which produces 66 per cent of the world's mink and 61 per cent of the world's fox, has been acting as the unseen marriage broker between fur and high fashion. Working with fashion colleges around the world, including London's St Martins College, Saga invites students and established designers to attend and lead workshops in Copenhagen. There, Saga's in-house technicians work with the designers to experiment with fur and incorporate it into their designs. More than any other single agent, Saga has been responsible for the boom in fur fashion that has exploded over the past six years or so.

In London alone this season, Saga gave raw materials and technical expertise to Julien Macdonald, Markus Lupfer, Russell Sage, Robert Cary-Williams, House of Jazz, Sophia Kokosalaki, Arkadius, Raphael Lopez, Tristan Webber and Michelle Lowe-Holder. Indeed, more than 20,000 members of the fashion industry have visited Saga since its inception in 1988; and such familiar names as Philip Treacy, Isabella Blow, Michelle Lowe-Holder, Robert Cary-Williams and the design teams for Dior, Givenchy, Versace, Dolce e Gabbana, MaxMara and Roberto Cavalli have all worked from its Design Centre.

But it is only when you visit Saga's extraordinary headquarters near Copenhagen, and its flagship mink and fox farming facilities in Jutland, that you get a real sense of its importance. The Design Centre is based around an idyllic country retreat, built in the early 20th century for a Danish opera singer and boasting a lake and Arcadian manicured lawns among its sprawling grounds.

Here, accompanied by Tom Steifel-Kristensen, Saga's global communications director, I was shown the workrooms – not unlike a mad professor's workshop – where international designers come to play with Saga's vast resources of mink and fox. Among other things, I was shown how mink pelts can be attached to a drill bit and whirled into spirals, sheared to look like suede, patchworked, knitted, dyed every colour of the rainbow and cut into strips. As Steifel-Kristensen explained: "These days, we are looking at fur in a new way: as a three-dimensional fabric. The workshop is dedicated to experimenting, finding the endless design possibilities with fur and pushing the material into the 21st century."

It occurred to me that what really is happening here is that fur is being disguised, treated in a variety of ways so that it doesn't look like fur, so that it can be worn without guilt or shame or fear. But when I suggested this, my claim was hotly denied. "Fur needed updating," argued Steifel-Kristensen. "We needed to find new ways of working with it and the young designers were instrumental in that process. We made what they imagined possible."

It may be fairer to say that in the early days of the Design Centre, Saga was giving designers a taster; encouraging them to use sheared pelts, trims and that touch of mink rather than go for the Full Monty mink coat that could result in the wearer being assaulted on Oxford Street. Not any more. As the fall/winter 2002 collections prove, designers and consumers no longer want, or need, mink in sheep's clothing.

But just as beef-eaters wouldn't necessarily like to see a cow get a bullet in the head, so fur fans might be more reluctant to visit Saga's fur farm than to play with pelts in the Design Centre fur vault. What they would find there would be row upon row of cages, housed in vast barns, containing thousands of foxes and mink. To my casual visitor's eye, however (and it was clearly a slick, well-rehearsed tour), it appeared to be an efficient, clean farming facility little different from the farms around which I'd grown up as a child in Derbyshire.

Meanwhile, back in London, the change in attitudes is becoming increasingly apparent. Though the anti-fur campaigners People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) say, "Go out on to the streets of London and you won't see women wearing fur or shops selling fur", even a brief tour of London's Bond Street or Sloane Street sees fur pieces readily available in Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, Dolce e Gabbana, Fendi, Prada and Valentino. Selfridges maintains its no-fur policy (excluding shearling), but both Harvey Nichols and Harrods push pelts. Some shops have not quite shaken off a sense of defensiveness about fur, however: a visit to Christian Dior on Sloane Street yesterday, for example, produced a frosty reception. They do sell fur, they said, but enquiring journalists are not allowed to see it. Instead, one must call Paris to find out what's on offer – and Paris, when called, say that they cannot help, either.

On the whole, however, it is hard to see what Dior are worrying about. As the BFTA's Jan Brown puts it: " Young people's attitudes to fur have changed. There are more important issues for them to worry about, frankly."

Does this mean that fashion – and the young generation of fashion followers – is so inured to violence that cruelty to animals isn't an issue? Does no one care about such practices as the "anal electrocution of animals" apart from the creators of the many anti-fur websites that document them? Even the briefest of studies of this year's fashion shows suggests that the answer, most certainly, is yes.

As Saga's Tom Steifel-Kristensen puts it: "The question for designers today is, 'How do I want fur to be?', as opposed to, 'Should I use it at all?'" And Steifel-Kristensen should know. After all, Saga has been working for years with the very designers who this week will be helping the natural fur coat to make a comeback on the catwalks of Milan.