Last month at La Pelota, a former sports arena turned fashion venue in central Milan, 12 designers competed in an event called Remix to show just how imaginative they could be with fur.
The judges, led by Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, handed the top prize to Japanese designer Shohei Ohashi for his elegant black, white and grey striped coat "inspired by optical art" that mixed mink, Finn raccoon and goatskin.
Decades of successful anti-fur campaigning by groups like PETA, which recruited supermodels to say "I’d rather go naked than wear fur", have put fur beyond the pale for many, creating the impression that it is as irrelevant as it is inhumane, unacceptable and unfashionable.
Remix is an attempt by the fur industry to counter that view. "The 80s campaigns were incredibly powerful. So the popular view of fur is that it is an outdated material typically worn by old ladies," concedes Mark Oaten, CEO of the International Fur Federation (IFF).
It sounds alarmingly like a ‘Ratner’ moment, not the sort of impolitic remark one would expect from a man who is a former Liberal Democrat shadow home secretary. But it turns out that he is only referring to the West. "In fact fur has never been more successful," he adds quickly. In 2011 global sales of fur totalled just over $15bn (£9bn) – up nearly 50 per cent in ten years. But a mark of PETA’s success is that only 35 per cent of those sales came from Europe and the US.
As IFF chief, Oaten is charged with promoting the trade worldwide. Armed with a budget of £20m a year from a levy on every fur skin sold at auction, he has to fund 47 offices in member countries as well as four regional offices, not to mention advertising and marketing campaigns.
It may sound like a large amount, but with all these commitments and fur’s serious image problem, it is not surprising to hear Oaten describe PR as "top of my agenda". He uses the full gamut of flackery, from fashion PR to international lobbying. "In fact I can’t understand how any CEO doesn’t have it at the top of their agenda," he adds.
A particular difficulty for the IFF is that the fur trade is not akin to a monolithic global brand like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s: "Attitudes to fur are cultural and differ between countries. So consumer attitudes vary in both fashion and attitudes to animal welfare."
Also the way politicians are lobbied differs from territory to territory. "For instance, in the West you reassure politicians about their voters. In Russia and China less so," explains Oaten.
Obviously the most pressing issue for the IFF is reputation. "Not everyone has other bodies whose sole purpose is to destroy them," says Oaten. "We face being legislated against on a global scale. Laws are being passed at local, national and regional levels. Last year West Hollywood became the first city in the world to ban the sale of fur. The EU is starting initiatives on product welfare and labelling and in 2009 the Netherlands started looking at a ban on fox and chinchilla fur."
At this point one can see why the IFF needed Oaten’s political nous. It fought off the Dutch ban with an award-winning campaign, using international lobbying and diplomacy. Oaten knew popular opinion would be against it so it adopted a ‘zero media’ strategy and turned to lobbying. It recruited ten EU states to object to the ban and got Finland to deliver a thinly veiled diplomatic threat of legal action.
The other major focus of IFF’s PR efforts is consumers and designers. IFF is adopting a non-confrontational approach – hence last month’s show. "We are repositioning fur as a fashion item rather than practical and timeless," says Oaten.
An important aspect of that is product development: "Fur is being used in different ways and mixed with other fabrics. And new techniques have brought colour. In fact, 70 per cent of catwalk shows now include fur in some way," he estimates.
These days it seems many more women would rather wear fur than go naked.