News Analysis: Fur creeps back into acceptance

After years of boycotts, fur is making a fashion comeback. Sarah Robertson analyses how the fur trade has managed to lose some of its stigma.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s activists threw paint over it, celebrities and top models shunned it and shops banned it. But its growing presence at London Fashion Week earlier this month has for many signalled the uncontested return of the once 'evil' fur.

More than 300 designers in the UK are using fur in their collections this year, according to the British Fur Trade Association (BFTA).

Global fur sales have soared over the past the five years with annual sales currently standing at $11bn (£5.8bn) according to the International Fur Trade Federation, while in the UK sales are 30 per cent up over the last two years, according to BFTA.

Changing values

'The number of designers using fur worldwide has increased from 42 to 400 in the past ten years, but the industry is failing to explain why fur is now acceptable,' says consumer agency Cunning MD Anna Carloss.

She adds that there are ethical ways of sourcing fur, and there is a need to educate consumers to distinguish between fur from farms where animals are 'free range' and where their storage and culling techniques are cruel.

Wearing fur dates back to primeval times. But its use increased initially with the arrival of the motorcar and the selling point of keeping people warm on the road, says International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF) PR manager Tanya Baird.

In the 1950s fur achieved glamour status when it was adorned by Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe.

But it was its resurgence in the 1980s after a relatively fallow period that galvanised the anti-fur lobby. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), then known as Lynx, launched an advertising campaign in 1991 with the tagline 'I'd rather go naked than wear fur' which sparked a flurry of direct action. The ads, featuring supermodels such as Naomi Campbell, successfully promoted the message that the use of fur is cruel.

Fashion agency Iroquois MD Catherine Morris says: 'The anti-fur lobby's use of shock images has been effective, particularly Peta's images of singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor holding up a skinned animal in 2002.'

One of Peta's other tactics to deter consumers has been to broadcast video footage of fur farms. Shocking images of cruelty went out to the media and over 100 major designers, along with pleas to stop using fur.

A handful, including Calvin Klein, agreed.

But fur's shock value has since been diluted and the models involved in Peta's original advertising campaign, such as Campbell, started wearing fur in 1997, prompting fury from anti-fur campaigners.

Frank Zilberkweit, BFTA director and owner of specialist London fur shop Hockley, says: 'When the anti-fur lobby attacked us in the 1980s, we were caught in the headlights. But we have since been educating designers on how to use fur and giving information on how fur is culled and farmed.

Designers have made it more fashionable and destroyed its fuddy-duddy image.'

Saga Furs, a Scandinavian-based coalition of the biggest group of fur producers in the world, opened a design centre in Denmark in 1988 to find new ways of using fur, making it lightweight, and to promote it to the fashion industry, a significant step in redefining industry methods.

'Nowadays, fur can be finely knitted or woven so there is more scope for creativity. It is no longer just something to be worn to the opera, which has made it more popular,' says Baird.

Since opening the centre, Saga has hosted more than 20,000 students and designers.

Fashion agencies say the most significant tactic to make fur acceptable again came in the early 1990s, when Saga started giving away free fur to fashion students and designers, a move that has attracted great controversy.

Peta campaign co-ordinator Andrew Butler says: 'Saga offers huge bribes to reignite interest in fur. They are investing huge amounts of money because of the success of our campaigns over the years.'

Saga argues that far from constituting bribery, its tie-up with fashion students is about sponsorship.

Fashion trade weekly Drapers deputy features editor Louise Foster, says: 'Saga knows getting celebrities to wear fur is key and makes a real difference to consumer attitudes.'

The IFTF launched a charm offensive in the women's glossies three years ago, and has since run six-page advertorials every autumn in 11 country editions of Vogue, including the UK.

Environmentally friendly

Another tactic of the fur trade is to promote it as an environmentally friendly fabric. Designers are adopting messages about fur being biodegradable and that it uses less energy to produce than synthetic materials. And the use of fur itself is a good promotional tool for designers, says Frank PR fashion director, Peter Matthews: 'Look at the column inches given to the designers using fur at this year's London Fashion Week. That could be why they are using it.'

Peta says it plans to retaliate by sponsoring fashion students and fashion shows and counter Saga's efforts.

It also points out that high street retailers such as Top Shop promote their anti-fur stance and that when clothes store Zara tried to introduce fur last year, it quickly U-turned over fears of public protests.

With the agency representing BFTA asking its client not to reveal its name to PRWeek, it appears that the business of fur retains some of its stigma, in that some are reticent about declaring their association with it.

Foster says: 'It's all very well using fur at London Fashion Week, and high-profile celebs such as Kate Moss publicly wearing fur, but the real test is whether the middle market will pick it up. People have fewer qualms about wearing it, but the taboo still exists.'

FUR IN THE SPOTLIGHT

- 1954: The International Fur Trade Federation, now comprising 36 members in 30 countries, is formed.

- 1988: The cooperative representing Scandinavian fur farmers, Saga Furs, opens its design centre in Denmark to research new ways of using fur.

- 2001: People for the Ethical treatment of Animals (Peta) a receives its 10,000th fur coat donation, five years after asking people from all over the world to send them in.

- 2002: Protesters storm Valentino's show at New York Fashion Week.

- 2003: Peta sponsors a skin-free fashion show at New York Fashion Week.

- 2005: The first ever anti-fur billboard ads go up in China. The ads, by Peta, feature Pamela Anderson saying 'give fur the cold shoulder'.

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