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Fur flies as foes confront industry inclined to fight

Fur is under siege like never before with buyers facing bans or turning to artificial alternatives. [MetroCreative image]
Fur is under siege like never before with buyers facing bans or turning to artificial alternatives. [MetroCreative image]

It's fur weather. And fur is under siege like never before.

Top designer brands are refusing to use it. The nation's largest department store chain has ceased selling it. The most populous state has banned it. And America's fashion capital has pending legislation that would do the same.

What was once a clash of opinions has exploded into an all-out war.

The most recent brawl took place in a wood-paneled, not-quite-grand salon in New York's City Hall this spring. By the fifth hour of more than seven hours of public hearings on a proposed ban on the production and sale of new fur apparel, the testimony had spiraled into Shakespearean hysteria.

Because most of the City Council's committee members had disappeared into other meetings, concerned citizens were left to deliver their cris de coeur to an official audience of two. The people of New York wept and roared and gasped for air as their emotions got the better of them.

Those opposed to the ban prophesied a future when the government would also confiscate their leather shoes and belts, their steak and eggs . . . their milk and honey. They wanted to know: Why was the council worried about minks and foxes and not the homeless? Why ban fur instead of guns?

One witness compared taking away his right to sell fur to rescinding gay rights. A woman noted that she could choose to abort a fetus but was on the precipice of being unable to slaughter a mink for her professional livelihood. The anti-ban forces spoke of immigrant families of furriers, the sanctity of small businesses and the American Dream. Before it was all over, a father was crying as he recounted the death of his son and how the family fur shop was all he had left.

Folks in favor of the ban used graphic language to describe the slaughter of animals, making repeated references to the precise placement of electrodes on genitals and the amount of time required for asphyxiation. Would you do this to your dog? Would you want someone to do this to you? Would you?

Ban supporters compared animals used in the fur trade with homeless veterans, and the fur industry itself to slavery. Before the day's end, one Brooklynite quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail": "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed." She was speaking on behalf of the world's enslaved minks.

This year, California passed the first statewide law prohibiting the sale, distribution and manufacture of new fur products. Scheduled to go into effect in 2023, it exempts leather, shearling and cowhide, as well as fur used for religious purposes. The New York legislation includes shearling but has a religion exemption.

One of the fashion industry's longest-running arguments has ratcheted up. And the estimated $23 billion fur industry is being pummeled.

Frustration.

That's the word Mark Oaten uses to describe what the fur industry is feeling. Not panic. Not dismay. Not anger.

"I blame myself and I blame my organization," says Oaten, a solidly built man with a bald head and a light beard. "I feel we have an incredibly strong story to tell and I don't think we've been effective in articulating that story."

Oaten, a former member of Britain's Parliament, has been the chief executive of the International Fur Federation since 2011. His City Council testimony was welcomed by Speaker Corey Johnson, the ban's lead sponsor, with the level of enthusiasm that might greet a skunk.

Oaten highlighted FurMark, a new certification program conceived by the fur industry to ride herd over its chain of production and ensure uniform attention to animal welfare. Oaten, a seasoned politician, was nonetheless dismayed to find that such public hearings were not really about fact-finding. They are an opportunity for showmanship on the dais and catharsis in the gallery.

The experience made the reality of the fur industry's situation plain: This is not a legislative fight; it's a public relations one. And the anti-fur forces have a blunt, compelling message: Fur is cruel. Animals die. Ban fur.

In contrast, the fur industry has long sold itself on luxury and fashion — both of which are now the focus of significant public animus. Its most famous advertising campaign, which dates from the 1970s, featured sleek black-and-white images of Catherine Deneuve, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Diana Ross, Sophia Loren, Barbra Streisand, Diana Vreeland and other instantly recognizable celebrities all draped in Blackglama mink under the tagline: "What Becomes a Legend Most?"

Its new message is more 21st century and more complicated. It comes with bullet points and sub-points. It encompasses civil liberty, cultural traditions and sustainability. It begins with an acknowledgment that some people are never going to be accepting of fur. And that is as it should be.

"This is an issue of choice. The minute the state or politicians start deciding what you can and cannot buy, you're going down a slippery slope," Oaten says. But, of course, states place selective restrictions on all sorts of purchases. Consumers can't buy dog meat but they can buy rabbit, for instance.

Oaten maintains that fur is the antithesis of disposable fashion, which overwhelms landfills and is part of a cycle of overproduction and overconsumption. Natural furs traditionally have the original owner's name embroidered into the lining as a kind of pact. The coat and its owner are one — for generations. Furs, and the memories attached to them, are passed down in families.

When styles change, they're refurbished. When they're no longer wearable, they're recycled into pillow covers or throws. Furs are chemically treated, but at the end of their life, they biodegrade.

Faux furs were once referred to as "fun" furs because they were an impulse purchase — discarded after a particular itch had been scratched. Typical faux furs are made of petroleum-based materials. They are not compostable. They can release polluting microfibers into the environment.

Furriers are also quick to emphasize their concern for animal welfare — although not animal rights. A mink, they argue, can be treated as humanely in life and death as a cow or pig; but a mink is not a person.

"What you're going to see from us in 2020 is more hard-hitting messages about issues rather than models wearing fur," Oaten says. "We need, in 2020, to be better at articulating what natural fur means."

The debate over fur has been most volatile in the United States and United Kingdom. It became street theater in the 1980s when protesters confronted fur wearers, dousing their coats with red paint to mimic blood. In the 1990s, models and celebrities posed in PETA's glossy advertising campaign "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur." Activists disrupted runway presentations.

The fur industry responded by inviting designers to their production facilities and sponsoring their shows. Fashion houses with roots in fur and leather — Prada, Gucci, Fendi, Marni — not only thrived but led the industry in creativity.

In the 2000s, fur trended upward. There were cropped, bracelet-sleeve jackets in fur both vintage and new, plus plush trapper hats and fur tippets galore. Fur became sleeker with the flexibility and variability of fabric.

And through it all, fur continued to symbolize a traditional definition of luxury and a prideful display of wealth.

In the past decade, however, fashion has redefined luxury. Day-to-day dressing, already informal, devolved into leggings, hoodies and track pants. There are fewer occasions for which the full-length, extravagant furs of yore are stylistically appropriate.

Much of the global industry's $23 billion — Oaten's estimate of everything from pelts to products — is realized through fur trim, such as on Canada Goose parkas, and accessories. And that number has declined by $10 billion over the past four years as Chinese luxury spending has taken a hit.

The number of furriers in New York, the country's biggest retail market for fur, has declined since the 1970s, from 450 to 14, according to anti-fur activists' testimony during the City Council hearings. But the fur industry notes that sales remain strong because shoppers now have the option of purchasing fur in apparel shops, department stores and online.

Social media has allowed activists to share videos of animal carcasses with a click. "Vegan leather," almond milk and Beyond Meat — once fringe — are moving into the mainstream.

Fashion's recent seismic shift probably began with Gucci, which went fur-free with its spring 2018 collection. "I think Gucci was a tipping point," Oaten says.

Prada, Coach, Versace, Giorgio Armani and Michael Kors are all phasing out their fur business. Macy's and its sister store Bloomingdale's will cease selling furs by 2021.

So why not simply let a changing culture dictate whether fur businesses survive? Why legislate furriers out of a job?

"Is livelihood a reason to continue an activity that, in our opinion, is cruel?" asks Kitty Block, president of the Humane Society of the United States. "Businesses change all the time. You can't freeze-frame an activity or somebody's job."

The New York bill acknowledges that the fur trade "is not representative of public morals and how we represent ourselves as a society," Block says. People "want to do something more than just not wearing it."

While California barreled ahead after a handful of its cities had already banned fur, New York City has slowed its pace. The ban is in legislative limbo. There are a lot of jobs at stake — furriers say 7,000. (The other side disputes that number.) It also gets really, really cold in New York.

The Hasidic Jewish community, in which men have a tradition of wearing fur hats or shtreimel, has also supported the fur industry, along with a group of African American ministers who described fur as a unique cultural symbol of achievement.

"I really take issue with the culture argument," Block says. "Cruelty is not culture, and I think it's kind of insulting." Does culture have legal standing? Perhaps. Both California and New York have laws banning racial discrimination based on natural hairstyles.

The fur industry recognizes that it cannot win a debate about killing animals for luxury fashion. So it's arguing culture, jobs and sustainability. The anti-fur voices, however, have momentum. The next targets in their sights, says Block, are Louis Vuitton and Neiman Marcus. "I really do think fur's time has come."

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