The clothes off its back

As the cold weather sets in you’ll need to wrap up warm, but will you be following this season’s hottest trend? Antonia Charlesworth asks why real fur has seen a resurgence

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It’s been a year since Beyoncé grabbed headlines by rocking up to one of LA’s finest vegan eateries, part of her and husband Jay-Z’s latest “physical and spiritual cleanse”, wearing fur. The list of celebrities following suit since then (in wearing fur that is, not veganism) is extensive – Rihanna, Cameron Diaz and Kim and Kendal Kardashian have all donned fur for their best Instagram selfies and pap shots. But it’s not exclusive to la-la land.

In February last year Lily Allen draped an electric blue and green striped
fur shawl over her shoulders for the NME awards. Pippa Middleton, Rita Ora, Alexa Chung, Daisy Lowe, Nick Grimshaw and most of Made in Chelsea’s cast have all bought into fur, or perhaps, been gifted it by suppliers trying to normalise the fashion Brits have traditionally turned their backs on due to the brutal nature of its production.

In 2011 an RSPCA survey revealed that 95 per cent of people in the UK would not wear fur, but of course it is only a matter of time before celebrity culture filters down into real life and the past few weeks have seen a series of protests outside branches of Harvey Nichols, including in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester, after it went back on its decade-long policy not to stock real fur.

Behind the protests is a coalition of animal rights campaigners who have come together under the banner Heartless Harvey Nichols. Their spokesperson Luke Steele says he still firmly believes in that 95 per cent figure but that the fur industry is trying to create a resurgence.

“Key furriers and importers are millions of pounds in debt because the public won’t buy it,” he says. “It is a declining market and a dying trade.”
Mike Moser, chief executive of the British Fur Trade Association (BFTA), disagrees, explaining that from 1998 until 2012 global sales increased by 93 per cent.

But in four weeks of campaigning Steele says he and his colleagues collected pledges from more than 6,000 customers not to shop in the department store.
In October last year Harvey Nichols’ fashion director Paula Reed resigned following pressure after she introduced fur. After temporarily backtracking, the department store now stocks more than 20 products made using fox, coyote, rabbit, raccoon, dog and mink fur.

“With so many alternatives, there’s no excuse for tearing the fur off an animal’s back.”

It shows little sign of backing down, last month winning a High Court injunction to halt the protests, but Steele says it was “practically ineffective in terms of gagging protests” as they plan to continue up until Christmas and through to the January sales.

It’s gaining traction too, with the Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade (CAFT) backing the campaign and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) releasing a characteristically gruesome video montage, narrated by singer and vintage fashionista Paloma Faith. It reveals the way animals are treated and killed for their pelts.

“All fur is the product of extreme cruelty and abuse of animals,” says Faith. “That’s why I always choose faux fur. With so many extraordinary alternatives on the market, there’s just no excuse for tearing the fur off an animal’s back.”

Manchester-based Vicky Martin is one designer who stocks faux fur and believes it looks just as good as the real thing. “Women and men are continually striving for luxurious attire but I have not been asked for it and my customers are happy with my faux fur products.”

Martin says she has noticed a growth in the popularity of fur over the past five years and believes that the attitude that it is “no big deal” that exists in Europe, America and Canada is filtering into the UK.

Moser adds that new and improved techniques, including plucking, shearing, knitting and weaving, have been developed, making real fur more lightweight and allowing designers to mix it with other textiles, such as wool, leather and silk. This versatility, as well as the ability to dye it all the colours of the rainbow, means it is becoming increasingly popular among designers and consumers – particularly younger generations who may not remember the rage against fur in the early eighties and mid-nineties. Moser insists that for the BFTA animal welfare is a top priority. “This is not the message that anti- fur groups want to hear. For many anti-fur campaigners, it is not about improving welfare but simply the abolition of the fur trade on ideological grounds.”

In 2007 the fur trade launched the Origin Assured standard, which Moser claims “provides an assurance that fur comes from countries with recognisable welfare regulations in force. Farms in OA countries are inspected by authorities to ensure compliance with appropriate regulations and standards.”

Harvey Nichols refused to answer questions from The Big Issue in the North but provided a statement saying it is “committed to sustainable and responsible practice across all areas of its business”. It added: “We only source products from reputable brands, which includes seeking the assurance that the fur they use in products has been sourced responsibly. We also expect these brands to adhere to the Origin Assured programme and other labelling initiatives as recommended by the International Fur Federation.”

But Steele says Origin Assured can mean very little. Undercover investigations by two animal rights groups in recent years, Animal Alliance in Sweden and Justice for Animals in Finland, have shown OA animals suffering in dire conditions.

“They showed animals lacking veterinary attention, foxes in cages with their paws bleeding with dying cage-mates next to them, for example, and these are European fur farms. These are the best of the best.

“Fur can never be humane because the basic standards for killing animals for fur are trapping wild coyotes in leg hold traps, gassing minks, electrocuting foxes until they have heart attacks and slitting the throats of rabbits solely for fashion.”

The Big Issue in the North asked the BFTA why these shocking conditions were found at regulated farms. He said: “These animals in this footage are obviously distressed and this is as painful to me as anyone else in the fur industry.” He claims that the images create an impression of widespread abuse but are selected from film material that contains millions of animals. “They are, categorically, not representative of the European fur sector.”

Maybe it’s because some of the animals hunted for their fur are endangered, or perhaps it’s that rabbits are cuter than cows, but many meat-eating, leather- wearing people believe fur to be a step too far. Some of The Big Issue in the North’s readers say they draw the line at wearing fur.

Cat, Preston
“The fur trade has notoriously pitiful standards. If fur came from animals
that had been ethically raised and slaughtered, I don’t think I would have so much of a problem with it.”

Laura, Leeds
“I draw the line at wearing fur or leather and using cosmetics tested on animals as I consider them a luxury. We need food to survive.”

Selina, Chester
“I draw the line at fur because of the cruel practices involved in its production – animals are often skinned alive to keep the fur looking perfect, for example. I won’t wear angora for the same reasons. I don’t believe fur is necessary in this day and age. We don’t need it for warmth any more and if you want the look there are so many good (and some not so good) alternatives available.”

Brooke, Harrogate
“I see fur as a waste of life but as a by- product of the of meat industry such as rabbit and venison I think it should be welcomed. It’s a shame to just create landfill from the by-products. We should learn to use every part of the animal.”

This article originally appeared in The Big Issue in the North Christmas special 2014

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