Fur or against: designers debate animals in fashion

Despite the controversy over pelts and fur, they still stalk the catwalks. Designers both for and against tell The National of fur’s popularity in the UAE and of personal choices.

For decades, real fur has festooned runways in Europe and North America, featuring in the fall/winter collections of leading global brands.

This season’s fashion weeks were no exception, with houses from Prada to Chloé making use of shearling, and more rare and exotic animal pelts.

In an independent study commissioned by the International Fur Federation (IFF) in 2012-13, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimated that the worldwide fur trade was worth more than US$40 billion [Dh147 billion].

The research was one of the first audits of the fast-evolving sector. It also estimated that the fur industry supported more than a million people – from farmers to designers, to workers in department stores and sports outlets.

Despite the resurgent popularity of fur abroad however, some UAE designers are hesitant to incorporate pelts fully into their seasonal lines.

“I’ve used a little bit of fur in previous collections ... I’m not completely against it,” says Arshia Khan, fashion designer and founder of the label Arshys. “But I would only use mink for trims or accessories that are detachable from the garments, never stitched on. I’d also never consider designing full fur coats.

“I’m sure there are some who might argue that no designer’s winter collection is complete without fur.”

Khan’s upcoming fall/winter collection debuted in the UAE this week to select clients and press. It featured Japanese cotton jumpsuits, flared pants and oversized military coats.

Keeping pace with designs seen on European catwalks, Khan’s range focused on independent, high-achieving modern women – using graffiti-print slogans to convey messages of empowerment. Where it differed from collections revealed by major houses, however, was that real animal fur detailing was replaced by draped ties and insulating scarves of natural fabrics.

“I’ve never had a problem with faux fur, because it can look similar to real fur,” says Khan. “And it still seems to be trending so it’s probably best for me to use. It’s all about responsibility and being able to trace things back to a source..”

Arguably the fashion world’s loudest and proudest fur advocate is Fendi’s creative director and collaborator of 52 years, Karl Lagerfeld. Established as a fur and leather business in 1925, the Italian atelier has long been recognised by the industry for its groundbreaking techniques.

It’s also largely credited for revolutionising the way fur is used for apparel and accessories.

Lagerfeld’s ready-to-wear fall/winter collection for Fendi at Milan Fashion Week ran the gamut, from boxy bombers to long and languid jackets. Fur cuffs detailed cloth coats while other designs featured two-tone fur-on-fur, hand-embroidery, prints and inlaid collages.

For decades, Lagerfeld has courted controversy and fans of fur, most notably in 2015 when he launched the label’s first “haute fourrure” collection at Paris Haute Couture Week. The event marked his half-century at Fendi’s helm and the runway was awash with lavish floor-sweeping coats, enveloping cocoon silhouettes, appliqué stoles and woven capes.

Voicing concerns about animal welfare outside the show’s Théâtre des Champs Elysées venue were members of La Fondation Brigitte Bardot, carrying banners reading, “Fendied”.

“For me, as long as people eat meat and wear leather, I don’t get the message,” said Lagerfeld. “It’s very easy to say no fur, no fur, no fur, but it’s an industry.”

While he draws the line at using panther – on account of its supposed inflexibility – Lagerfeld has expressed his love for sable and ermine in the past. He treats furs as fabrics and malleable materials, shaving them, dying them and even double-lining and reversing them, as with a chinchilla and astrakhan coat he debuted for Fendi in the 1980s.

Enduringly popular pelts in Europe and North America are mirroring current trends in the region, according to Planeta Mexa, one of the UAE’s biggest fur outlet stores.

"Chinchilla is very popular with Arab clients right now," a company executive told The National. "It's very luxurious and warm with a uniquely soft texture. We also have a lot of Emirati clients visiting us in December, when many of them might be getting ready to travel to ski resorts. Because of more fur being shown in fashion shows across the world over the last five to six years, we've noticed a big increase in business, especially with younger clients.

“My advice is that, if you’re going to buy something made of fur you really have to be comfortable wearing it. It should also be stored in a dark, dry place and taken outside to air every month or so.”

Mink items account for up to 90 per cent of Planeta Mexa’s total sales, followed by sable, fox and beaver garments. The store says clients spend on average Dh3,500 to Dh7,500 in the UAE, while haute couture creations in Paris or Rome can fetch hundreds of thousands of dirhams.

Regional designers and furriers source the majority of their pelts from auctions in Greece, Denmark, Finland and Russia.

Knowing the provenance of the skins, and the conditions of the facilities from which they came, is vital for people to know before they invest, experts say.

Despite pressure from groups like Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which began anti-fur campaigning in the 1980s, consumer appetite for extravagant pelts has rarely waned, according to Tamara Hostal, founder of fashion institute Esmod Dubai.

“I think its popularity has increased because people love to have ‘new things’ in fashion,” she says. “Fur makes many people curious; they’re interested in it. I remember a time when it was impossible to find fur coats, boots and accessories here in the UAE. Now you see fur everywhere and that’s attracting big numbers of clients, from Russia for example.”

While some regional designers may be willing to experiment with wild skins and exotic furs, there are just as many with no desire to touch it.

“The subject is still very sensitive,” says Hostal. “Fur may be very popular at the moment but that doesn’t mean it’s becoming more accepted by everyone.”

One of the highest-profile designers to have shunned the use of any fur, leather and skins is Stella McCartney. The 45-year-old daughter of singer Paul McCartney and late animal rights activist Linda McCartney, launched her vegetarian label in 2001, under the principle of producing exclusively environmental and ethical pieces.

Catering to the similar eco-fashion aspirations in burgeoning designers at her institute, Hostal is teaching students about a full range of unconventional materials, including recyclable and biodegradable ones.“We are very aware of the need to focus on the trends and educate students more about sustainable fabrics,” she says.

“People are looking into everything from vegan clothes to organic accessories. Unfortunately, they do have some limitations ... and like fur – where there must be traceability – the same applies to organic printed cotton, for example. Where has the ink come from? And if you’re using plastics, where was the oil from? You must be absolutely sure that nothing can be traced back to animals. You must have proof.”

Dubai-based designer Dina Melwani is both a vegetarian and vehemently anti-fur. “Today, the fashion industry provides the consumer with so many options, other than fur,” she says.

“The variety of fabrics that can be used in clothing is enormous. Shoppers don’t ever need to choose fur items to create a stylish look for fall or winter ... I would never put fur into my collections.”

Despite being born and raised in Eastern Europe where fur remains an accepted part of many wardrobes, Melwani is happy to layer when she travels to cold climes rather than opt for a gilet made of lynx, raccoon or sable. “In Moldova there’s a social status attached to wearing fur. To have a fur in your closet represents something to be proud of. While I come from that type of background, I will personally never eat meat or wear fur. I’m just a very big animal lover.”

� rduane@thenational.ae