The resurgence of fur in fashion – real and faux

Fur was at the forefront of fashion weeks, spotted on both models and guests. We outline the contentious appeal of a fabric that's now found on coats, collars, bags and shoes - with exclusive input by anti-fur spokesperson Stella McCartney.

Not so long ago, wearing fur was the ultimate fashion faux pas – the kind of sartorial decision that, if you were Joan Rivers at least, could leave you standing on Park Avenue with red paint splattered across your sable coat.

Fast-forward to 2015, where 73 per cent of the 436 autumn/winter shows in New York, Paris, Milan and London featured fur, according to Finnish auction house Saga Furs. In 2014, the number stood at an already high 71 per cent. And while the contentious fabric was re-emerging on the catwalks, it was also spotted on trendsetting attendees at the various fashion weeks – fluffy jewel-toned bomber jackets, pastel blue capelets, feathery grey gilets and ombre stoles were aplenty, along with collars, hoods and bag pom-poms, all crafted from fur.

Read more: Stella McCartney on fur in fashion: 'It's completely barbaric'

A 1929 story in Vogue stated that wearing fur showed "the kind of woman you are and the kind of life you lead". But much has changed. Those lavish coats that early 20th-century celebrities robed themselves in, just like the mink and chinchilla pelts worn by medieval European royals and nobles, were a mark of stature and wealth. The fur of today, whether real or synthetic, is more mainstream, easily attainable and somewhat season-less – and a trend that more and more ready-to-wear designers are catching on to.

In 2014, Miuccia Prada said that she envisioned the colourful trimmed shearling from her autumn/winter collection looking like “poor fur”; in other words, fur for the masses, albeit at a hefty cost. This year, referring to his resort 2016 collection, Michael Kors was reported as saying: “Mink is the denim jacket of Moscow”, referring to its cemented reputation as a staple garment.

In pictures: The range of faux-fur options now available on the market

While some designers speak candidly and unashamedly about their “fur for all” attitude, there remain pockets of strong resistance in the industry. Hand in hand with the fur resurgence has come a high-end faux-fur movement, propagated by a crop of designers with strong ethical views about the use of fur in fashion.

At the forefront of the anti-fur debate is Stella McCartney, who recently made her first trip to Dubai. When pressed on her views about so many designers showing real fur in their 2015 collections, her response was: “It’s completely barbaric and, moreover, unnecessary.”

After years of steering clear of fur – and leather, for that matter – McCartney recently launched her own alternative, dubbed "Fur Free Fur" and composed entirely of modacrylic. During her autumn/winter 2015 show in Paris, she presented models swathed in shaggy blanket coats closely resembling fur.

A long-time vegetarian and animal-rights supporter, McCartney’s decision to employ faux fur was unexpected, but calculated. Recognising the inescapable appeal of fur in the current fashion climate, she decided it was the right time to give consumers an ethical alternative. “We have captured a luxury and richness with our fur-free fur, which is proof to the fashion industry that killing animals for the sake of fashion is unnecessary,” she says.

“Everyone should be aware of the world we live in – to respect animals and to be aware of nature, and to understand that we share this planet with other creatures,” she tells us, voicing the popular sentiment shared by anti-fur activists.

McCartney’s dip into the faux-fur trend should not be taken as a signal of defeat or surrender, for she takes care to ensure that her designs won’t be mistaken for the real thing. Her faux-fur pieces all feature large, loosely sewn-on tags that spell out “Fur Free Fur”. McCartney believes that the onus is on both consumers and designers to counter the use of real fur. Part of the reason she decided to create the material, she tells us, was to make the industry aware of the fact that, with a little bit of effort, alternative materials can be found that resemble fur and are also luxe. This way, the desire for actual fur, and consequent mistreatment of animals, can be eliminated. “There is still a long way to go, and it’s one of the challenges that pushes me,” she says.

For some designers, doing away with fur altogether is unthinkable; they take pride in working with costly pelts, and remain in business partly because consumers continue to buy into an age-old idea of lavishness – one in which your fur defines your social status. Throughout the ages, fur has held a deep-rooted significance; some ancient societies associated it with mystical powers, and believed that the wearer could take on the particular animal’s characteristics, be it strength, courage or power. In 13th-century Europe, fur was highly valued and solely reserved for the elite: in France, for instance, a 1294 Royal Ordinance stated that ermine or vair fur could be worn only by the upper classes.

The use of fur was never really radically criticised until the late 1970s, with the onset of the animal-rights movement, which was fortified with the advent of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 1980. Known for endorsing dramatic animal-cruelty-awareness stunts, Peta is now the world's largest animal-rights organisation. In a famous 1994 campaign, Peta recruited supermodels such as Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell to pose nude, with the title: "I'd rather go naked than wear fur." It is probably worth noting that, in a clear sign of the changing tides, Campbell has since dropped her anti-fur stance, becoming the face of luxury New York furrier Dennis Basso 15 years later.

There's a wide spectrum of ethical views, even among those who condemn fur. While some argue that wearing vintage fur may be acceptable, since the animal has been dead for years, those on the other extreme admonish the use of faux fur, too, arguing that it just perpetuates the myth that fur is stylish and desirable. But Tansy Hoskins, author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, puts it into perspective. "To conflate the two and pretend that there is no moral difference between fur and fake fur is to ignore a difference as wide as the Grand Canyon ... fake fur is like fake meat, its raison d'être is because millions of people find the real thing sickening. Fake fur can look like fur – McCartney's offerings dance very close to that line – but it isn't," she wrote in an opinion piece for The Guardian.

Pro-fur enthusiasts often claim that synthetic fur is more harmful to the environment than the real thing. According to Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Fur Information Council of America, faux fur is petroleum-based, non-renewable and releases harmful chemicals into the atmosphere when manufactured. Peta, on the other hand, argues on its website that “a fur garment takes 20 times more energy to produce than a faux-fur garment”.

Ethics aside, the divisive conversation over the use of fur and faux fur can overshadow another intriguing phenomenon: the fact that fur, faux or otherwise, is no longer confined to autumn and winter. The material no longer seems to be relegated to the back of the wardrobe when the seasons turn warmer.

One designer carving a name in faux-fur fashion is Hannah Weiland of London-based brand Shrimps. Alexa Chung and Poppy Delevingne are just a few of the It girls who have taken to wearing her vibrantly coloured pieces, all crafted from faux fur. While a mishmash of rainbow shades of faux fur, complete with patterns or embellishments, could look hideous, Weiland makes it look curiously stylish. Her pre-spring/summer 2016 collection incorporates delicate daisy motifs with indigo and military green faux furs. There are even some clutches, including a pistachio green piece adorned with embroidered mermaids.

Weiland is confident that, these days, faux fur can be worn year-round. “It doesn’t need to be limited to thick winter coats – faux fur can be used for trims, details and accessories such as clutches, stoles for the evening and bag mascots,” she says.

Though she doesn’t work with real fur, Weiland doesn’t necessarily categorise herself as an anti-fur activist. “I respect other designers’ choices to work with fur, I just would never choose to myself,” she says diplomatically. “I greatly value animals and am very conscious of my personal impact on their well-being. Nevertheless, I do not judge others that do [use fur].”

Even in the UAE, where you would imagine that the desert climate dictates fashion trends for most of the year, faux fur is becoming cooler. Local designer Zayan Ghandour of Zayan the Label incorporated quite a bit of the textile in her autumn/winter 2015 collection, which included a colour-blocked coat, along with some faux-fur pieces embellished with pearls and embroidered appliqué.

Autumn, winter, spring and summer aren’t the only fashion-week seasons where the textile is now apparently acceptable. When it comes to resort collections, images of women jet-setting to the Mediterranean – where they’ll robe themselves in silk dresses, elegant kaftans and nautical-themed, lightweight ready-to-wear – typically come to mind. But this year, a number of luxury designers took the traditional definition of a resort collection and turned it on its head, incorporating what many may think to be the least likely textile for resort wear – fur. Take Jason Wu, for example, whose 2016 resort collection included a puffy pink coat produced from fox fur. In light of the consistent controversy surrounding the use of fur in fashion, Wu spoke out about his use of the textile, claiming he wasn’t trying to make any statement, and that fur is simply like any other fabric used like a canvas by a designer.

Fur can be used to convey looks that are both lavish or exceedingly eccentric. Hodgepodge “granny glamour” is a trend in its own right, and can often require a garish furry coat. While it’s doubtful that these new-age real and faux furs exude any mystic powers, it’s clear that wearing the textile does amplify your style credentials, even if the only fuzziness your outfit features is a faux-fur-covered Stella McCartney Falabella bag on a warm summer’s day.

Look for this and similar stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, March 3.