What fur?

AS FUR CONTINUES TO HAVE A PROMINENT POSITION ON THE CATWALKS, EMILY SHEFFIELD INVESTIGATES THE MORAL MAZE OF WEARING IT. PHOTOGRAPH BY JENNY VAN SOMMERS

Early June and I am standing — breath held — in a vast cavernous concrete space, whitewashed walls and racks of washboard-stiff mink skins stretching as far as the eye can see. They are lopped together with string, tails grazing the floor, tags identifying each lot — 20 female black cross mink, beside batches of 20 male blue iris.

There is a smell — cloying and sweet, which clings like a wet film of moisture — and it is so strong, I feel like retching. The minks were harvested in November and are still a raw product, hence the overpowering fetor. They are pelted and stored at surrounding mink farms before they arrive at this inspection hall in Kopenhagen Fur’s auction house, a few miles outside Copenhagen in the town of Glostrup. It all feels a long way from the glamour and seduction of a Prada mink gilet on the gilded shop floor of its Bond Street flagship.

This auction is one of five held each year here; over 4 million minks will be sold during seven days of ferocious bidding. (That’s 21 million mink skins annually; the figures involved in the industry as a whole are incommensurable.) Buyers and brokers gather from around the world, particularly China, whose voracious appetite for pelts has fuelled a boom in the last five years.

Adjacent to the inspection room is the dining hall, and here another malodorous experience assails you, that of hot Chinese food being served in an overly warm room. At midday it is filled with Chinese men, excitedly chattering while deftly manoeuvring dumplings and duck with their chopsticks. I am accompanied by Kopenhagen Fur’s marketing director, the jolly Ditte Sorknaes, mother of two and avid cake-baker. “The Chinese don’t like buffets, so we had to start shipping in Chinese caterers especially,” she explains. Upstairs is another dining hall, servicing the more traditional members of the fur industry with Italian, kosher and American fare. There are flyers heralding a summer party with the “Blue Velvet” band (a type of mink). The auction hall, lined in elegant beechwood with a handsome steel cantilevered roof (this is Copen­hagen, after all, where even the street lights are stylish), is feverish with activity. The auctioneer is flanked by “spotters” ensuring every bid is noted; the lots fly in rapid succession. Bundles of 240 silver- blue velvet males are selling for 680 kroner each; approximately £70 per mink. On average, £4,000 of mink per second.

Spanning out from the auctioneer in long tiers are low benches and simple desks, lined with brokers, Chinese buyers beside them, dressed in white lab coats and Burberry-check shirts. The brokers are European or American, years of experience meaning they instinctively know where the quality lies and where the market is moving. Ditte points to Irving Tax, a burly grey-curled man in a red T-shirt, joking amiably with two blonde secretaries (it is a male-dominated industry): “He will leave this week having bought £25 million of fur.”

They tour the fur auctions worldwide, for months at a time, starting in Helsinki (at their last auction they sold 2.7 million mink, 525,000 fox and 25,000 Finn raccoon pelts); Copenhagen is predominantly mink (also some blue and silver fox, chinchilla and Rex rabbit); then it’s Toronto for the NAFA fur sales (mink, fox and wild fur), followed by the Fur Harvesters Auction in Seattle, for trapped wild otter, raccoon, muskrat, lynx and wild red fox. Then back to Europe, and on it goes.

Outside, we meet Stuart Bewley, a broker for Polar Furs, a London-based fur dealer, which also owns Hockley Fur. A slight man, with fizzing energy, he is wearing a pressed white shirt under a cobalt-blue sweater and jeans, short spiked hair gelled into subservience. Stuart has just returned from Sojuzpushnina in Russia for the wild sable sales: “I am on the road 220 days of the year, working 24/7,” he shrugs amiably, his east London accent undented by 20 years of living in Spain. “I started at the bottom aged 17, grading skins; now I buy for Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Marni, Hockley…”

His long-held colleague is Gianni Castiglioni, husband of Marni’s influential designer Consuelo Castiglioni and CEO of Ciwi Furs, launched in 1994 ostensibly to make fur more fashionable. “Gianni,” says Stuart, eyebrows arched, “is a guru in the Italian fur industry; this man is immense!”

Gianni manufactures and collaboratively designs fur pieces for clients that include Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Lanvin and, of course, Marni. “Three years ago, he gave me carte blanche to buy up longhaired loose foxes, then unfashionable and cheap.” (Consider how prevalent longhaired fox has been on the catwalks recently.) “Such is his influence,” he continues, cradling an unlit cigarette, “other brokers watch what I do, then bid against me just because they know this is where the next big trend is moving.” One firm handshake and he is out in the sunshine for that much-wanted smoke.

From here, most of the skins will travel to Hong Kong and outwards. Contrary to popular misconception, most luxury furs are bred in Europe and North America, not China. Chinese fur can be considered inferior due to a lack of regulation and experience. Although Russians remain the most avid consumers, the Chinese have become adept manufacturers and processors, with cheap labour to match. The pelts are softened and preserved through tanning, then dyed, before being cut and seamed by expert furriers. Despite this Chinese dominance, Italy remains a centre for dye treatments and Kastoria in Greece is still the largest traditional base of furriers. Pelts will travel back and forth across continents before they arrive in the stores or ateliers, be it at Fendi in Rome, or Hockley in London’s Conduit Street. Here they will be hand- stitched into an object of such sheeny, covetable luxury that any connect to the source — a living, breathing creature — has been severed, much like beef neatly wrapped in clingfilm in the supermarket.

In the past 48 hours, I have inspected and stroked and talked about every type of fur there is… Opossum? They’re trapped wild in Virginia. I can list endless types of fox and mink and tell you what furriers mean when they refer to a “plate”.

I have visited a mink farm and toured fur design showrooms where animals have been transformed by young designers (whom the fur industry woos incessantly) into every item a human could possibly covet, and in every imaginable hue — mink babygrows to fur-smothered biker helmets (though Karl Lagerfeld premiered that idea on the Chanel catwalk back in 2009).

I have my mother to blame for this odyssey. Last Christmas she gave me a mink poncho she bought in China; it is rich brown, and, alarmingly, the poncho tassels resemble mink tails — they are in fact little strips. It’s uber-light and incredibly warm and, sadly for my mother (and possibly the 20 or so minks that gave their lives), it is still hanging, unworn, in my wardrobe. But its presence there, and my confused feelings about wearing it, goaded me into action.

The catwalks have been awash with elaborate fur designs for several seasons now. It’s a long way from supermodels posing naked for Peta in 1994, declaiming “We’d rather go naked than wear fur”. At the a/w ’13 shows, 69 per cent of designers (according to the fur industry) incorporated fur pieces into their collections — be that a ruffled mink vintage-look coat at Saint Laurent or a full-skirted mink dress at Celine, devastating in its simplicity and luxury. There were white mink marbled bombers at Balenciaga and a riot of punk-inspired colour and texture at Fendi; handbags, shoes and clutches came in every furry hue, from chinchilla to beaver. At Louis Vuitton, one leather bag was lined in the softest chocolate-brown shaved mink: yours for just £35,000.

Not all of us can afford Gucci astrakhan suits or Celine mink dresses, but fur has been arriving by stealth into our wardrobes. Take the Yves Salomon parka, a constant seller at Browns on South Molton Street. It’s lined in thick warm Rex rabbit (these are bred for the fur, by the way; it is not a by-product) and two of my best friends and my sister-in-law all possess one. With their fluffy fox collars, they looked snug and chic last winter, while I shivered in mere wool and wax. Even the pescatarian fashion editor who sits opposite me wore hers most days to guard against the biting cold. Then there are the Woolrich and Canada Goose parkas with their dramatic fox or coyote-trim hoods, also ubiquitous for those who can afford the £400 price tag. Somehow a trim seems less offensive (and is a burgeoning market in the fur industry for this reason). Fur gilets are commonplace, and Inverni wool hats with fox-fur bobbles were a favourite last winter, too. Mr & Mrs vintage army jackets with bushy fox collars tinted acid- bright are a recent crush for Londoners. “Fur’s being used for practical everyday items that keep you warm,” says Browns’ womenswear buying director Laura Larbalestier. “Rather than statement minks for evening, it’s dressed down; people consider the coats a good investment, while they also look amazing.”

At heart, we are uncomfortable with killing animals merely for the luxury of wearing their skins. But in reality we adopt a fuzzy approach. Canvassing opinion, I found support for fur in fashion, but only as a by-product of meat farming (sheep, goat and rabbit); younger girls opt for vintage but wouldn’t buy new fur. Others acknowledged they chose not to care, especially when that Peter Pilotto striped fox stole was just too desirable to say no to…

Muddying the debate are the rumours we’ve absorbed about fur production, some true, some not: you can Google an alsatian dog being skinned (I cannot watch it); it is said that animals die in agony with electric prods inserted up their anuses; and while alive are stacked upon each other in appallingly cruel conditions. Then there are more dubious skins such as astrakhan — “Forcibly aborted lambs,” grimaced one friend, while still wearing her vintage astrakhan coat.

For Ditte Sorknaes, who accepts open aggression from others as part of her job, only the vegans stand on solid moral ground: “Their argument is clear,” she states levelly. “My best friend is a vegan and works with Peta. She’s visited our mink farms and I completely respect her position. But when you’re at a fortieth birthday party and someone says, ‘You’re a murderer!’ and they’re eating a steak and wearing leather shoes.” She shrugs.

Fur-farming started in a meaningful way in Europe in the Fifties, and fur farms existed in Britain until they were banned in 2000 (justified on grounds of public morality, as there was no supporting evidence for banning them on humane grounds). But early on, Danish and Finnish farmers became more organised; they ran co-operatives and rationalised their welfare, feeding and hygiene standards. They standardised their quality and grading, and the fur trade took off; minks were a glamorous signifier of status and an alluring adjunct to the red carpet.

But despite this, fur’s popularity plummeted in the late Eighties. According to Frank Zilberkweit, owner and managing director of the British fur labels Hockley and Polar Furs, fur garments became viewed as stuffy and archaic, symbolic of bygone eras and class war. “I think in reality it had less to do with animal rights and more about the fur trade’s inability to modernise itself. The end product was awful, honestly. Everyone looked at a fur coat and thought of their grandmothers,” he recalls. “Then, slowly but surely, the fashion world became involved in fur and they revolutionised the product. Better processes were devised to make it more lightweight, manufacturing and dyeing processes were improved and what was an awful, difficult product to wear became very desirable.”

Christopher Kane is one of many young British designers who use fur sparingly in their collections to huge visual effect. This season, he matched camo-print biker jackets and thick wool coats with sumptuous fur lapels; “bringing a touch of fur to a collection gives it an added depth of luxury,” he says. For now, anyway, he feels “fur is more modern in its simplest form”. Clare Waight Keller, creative director at Chloe, also uses fur, but largely prefers the “relaxed, more romantic feel” of shearling. “It is still luxurious but is a lot less ‘dressed up’,” she says. “I combine it with fabrics and interesting leathers to give a lightness and sense of ease, and it just feels much more modern.” She stresses, like all the other designers Vogue spoke to, that when they do use fur, it is sourced ethically from responsible farmers.

For Consuelo Castiglioni, it’s the texture and richness that are the key characteristics she loves. “Fur is a very versatile material,” she says over email. “For the autumn/winter ’13 collection, which mixes austere and romantic elements, fur is used in a strict way at the start. Then dip-dyed alpaca and Shansi add turbulence to the collection. I keep experimenting,” she adds, “using fur as a material. The structure and effect that you can achieve by cutting, assembling and working it is almost unlimited. And there are no boundaries in its uses — a coat, a cape, an insert on a dress. The thing is how it is combined, the way it adds lightness to a look and reveals preciousness in the details.”

“Fur has changed completely; it is now a ready-to-wear fabric,” adds her husband Gianni. And his fur forecast? “More furs mixed with fabrics like leather,” he says genially. “And I think fancy colours are on the wane; it will be natural colour,” he finishes, echoing Kane’s view.

At the Hockley store and design studio, their Turkish-born creative director, Izzet Ers, who has also worked with Christopher Kane on his fur pieces, shows me the June in-store collection, fizzing with colour, fox furs dyed in hot-candy pink and vibrant greens. “The British market is definitely trending on the fox — it’s not traditional mink here, that’s too much of a status symbol.”

Below in the atelier, their Greek furrier is painstakingly cutting a pattern from tiny strips of leftover mink, which have been stitched together to form a plate. With such an expensive material, nothing is wasted. Ers demonstrates how minute bits of mink or fox can be re-stitched on to silk to give feathery lightness, or sewn in tiny hexagonal strips to give a wilder texture.

In tandem with this drive to modernity, the industry has striven to improve welfare. Forty per cent of Denmark’s export is mink, and in an effort to counter claims of ill treatment, open days are held on many mink farms. In the glare of high summer sunshine, I travel to a squat white farm, surrounded by flat fields, with the majestic fjords of Roskilde gleaming in the distance, like fast- flowing molten silver. We are greeted by the enthusiastic Knud and his wife Lise; Knud, now 67, was 17 when he persuaded his father to let him breed mink on their agricultural farm. “Today we have 4,100 grown females and 22,000 kets [kids].” Around the back of the farmhouse, there are 43 rows of long wooden huts on stilts and within, in one long line on each side, metal cages filled with wriggling, sleepy kets and their mothers. Dollops of rich food from fish and chicken carcasses are on top of the straw-filled cages.

In the wild, minks are semi-aquatic nocturnal creatures, but these are born in captivity and, from what I can see, don’t show distress — no aggravated pacing or oozing sores. Knud explains the industry is heavily regulated in Denmark (as well as by the EU); cage sizes are calculated, for instance, and must be adhered to (90cm long, 45cm high, 30 cm. wide). Animal activists are, well, extremely active, so there’s not much room for cheating. Naturally I can’t visit every mink farm in Europe, but surely the most salient argument for their care is money — better treatment produces better skins, and each skin is worth up to £70 (particularly the silver-blue type I am viewing, as they are at the top end of the price spectrum). What is less palatable is that their death is not for food, therefore entirely avoidable: “This is why we have to work extra-hard to demonstrate their care,” insists Knud. (It doesn’t mean there aren’t examples of slipped standards elsewhere.)

The lifespan of a farmed mink is about six months — April through to November (although breeding females can survive three years) — and then to their death. This was the bit I was dreading. But they are gassed with carbon monoxide: taken from their huts and placed in an oversized trolley, 50 at a time, and in 20 seconds they are asleep, then gone. Mass slaughter, yes, but in humane terms far outstripping what is commonplace in the most stringently regulated abattoirs in Britain.

But before any readers decide I have become an avid fur supporter, I found Knud’s description of fox-farming less digestible. It is being slowly phased out in Denmark due to disagreements with the government and farmers on cage size, as their upkeep is proving unprofitable (whereas the margin on a mink can be as much as £40). Foxes are less able to adapt to caged life, so it is tough to tally this with a humane existence. At death, they are electrocuted — “They bite down on a stick,” says Knud, matter-of-factly. “It’s instantaneous, I promise you… ” So we are clear, stunning with electrocution is the common method used in abattoirs.

It is not easy unearthing any levity in this controversy. It appears there are only positions on a sliding scale one can adopt. Stella McCartney’s clarity is enviable — as a vegetarian, she doesn’t include any animal products in her collections: “I think my designs have shown that animals don’t need to suffer for fashion,” she emails. “I don’t understand the need for fur; the use of real fur is just repulsive and I think there are plenty of ways you can make a coat or a bag look great without harming innocent animals.”

According to a recent RSPCA survey, 95 per cent of British women would refuse to wear fur; most of the high street has banned it, including Zara and Topshop, as well as Selfridges. There are many luxury brands which have kept their fur bans in place, from Ralph Lauren to Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. Ben Williamson at Peta sighs when I visit him: “It’s depressing we are still having this debate.”

Other designers shy away from the polemic; fur is on their catwalk, but they won’t comment. It’s an extremely emotive subject for many, with executives targeted by protesters. I contacted Net-a-Porter, Matches and Harvey Nichols to talk about fur trends, and buyers were unavailable. It is unclear what their fur policies are; Net-a- Porter said they were currently revising theirs. Harrods does stock fur and would only release a statement, as would Joseph, such has been the level of anti-fur attention they have received. The stores that do stock fur only do so in a very limited capacity and do not actively promote it. Off the record, they talked of choice and the conflicting needs of their customers.

There is no blanket approach, just winding moral mazes. Vegans surely recognise that with no animal product, vast tracts of the countryside would lie uncared for — devoid of death, yes, but life too. (Pigs are not easy pets, after all.) Astrakhan, I now know, is the curled fleece of a newborn karakul lamb, bred on immense plains in Namibia and Afghanistan, where farmers rely on the trade for their livelihood — are we right to remove that income when we sanction the killing of baby male calves in the name of milk production? And no one sanctions animals being skinned alive, least of all the regulated fur industry — though there will always be sadists.

But knowledge is power. For my part, I would wear wild fox, but I wouldn’t wear farmed fox. I would rather purchase EU mink than rabbit, as I am more assured of their humane death. If I did buy other animal pelts, I would investigate their origin. But that’s me. As for my mink poncho? In truth, draping that much dead animal around me feels uncomfortable, but I am not about to clear out my leather shoes and handbags. So it will probably hang there a bit longer.

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