A Symbol of Elitism, Fur Is Going Extinct
Fur could be completely out of fashion in a decade.
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The fur-free movement in fashion has reached a place I did not think it would in my lifetime. The question is no longer who has banned it, but who hasn’t banned it?
I recently asked PJ Smith, who has worked at the Humane Society lobbying the fashion industry to stop using fur since 2009, if fur would disappear from fashion in our lifetimes. When he first interviewed for his job, he was asked that very question, and said maybe in fifty years. His first three to four years, he could barely get anyone at fashion labels to even talk to him, which led him to think it wouldn’t happen in his lifetime. “Now I think maybe in the next 10 to 15 years we will see the end of fur as we know it,” he told me.
The anti-fur movement finds itself at a historic moment. Fur has been a part of what people wear since the dawn of our species. (Some researchers believe neanderthals wore fur capes.) But now, Smith said, “You can name the major companies that sell fur on two hands, so that’s a list that everyone’s going to know.” Notably among these is fashion conglomerate LVMH, which owns labels including Christian Dior, Givenchy, and Fendi. (Business of Fashion recently reported that just seven top luxury houses are yet to announce a fur ban.)
Fur-free commitments are unsurprisingly meant to appeal to a socially conscious younger generation of consumers. Boston Consulting Group reported in 2019 that Gen Z consumers care more about animal welfare than any other sustainability issues (such as ethical manufacturing and transparency of materials) when buying luxury goods. But the fur-free movement is likely about more than saving animals. It complements a mounting disgust with the hyper-privileged ultra-wealthy who only got richer during the pandemic. From Reuters:
The World Inequality Report produced by a network of social scientists estimated that billionaires this year collectively own 3.5% of global household wealth, up from slightly above 2% at the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
Revulsion for the socioeconomic system that leads to this has steadily increased throughout the Trump era and the pandemic. Given fur has a unique and long history of serving as a symbol of wealth and status, casting it aside is one way the luxury sector and its customers can showcase a rejection of elitist norms.
In Europe, fur goes back to the Medieval period. “It’s very origins begin with royalty and the monarchy, so it’s a symbol of wealth, it’s a symbol of luxury,” said Elizabeth Block, fashion and social historian, a senior editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and author of Dressing Up: The Women Who Influenced French Fashion. In fact, she said, sumptuary laws were introduced that decreed that only royal and noble families could wear certain furs, such as ermine, sable, and mink, while people of lower ranks would be fined for wearing those materials.
In America, Block said, fur has roots in the colonies. John Jacob Astor is among early European colonizers who famously made a fortune in the fur trade. Block explained, “They were trading metals and other precious tools and goods with Native Americans in exchange for beaver pelts,” which were then sold here and abroad. In America, like in Europe, wearing fur was a way to emulate the monarchy.
With the material exploding in popularity, it became scarcer, causing prices to increase and further solidifying its position as a luxury good. Block noted “how constant fur was in the nineteenth century… it really doesn’t ever drop off in the entire century, it’s just always there.”
It was there, of course, in the next century, and the next one too. Yet Smith, who has sat with many designers over the years, has wondered why. “I never felt designers were dead set on wanting to show fur. A lot of it wouldn’t end up in the stores. A lot of it was, ‘We want to be considered luxury,’” he said. “And, ‘We have to use fur in order to do that.’”
Recently, Dolce & Gabbana and Moncler announced they would go fur-free. They are only the latest in a long string of such pledges that have rolled out rapidly over the last several years, from companies like the Kering Group (which includes Gucci, Alexander McQueen, and Balenciaga, among other labels), Neiman Marcus, Chanel, Valentino, and Prada. This chart of fur-free fashion companies includes a staggering number of influential businesses:
The main outlier is LVMH, which owns Fendi, which began as a furrier nearly a century ago. Smith pointed out that Fendi designer Kim Jones (who also designs Dior’s men’s line) has dialed back the amount of fur being shown. Some designers on LVMH’s payroll over recent years have been quietly fur-free. Clare Waight Keller didn’t show fur when she was leading design at Givenchy, for instance.
The amount of fur being bought has also dropped dramatically. Kayla Marci, market analyst at retail intelligence company Edited, said in an email that the number of styles being sold that contain real fur has fallen 44 percent year-over-year, while stock of luxury faux fur items has increased 72 percent in that period. Real fur sell-outs were down 15 percent in 2021 from 2020, with faux fur sell-outs up 152 percent.
When I contacted Edited for data for a story I reported in late March of 2018, despite a number of high profile fur bans (such as Gucci) having made headlines, it wasn’t entirely clear that fur was really going away. In the first quarter of 2018 compared to the same period a year prior, new arrivals of real fur items were up by 32 percent. While sell-outs of faux fur had climbed 74 percent from the previous year, real fur sell-outs were up 144 percent.
However, Smith said Dolce & Gabbana’s recent statement is particularly significant. The company didn’t want to put its fur suppliers out of their jobs, and their announcement committed to helping them transition to different materials — which is clearly where the market’s going.
Smith believes corporate fur-free pledges have aided the passage of legislation that bans the sale of new furs. With so many companies having sworn off the material, his job has now pivoted to public policy. California is the first state to enact a ban, to take effect next year, on sales of new apparel containing fur. (Smith thinks this law, passed in 2019, may have presented a logistical problem for national retailers like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, which have announced their own fur bans.)
The California ban is meaningful. U.S. Census data from 2017 shows that California had the highest fur sales of any state, followed by New York, which has also considered a fur ban. However, that ban was protested by groups including Mobilizing Preachers and Communities, comprised of mostly Black pastors, the New York Times reported in 2019:
“In our culture, fur is a sign of status, achievement, that we’ve made it against all odds,” said the Rev. Johnnie Green Jr., the pastor of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem, who leads the group of pastors opposing the ban. “Show up to any black church on a Sunday in the winter, and you will see a heap of mink coats.
For some Black consumers, the issue of banning fur is not as simple as it is to animal rights activists. In a January 2019 article in the Times, Jasmine Sanders wrote:
[T]here is a sense among many black women that this broader, cultural disavowal of fur has coincided with our increased ability to purchase it. (Or as Paula Marie Seniors, a historian and professor of Africana studies at Virginia Tech, reported her mother saying: “As soon as black women could afford to buy mink coats, white society and white women said fur was all wrong, verboten, passé.”) For women like my mother and grandmother, my aunts and my sisters, a fur coat is more than a personal luxury item. It is an important investment.
Yet activists and the fashion industry press ahead to a fur-free future. Smith feels good about what can be done in cities like Dallas and Houston (Texas has the third most fur sales of any state), especially given that other major cities like Washington D.C. and Chicago are considering bans. He would like to see more states, and eventually the whole country, ban fur.
But taking fur out of fashion won’t absolve the industry of animal welfare issues. Exotic skins like python and crocodile have not been a media focus as much as fur, probably because those animals aren’t soft and snuggly. But killing them for fashion is an ugly business.
(WARNING: a gruesome description of this process follows.)
As Smith explained it to me, pythons aren’t farmed for fashion, because it’s too difficult to grow them big enough in captivity to be turned into a handbag. So they’re easily caught in the jungle, often in Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, and often illegally trafficked. Their heads are hit with a hammer to incapacitate their brain before being cut off entirely. A hose is put down their throats to stretch the skin. Meanwhile, crocodiles are farmed in places like Louisiana and Australia. Their skin is so thick that a saw is used to slice into the back of their necks before a steel rod is inserted into their brains to bleed them out before skinning them.
Google “python handbag” or “crocodile shoes” and you’ll find a lot of brands use embossed leather, but many luxury items are still made from the real thing.
Smith said many fashion companies want to ban exotic skins and are trying to figure out how to do that (this 2020 Times article explains why it’s not as straightforward as it may seem). He said, “No one wants an animal specifically to die for fashion.”
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