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Real vs fake: the next battleground in the fur debate

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Versace, DKNY and Gucci have all banned the use of fur in their collections. As fake fur becomes a fashion staple, Drapers analyses the shift, and asks whether fake fur deserves its ethically clean reputation.

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Givenchy autumn 18

At Paris Fashion Week in February, British designer Clare Waight-Keller sent a series of hyper-luxurious, showstopper coats down Givenchy’s autumn 18 runway. Dramatic, opulent and extravagant, they were the epitome of high-end glamour. And every single one was created from fake fur.

Waight-Keller’s decision to stop using real fur reflects a changing attitude in fashion. A slew of brands and designers – among them DKNY, John Galliano, Versace and Furla – have recently announced bans on fur, as have Gucci, Michael Kors and Jimmy Choo. Luxury ecommerce site Net-a-Porter also announced in June last year that it would stop selling fur.

Figures from the International Fur Federation show the global fur industry was worth $30bn (£21.3bn) in 2017. Although this is down from $40bn (£28bn) in 2013, 64% of designers at the autumn 18 catwalk shows still included real fur in their collections. 

The topic has always been a contentious issue in fashion, sparking impassioned responses from activists on both sides of the fur debate, with long running, visceral protests disrupting recent fashion weeks and many designers, particularly at the top end of luxury, continuing to use the material across their collections.

These changing attitudes have resulted in an abundance of fake fur popping up on the catwalks and high streets alike – with chubby fake fur coats, furry bobble hats and trims an almost ubiquitous sight during winter.

However, new issues are emerging concerning the traceability, longevity and authenticity of fake fur. Last month the issue was thrust into the spotlight, as Missguided, Boohoo and House of Fraser were called to give evidence to MPs, following a Sky News investigation that revealed fur they were labelling as fake was actually real.

Neil Parish MP, chair of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee that quizzed the retailers, told Drapers that the session had “showed how easy it is for consumers to be misled into buying real fur as fake fur. The cost of producing real fur is so low that consumers think that low cost on products must indicate fake fur, which is not true.”

He added: “The priority of the committee is to ensure that consumers are aware of what they are buying, and to stop retailers selling real fur as fake fur, whether intentionally or by mistake.”

Helen Moore, founder of the eponymous fake fur fashion and accessories brand, notes that customers felt they had been deceived by the mislabelling of fur: “Lots of [real] fur is coming into this country very cheaply. There is also a massive movement of people going vegetarian or vegan, and that is changing how customers look at sustainable and ethical issues.”

She highlights the need for brands using fake fur to be scrupulous in their sourcing to ensure top quality, and guarantee their materials’ authenticity: “Really knowing the factories where we manufacture is very important in ensuring our faux fur is of the highest quality.”

How fake fur feels is the most important thing to customers

Helen Moore, fake fur label Helen Moore

Moore sources her own fibres from Japan, and focuses on achieving a luxurious finish.

“How fake fur feels is the most important thing to customers,” she says. “If you imagine the fibres all sticking up, we use a mixture of short and long in most of our faux furs, which creates that density people want. Softness is extremely important.”

VF Corp, owner of brands such as Napapijri, Timberland and The North Face, has transitioned to becoming fur free. All 30-plus of its brands are instead innovating to develop high-quality alternatives.

“We wanted to develop a policy of animal welfare that would ensure we aligned all of our brands under certain principles,” explains Anna Maria Rugarli, head of sustainability at VF Corp. “Napapijri felt discomfort around how [fur and down] were obtained from animals. It went through an innovative thinking processes to make sure it could replace the down and fur with other materials.”

Instead of real fur, the brand now uses a high-quality acrylic “eco-fur”, which does not use any animal products, and avoids the chemicals used to treat real fur.

Rugarli highlights that both these innovations appear across best-selling items: “Out of sustainable practices, Napapijri also managed to get great commercial successes in product.”

Despite these innovations, there are concerns about the potential environmental impact of fake fur, which is usually made from highly processed, chemically derived, synthetic fibres, which can cause environmental damage.

Real fur is one of the most natural and sustainable materials used in the fashion world

Mark Oaten, International Fur Federation

Mark Oaten, CEO of the International Fur Federation, also raises concerns over the combination of this environmental impact and fast-fashion culture.

“Plastic fur garments are very much a part of the whole disposable fashion movement,” he says. “They are rarely kept for more than a couple of years and end up alongside plastic bags on rubbish tips where they remain for hundreds of years.”

“Real fur is one of the most natural and sustainable materials used in the fashion world,” he argues. “It’s eco-friendly at every stage of its production, lasts for decades and is completely biodegradable.” However, Helen Moore has previously said that the chemicals used to treat fur for wear mean it does not biodegrade.

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Helen Moore

While Moore concedes fake fur’s oil-based origin is less than ideal, she disagrees that all fake fur is throwaway fashion: “We aren’t part of the [fast] fashion industry and I don’t think our product is something customers will wear just a few times before dumping it.”

High-end brands such as Shrimps, Charlotte Simone and Stand have also gained followings for their premium fake furs.

Alongside the switch to fake fur, outright bans on the real thing are gathering momentum. A petition calling for a full ban on the sale of animal fur in the UK gathered 109,549 signatures, and is set to be debated in parliament in June.

Outside of the UK, some cities already have bans in place. These include West Hollywood in the US, which has been fur free since 2013 and Brazil’s Sao Paulo, which banned fur in 2015. In 2017, India banned the import of mink, fox and chinchilla skins, and this month banned the import of seal fur and skin. Last month, San Francisco announced a ban on the sale of fur, which will come into force in January 2019. 

The official government position is that imposing strict regulations on imports is the most effective way to regulate the industry and prevent cruelty, and current European regulations mean that, at present, the UK is unable to ban fur outright.

“While some fur products may never be legally imported into the UK the Government’s view is that national bans are less effective than working at an international level on animal welfare standards,” said the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in response to the petition. “We are working at an international level to agree global animal welfare standards and phase out cruel and inhumane farming and trapping practices. We believe this is the best way to prevent animal cruelty and that this approach will lead to a much higher level of animal welfare standards.”

Oaten argues that despite claims of cruelty, the fur trade is highly regulated: “Fur is one of the most highly regulated farming sectors in the world. There are detailed laws and regulations set by both governments and the fur trade itself to ensure the highest standards of welfare are practised.”

He highlights FurMark, a new initiative that is set to launch in 2020. It is being developed to further guarantee animal welfare standards and traceability in the fur industry: “It will provide legal certification for those that follow this new high standard. This will make it even easier for retailers and designers to know where their fur is from and that the animals were not mistreated in any way”

Whether these new regulations will affect consumer attitudes or high-end brand bans remains to be seen, but the appetite for the texture remains.

Helen Moore points out that the furry and fuzzy feel is hugely appealing: “Everyone strokes faux fur. It’s like a primal instinct.”

The appeal of fur – real or fake – notwithstanding, as the socially conscious Generation Z consumer comes of age, there is sure to be greater scrutiny of the environmental and ethical impacts of the materials.

Who has banned fur?

Calvin Klein: 1994

Polo Ralph Lauren: 2007

Vivienne Westwood: 2007

Tommy Hilfiger: 2007

Armani Group: 2016

Yoox Net-a-Porter Group: June 2017

Gucci: spring 18

Jimmy Choo: end of 2018

Michael Kors: end of 2018

Donna Karan and DKNY: 2019

Furla: 2019

John Galliano: date to be announced

Versace: date to be announced

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