Fur is alive and kicking, despite campaigns

HONG KONG Mon Mar 3, 2008 7:38pm EST

1 of 6. Fur is displayed at a booth during the Hong Kong International Fur and Fashion Fair in Hong Kong in this February 26, 2007 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Paul Yeung

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Anti-fur campaigners have tried everything from impassioned appeals to pet lovers, gruesome videos, name-and-shame campaigns and adverts featuring nude stars proclaiming they'd rather go naked than sport a pelt.

But despite their best efforts, wrapping up in fur is a trend that has failed to go away.

"Without a doubt, there are more people wearing fur today than ever before," said Timothy Everest, a member of the Hong Kong Fur Federation.

Still, while industry insiders gush about growing sales and new frontiers, public relations remains the crucial battleground for a $13.5 billion fur industry dogged by accusations of being inhumane and unnecessary.

In Hong Kong last week, 245 fur companies set up elaborate exhibits, some featuring their own mini-runways, at one of the industry's main trade shows of the year. It was the biggest show since the fur fair's inception in 1982.

Despite subtropical weather, Hong Kong inherited the fur tradition when Shanghai's world-renowned pelt craftsmen fled the Communists in the 1940s. It is now the world's biggest importer of farmed fur skins and the leading exporter of fur garments.

At Dennis Fong's expansive booth, gaggles of fur buyers from Russia, China and beyond crammed in to watch lithe Asian and European models strut the latest designs from the Isla brand of furs that he manages.

Fong, a third-generation producer of fur clothing, entered the family business around the beginning of the decade.

"That was a good time to come back because fur was coming back," said the 29-year-old.

TURNAROUND INDUSTRY

From its heyday in the early and middle part of the 20th century, the fur industry slumped and its iconic ankle-length mink coat started looking old. In the 1980s, it hit bottom.

"You could see from the late '80s that the realization hit that unless we changed the way that we were marketing the product then there wasn't going to be the demand because the product was boring," said Everest.

Around the late 1970s and early 1980s, the annual global mink harvest, an industry benchmark, bottomed out at about 22 million, said Frank Zilberkweit, director of the London furrier Hockley.

But just when things looked their bleakest, a fur renaissance started.

"In the '90s, suddenly the fashion industry discovered fur," he said, speculating that designers probably saw it as a way to tap into freshly opened fast growing economies in places with strong fur traditions -- Russia and China.

"The first guy who really got into fur for the fashion industry was Jean Paul Gaultier," he said.

On Tuesday night in Paris, the French designer's fall 2008 collection showed in no uncertain terms that he was still into the medium. Runway models were draped in wild furs, some of which still had tails, ears, noses, even teeth.

Others, including Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Dior, have also made fur a prominent feature of their collections.

Designs at the Hong Kong show ranged from the conservative to the imaginative, including wedding cake-layered dresses with puffy fur trim, ponchos with shaggy fur shoulders that resembled a thatched roof, and blood red sentry jackets of fur.

Now, the mink harvest is a record-beating 55 million -- and expanding, Zilberkweit said.

According to the International Fur Trade Association, retail sales of fur hit $13.49 billion in 2006, growing 5.6 percent from the year before.

In mid-February, pelt prices reached record highs at auction in Seattle on the back of a cold winter, according to Everest.

The uses of fur have expanded, experts say, and growing sales of luxury goods worldwide has also helped fur sales. But the key factor in the growth trend has been the emergence of Russia and China as major fur markets.

Zilberkweit estimates that Russia accounts for about 40 percent of fur sales and China makes up about 30 percent.

CHINA WORRY

In the face of perennial criticism, the fur industry last year launched an initiative called "Origin Assured", or OA, a label designed to assure customers their fur was made from animals treated as well as possible under existing standards.

But critics say serious concerns remain, particularly when it comes to China, the world's biggest source.

The Humane Society of the United States in late December warned consumers to be on the lookout for real fur described as "faux fur" or "ecological fur", and named department stores like Saks-Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales. DNA tests showed some were in fact rabbit, raccoon and raccoon dog fur.

Reports have also emerged of cat and dog pelts from China being passed off as fur from other animals.

China has yet to qualify for the OA label.

Care For The Wild International, a UK-based animal welfare and conservation charity, did a survey in 2005 of several fur farms in China's Hebei province, near Beijing, and reported problems, including animals sometimes skinned alive.

"China's colossal fur industry routinely subjects animals to housing, husbandry, transport and slaughter practices that are unacceptable from a veterinary, animal welfare and moral point of view," the report said.

Despite the growth figures sited by industry insiders, Ashley Fruno, senior campaign coordinator with People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in Asia, says fur is passe.

"Now that people are becoming more compassionate, it's going out the window," she said. "I think if you just go out on the street and you talk to people about fur you'll definitely get mostly a negative reaction."

In January, demonstrators from PETA hopped onto a runway at Hong Kong Fashion Week with "Fur scum" and "Fur hurts" banners.

The group was not campaigning around the Hong Kong fur show last week, however, preferring to target mainstream designers rather than "a few people at a fur fair who are more interested in economics than ethics", Fruno said.

"Those people are very hard to convince when they're that dedicated that they are actually attending a fur fair."

Still, about three dozen large men in black suits, with black shirts, black ties and secret service-like earpieces patrolled the crowd at the fur fair's gala fashion show on opening night.

Asked about the threat of anti-fur guerrillas, one replied: "That is why we are here."

"The biggest challenge," said Herbert Wurker, president of the German Fur Association, "is the PR."

(Editing by Megan Goldin)