The anti-fur movement has been building momentum for years. After Hugo Boss dropped pelts from its lines in 2016, there has been a steady stream of press statements from Armani, Gucci, Michael Kors, Versace, and now Burberry announcing plans to quit using animal fur in garments.
Some designers such as Maison Margiela’s John Galliano made the decision after adopting a dog and changing their life. Others, meanwhile, are responding to public demand. There is a target on the back of any brand, celebrity, or influencer who promotes fur. A quick scroll through the comments on any photo of someone wearing fur and will show a slew of negative comments ranging from disappointment and unfollow announcements to insults and threats. As luxury fashion marketing and media have moved toward open-comment forums such as Instagram, Facebook, and blogs, animal rights activists have been able to take direct shots at brands’ public images for all to see.
PETA representative Johanna Fuoss credits social media and email marketing campaigns for helping to mobilize an unprecedented number of animal rights activists. “In the year before Michael Kors stopped using fur, he had received more than 150,000 emails,” Fuoss tells Highsnobiety. “This puts a certain pressure on designers who can see that the zeitgeist is moving away from fur.”
New technologies and platforms have made it easier than ever for those advocating change to get results. While in the past, activists had to invade runways with signs and paint, or physically mail privately viewed letters, today’s activist can raise a commotion without leaving the house.
“We have a lot of videos that show how furs are made, and without this clarification, no company would choose not to use fur,” Fuoss says. “Right now, we are focusing on Canada Goose because they use fur from coyotes hunted in the wild and we have a video showing how one of those hunts looks. More than a million people have seen it and hundreds of thousands have shared it.”
There are parallels between the online shaming of brands and individuals that occurs in relation to all social justice causes, from animal rights to the environment, sexism, and cultural appropriation. These actions play a role in changing how consumers feel about supporting a brand.
“As knowledge of environmental and ethical issues comes to the forefront more and more, people are looking for simple things to hook on to where customers can say, ‘Ah yes, you’ve made the ethical choice,’” says Alex McIntosh, who leads the Fashion Futures postgrad program at London College of Fashion. “It is driven by much more complex issues than people doing what they think is right.”
Taking the fight to Instagram
One of the main battlegrounds in the fur debate is Instagram. Founder and chief marketing officer of Amsterdam's Influencer Marketing Agency Emilie Tabor has seen a sharp decline in influencers willing to promote fur by wearing it on their channels.
“There are a lot of influencers that used to wear these big fur coats for fashion week and in street style shoots, but they're not doing it anymore,” Tabor tells Highsnobiety.
“There has been a big backlash and negative comments about influencers who continue to wear fur. The sustainable market and vegan community are growing like crazy and that's something a lot of influencers are also feeling.”
The fight over fur on Instagram has become too hot even for one of its most unapologetic personalities: Kim Kardashian. The entrepreneur, who came under fire for wearing the real thing, has since declared that fake fur is her “new thing” after years of criticism and attacks from animal rights activists.
While anyone can see the “fur hag” and “murderer” comments that inevitably follow fur photos, that's actually just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the backlash influencers receive.
“We get a lot of feedback that the direct messages are a lot more hurtful, because this is where people go into depth and tell influencers how they really feel," Tabor says. "They are a bit longer and more well thought out, which the influencers take more personally.”
Tabor adds that blocking users and deleting comments does little to deal with the negativity, as any perception of censorship can hurt an influencer or brand’s credibility more than help them. Certain micro-influencers can slip under the fur-hate radar, but once followings reach the 100,000 mark, those influencers are much more likely to be criticized for wearing fur.
This has come as a blow to the world’s fur federations, which are seeing one-time endorsers shy away from wearing pelts in public.
“There is a climate of fear for people who wear fur," says Pierre-Philippe Frieh of French fur group La Fédération française des métiers de la fourrure. "Especially in Europe and the United States, there is a lot of backlash against people who wear fur online, and it has intimidated people so much that they have stopped wearing it.”
A multi-billion-dollar industry led by Paris’ runways
Fur hasn't been completely eradicated from the world’s runways. Despite the backlash, the market for fur was still worth $30 billion in 2016, according to figures from the International Fur Federation.
While no designers will show fur on London Fashion Week runways this month according to a survey conducted by the British Fashion Council, Paris Fashion Week remains a stronghold where furriers retain their place in couture alongside expert beaders, lace makers, and other traditional masters of materials.
“It has always had a large role for the luxury houses of France because it requires a certain degree of excellence," says Frieh. "You can see that the majority of large French fashion houses are continuing with fur because the close contact between French furriers and these houses has existed for many years.”
But it isn't just heritage fashion houses that continue to use fur. Streetwear brand Hood By Air famously made the fur coat worn by Beyoncé in her video for “Lemonade,” while Bella Hadid has been seen around New York City in an OFF-WHITE fox fur jacket.
“Fur always finds a new need to fulfill,” Frieh says. “Even in streetwear, fur has found its place among the young audience of Virgil [Abloh].”
Whether you're for or against fur, it has an undeniable aesthetic that fashion is drawn to. One of the main arguments designers use for quitting fur is that synthetic versions now come very close to the real thing —but that is still admitting the real thing is desirable.
Although many labels have dropped fur, none of the big players with major investments in pelts — such as Dior, Hermès, and Chanel — have shuttered their fur departments. When Burberry announced in May it wouldn't show fur on the catwalk, it still continued to sell fur items.
McIntosh says that change on this level will only be driven by a genuine lack of demand, not just social media outcry.
“It would be significant to say, ‘We are going to divest the parts of our business that we have developed fur farms with,’” he says. “But if Burberry found out that people were not buying fur from them, they would pretty quickly find a way to divest.”
Of course, Burberry has just announced that it's ditching real fur outright after a period of review.
Why draw the line at fur?
For many, it seems illogical to differentiate between fur, leather, feathers, and other products that have come from dead animals, but fur has a Marie Antoinette reputation that makes it easier to revolt against. “Fur is especially incendiary because it is complete excess,” Fuoss says. “It does not have a function other than to decorate the bodies of people and express a certain status.”
The PETA representative also cited the high quality of fur reproductions as one of the reasons designers are comfortable ditching the real thing. Compared with vegan leather, fake fur is miles ahead. Leather is also a much larger industry and a material with a more utilitarian usage, so pushing for a ban would be a more onerous undertaking.
“To stop selling leather would have a gigantic impact and not necessarily a totally positive one,” McIntosh says. “It has a ton of people employed in it and is in many goods we use in our daily life. The sale of fur has an impact, but not in the same way as leather.”
Sustainability vs. ethics
Often, people equate ethical choices with sustainable ones, but that’s not always the case.
When it comes to fashion, the exact environmental and ethical calculations vary depending on the type of garment and the exact materials, but faux fur generally adds to the waste produced by fast fashion, including microfiber pollution in the ocean. As a petroleum product, fake fur fibers do not biodegrade easily and the dyeing process is both chemical- and water-intensive.
Real fur, on the other hand, is naturally biodegradable and can be passed down for generations.
As McIntosh puts it, "The choice not to sell fur is not an environmental decision.
“People conflating not selling fur with sustainability is quite dangerous, because they are not the same thing. It’s not a choice that is about sustainability, it’s a choice about ethics and what you think is acceptable in terms of animal welfare.”
Of course, there is always the question of whether labels will simply start using fur again once the social pressure eases up. As with many movements and forms of social media outcry, waves of animal rights activism rise to the forefront of public discourse only to retreat again.
McIntosh, however, thinks once the decision to go fur-free is made, it can’t be reversed. “When Gucci says that they are no longer using fur, they can’t go back on that," he says. "It's not a ‘We have taken it out for the season,’ it's ‘We have taken out fur for the future.’"
But the fur industry isn't so sure. For Frieh, non-animal-derived alternatives to fur and other materials are bad for the planet in the long run. “Right now we have the dangerous rise of vegan fashion, which is creating a market for unsustainable fashion. The houses will return to using fur,” he predicts.
We'll have to wait and see which of these predictions is correct. And as creative directors come and go, new luxury labels pop up, and technology evolves, the battle for fashion's future goes on.
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