What a time to be a chinchilla! Hunted for centuries, to the point of near extinction, the hardy rodent—and its silky-coated ilk—couldn’t be further out of fashion than it is now. Long sworn off by the likes of Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Stella McCartney, and Giorgio Armani, as well as the retail group Yoox Net-a-Porter and all its employees, fur truly became fabric non grata last October when Gucci—maker of $60,000 logo-emblazoned mink coats and those ubiquitous kangaroo-lined slippers—decided it simply wasn’t cool anymore.
“It’s a little bit outdated,” Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s chief executive and president, told the website The Business of Fashion, adding that faux would replace the real thing beginning with the brand’s spring 2018 collection. Clearly, while the ethics of fur might be démodé in today’s politically correct climate, when it comes to aesthetics, fashion ain’t quite ready to give it up. Perhaps it’s because the look of a pelt slung across one’s shoulders has, since the earliest of civilizations, symbolized wealth, power, and social status. In Egypt, during the period of 3000 BC to 300 BC, kings and high priests sported leopard and lion skins; in Western Europe, beginning in the 11th century, ermine, mink, and chinchilla were reserved for royals, nobility, elite members of the Church, and the bourgeoisie. In more recent times, a floor-length fox became de rigueur for rap moguls and Park Avenue matrons alike. And who can argue with the physical appeal of plush material cocooning the body?
Which is why, following Gucci’s bold move, a spate of fashion houses have given up fur but quickly adopted faux, including Versace, Maison Margiela, and Michael Kors, who has long been targeted by PETA, the animal-rights group. For him, the decision had to do with improvements in technology. “It’s taken us years of experimentation to create a luxurious look and feel that we are happy with,” says Kors, who showed lush, foxlike jackets and vibrant chubbies in his fall collection. “It’s also not as precious as the real thing, which makes it more versatile for the modern woman’s wardrobe. I want my customers to be wearing my clothes in their day-to-day lives, not just keeping them tucked away in their closets for special occasions.”
Meanwhile, traditional fur houses are experimenting with ways to appeal to a new generation. The French furrier Yves Salomon, for example, abides by international standards that both regulate the ethics of the capture and control the preservation of the species that are used for fur. While he has no plans to give up his longtime medium, he has addressed the growing anti-fur wave by releasing Pieces, a collection of patchwork coats crafted from unused and unsold pelts. Tom Ford started questioning his use of fur in his collections when he adopted a vegan diet more than a year ago. He has yet to ban fur entirely, but he has sworn off animals like mink and fox, which are raised purely for their pelts. Food by-products—a term that the master of sensuality concurs sounds less than sexy—like leather and cowhide will remain for now. And while he used faux fur for fall’s multitextured bombers, its impact on the environment has, he admits, given him pause. Most faux fur is made from nonrenewable acrylics that take hundreds of years to biodegrade; and unlike real fur, which customers hold on to for a lifetime and then hand down to their children, fakes are often tossed aside after just a few years.
Yet, surely, fall’s plethora of ultrachic versions—the yeti parka at Balenciaga, the leopard-print coat at Junya Watanabe, the knitted bomber at Chanel—will not be so easily discarded. Givenchy’s Clare Waight Keller sent out an opening parade of fantastic fakes that, big at the shoulders and cinched at the waist, recalled the gritty glamour of Berlin in the 1970s. Waight Keller described them as “sleazy”; we’d argue they were the standouts of the season.
A handful of emerging brands like Maison Atia and Fuzz Not Fur also presented superluxe faux-ptions. Kym Canter and Alex Dymek spent years working at the French furrier J. Mendel—as creative director and design director, respectively—before launching House of Fluff, a year-old line. “Coming out of the luxury industry, we’re pretty damn picky,” Canter says of their lush capes and monkey coats made from “regenerated” polyester, a more sustainable alternative to synthetic fibers. For them, looking chic and being socially responsible go hand in hand. As such, they also use natural dyes, recycled plastic hangers, and muslin garment bags made by a women’s cooperative in El Salvador. “Starting a brand today, you have to be as ethical as possible.”
But perhaps the most exciting alternative—short of going naked, as Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington proposed in their early-’90s PETA campaigns—is BioFur, a lab-grown pelt that the designer Ingvar Helgason, formerly of the brand Ostwald Helgason, is developing via his San Francisco start-up VitroLabs. Details are still under wraps, but suffice it to say that the future of fashion looks eco-conscious—and furry.