London Fashion Week recently became the first global fashion week to ban animal fur. Campaigners were euphoric. In the past year, fur has faced significant challenges everywhere, but still – it was quite a moment. Then, a few weeks later, Los Angeles voted to ban the manufacture and sale of fur within city limits, becoming the largest American city to do so. Has fur – fashion’s most controversial material – finally had its day?
It certainly looks like it. Week after week, another luxury house is ditching it. Burberry, now helmed by Riccardo Tisci, made its stand just a day before the British Fashion Council event; Gucci, Michael Kors, Tom Ford, John Galliano, Maison Margiela, Jimmy Choo and Versace within the past two years. Stella McCartney, undisputed queen of green luxury, has of course been fur-free from the start.
Last June, luxury online behemoth Yoox Net-a-Porter, which sells to some of fur’s biggest consumers such as China, announced it was going fur-free – citing customer feedback. “Do you think using furs today is still modern?” Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri asked eager students at the London College of Fashion in October 2017. “I don't think so. And that’s why we’re not doing it.” For an industry that prides itself on being buzzy and on-the-ball, Bizzarri’s statement was a death knell for real fur.
People don't want to see [real] fur; it’s come to symbolise a selfishness they don’t want to endorse – Wendy Higgins
About time too. From wild trapping to the horrors of a Chinese fur market, where live skinning is par for the course, nothing about fur production is easy. Films such as Klatki have uncovered the devastating lives of animals on European fur farms. “Fur is immoral, cruel and barbaric – it is an industry that capitalises on death,” says a call-to-action on McCartney’s website. As one look at the small, traumatised creatures in Klatki will demonstrate, she’s not exaggerating.
Why is fashion moving so fast to distance itself from fur now? “Increasingly, consumers expect brands to demonstrate social responsibility, sustainability and animal welfare; the fur-free movement is part of that zeitgeist,” says Wendy Higgins, media director for Humane Society International. “People don't want to see fur; it’s come to symbolise a selfishness they don’t want to endorse. That realisation by designers like Gucci has created a domino effect.”
None of this comes as a surprise to Kym Canter, ex-creative director of ultra-glam label J Mendel, self-confessed former fur addict and now director of her own ethical faux-fur company, House of Fluff. “I switched teams,” she laughs. “Some of my favourite coats were so glamorous, and then, one day I thought, this is insane, I’m an animal lover and I’m wearing garments that don’t match my morals.”
But finding stylish alternatives proved tricky so, fresh from a luxury background, Canter decided to make her own: “House of Fluff is about faking something you’d respond to as rock ‘n’ roll.” Her coats – slinky leopard print trenches, soft ‘Mongolian lamb’ boleros, ‘Teddy’ bombers – are impossibly luxurious, about as far away from scratchy high street shagpiles as you can get. Think Anita Pallenberg in her heyday – without the cruelty.
For Hannah Weiland, founder of British-based technicolour faux-fur label Shrimps, the standard of new faux is the key to its longevity. “When I launched in 2013, there weren’t any high-quality options,” she remembers. “As soon as people felt our faux, they were impressed. And that makes the argument for real fur much harder.” Plus, this is fashion made to last. “These are coats you’re going to wear for multiple seasons, even pass down,” says Canter. “They’re luxe products.”
Indeed they are. All those newly fur-free luxury houses are embracing faux with a passion, elevating both design standards and materials. MM6 Maison Margiela's oversized shaggy coat in a rich teal is a keeper; as is McCartney’s autumn/winter 2018 textured beige wrap. And no one is going to forget Cara Delevingne marching down the runway in Burberry’s faux fur rainbow cape, outgoing creative director Christopher Bailey’s swansong on February’s autumn/winter catwalk.
But campaigners can’t rest on their laurels just yet. For all its animal-friendly credentials, most faux is made from modacrylic, a derivative of oil and synthetics. This means that, like other petroleum-based products, it pollutes during production, releases microfibres on washing and won’t biodegrade. The pro-fur lobby, which is big and powerful, take great joy in going on about this, citing fur as the only genuinely sustainable option.
Today’s best faux-fur designers are making real efforts to help the planet
Meanwhile, consumers keen to do the right thing are left at a loss: go faux for the animals – or go real for the planet? No contest, says Higgins. “All materials we use in fashion have some kind of eco-footprint – including fur,” she points out. “And the impact of fur production can't be overstated, from CO2 emissions and manure runoff on fur farms, to the cocktail of chemicals used in fur dressing and dyeing. Fur is far from earth-friendly.”
“Don’t get distracted,” adds Canter. “There are loads of studies showing that real fur is actually much more harmful to the environment than faux. The fur industry has a billion dollars to spend on advertising. They’re smart, they’re worried and they have a lot of people crafting [its] message. So far, it’s been extremely effective.”
At the same time, today’s best faux-fur designers are making real efforts to help the planet. Canter’s brand works with organic and sustainable materials wherever possible, and makes everything locally; its edgy flagship in New York’s Bowery is built from upcycled materials. Reusable fabric garment bags are made from by a women’s cooperative in El Salvador. Ditto Stella McCartney, whose offices and factories consider all aspects of environmental impact.
For those still twitchy about faux’s eco-credentials, however, options are emerging. For autumn/winter 2018, sustainable Brit pioneers Vin & Omi finished their show with a big, bouncy coat made from the combed-out raw fleeces of 10 pet llamas who are still gambolling about their smallholdings today. “We wanted to include raw fleece as it has an incredible softness,” says OmI. “And we wanted the audience to appreciate that high-end fashion can be eco and wearable.”
And there’s biotech, increasingly being used to find lab-friendly alternatives to animals in food, fashion and beyond, says Mina Jugovic at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. She cites as examples the living-moss collars by London College of Fashion student Tara Baoth Mooney – “Her moss pelts promote the concept of ‘symbiotic biomimicry” – and Ashleigh Chambers, who is currently working on a biodegradable faux fur with a new cellulose fibre created from rose bushes.
Meanwhile, designer Ingvar Helgason at BioFur’s lab-grown pelts are created from stem-cells while, at the Faux Fur Institute, founded by Arnaud Brunois in retort to claims by the International Fur Federation, researchers are developing a fibre made from 40 per cent plant-based ingredients, to reduce faux’s dependency on petroleum-based product, as well as safe methods to recycle faux fur and ways to turn synthetics into energy.
In New York, Canter is working with chemists to create an “even more Earth-friendly faux fur”. “At the level of the threads and the textile,” she says, eagerly. “We want to have that ready to come to market in a year. We’re super committed to this. Faux can be made from plant-friendly, animal-friendly ingredients – and we’re working on it.”
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.