Yet, by all accounts, fur is inching its way back on to runways. A quick scan of recently realized prices on mink from recent North American Fur Auctions, the largest vendor of raw fur pelts on this continent, shows that sales are at record levels and fetching the highest prices ever.
"Mink is the benchmark, the index," explains Alan Herscovici, executive vice-president of the Fur Council of Canada, by phone from Montreal, "because farmed mink is the most widely used fur in the fur trade." These record levels are reflected in bolder designs and a stronger runway presence across all designer collections, including muskrat, coyote, beaver and other typically Canadian pelts. Last May at the annual North American Fur & Fashion Exposition in Montreal, one of the key fur marketing events in the world, the runway boasted urban dandies in Fisher parkas or knitted sheared beaver hoodies (created by a small Northwest Territories Aboriginal enterprise called Dene Fur Clouds) shown alongside a princess-seamed dress in dove grey grooved and sheared mink by Bill Blass.
Fur has been a Canadian staple since the Hudson's Bay Co. was founded in 1670 and in recent years, with the popularity of vegetarianism and veganism and animal rights activists on one side, the fur industry has often been placed on the opposite side of political and environmental incorrectness.
But not for much longer, if the Canadian fur industry has anything to say about it.
Trade, government and member organizations within the Canadian fur industry, most notably Herscovici's FCC, have been pushing initiatives to change the conversation about fur -- or indeed, to start one. The FCC, a national non-profit industry organization that represents about 70,000 members teamed up with the Fur Trade Development Institute last year on two major public information campaigns, and they seem to be making tracks.
The first is called Beautifully Canadian, a branding initiative to identify fur apparel made in Canada. The second is Fur Is Green, the first phase of a marketing campaign launched last year touting fur as renewable, durable, long-lasting, reusable, recyclable and biodegradable; it's expanded to Russia this fall. The campaign points out fur's potential positive ecological impacts, such as population control and research and development of modern and humane trapping methods.
"Virtually every country in the world traps animals for wildlife management and pest control purposes," says Herscovici, proud of the fact that the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards, created by the Fur Institute of Canada, was recently adopted abroad. "That's the story we're trying to explain. The fur trade is very aware of its responsibilities. Most of us in North America and Europe, 95% of us in fact, eat meat. We wear leather. We believe that we have a right to use animals as long as it's done responsibly and respectfully, and the fur trade is very conscious of that."
The Canadian fur industry at large is using the Fur Is Green campaign to reach out to a new generation of customers, for whom the original anti-fur campaigns are older than they are, with a public information campaign called Fur Is Green ( furisgreen.com). According to Herscovici, the Web site now averages 20,000 hits a month.
"We're getting links from green sites who aren't necessarily our allies," he explains. "We're opening the dialogue and changing the discussion, and finding that people are actually interested in hearing the other side." The other side, according to Herscovici, is three-fold: sustainable use of wildlife, responsibly managed, and no endangered species. Sustaining farmers, trappers and craftsmen who live off the land ("the main danger to wildlife today is the destruction of natural habitat by our shopping malls and roads, not hunting and trapping, which are well-controlled") and its durability.
Just a year old, has the Fur Is Green campaign successfully tapped into an interested post-PETA generation? "Absolutely," Herscovici says, "and we're seeing it already. We lost a generation, people fortysomething to 60. We're seeing the younger consumers coming back into stores now because we emphasize the history and heritage of fur here in Canada, the quality and beauty and the ecological aspect." The Fur Is Green campaign is so successful, in fact, it has recently been cribbed by a fur designer in Berlin to promote his own red fox pelts, shot in ecologically mandated population culls. His tag line? Friendly Fur.
Canadian designer Rachel Fortin also works in fur. Instead of faux, hers isn't the stuff of raw new pelts but recycled fur, and it's stocked in nontraditional boutiques across Canada, she says, most of which have never carried fur products before, "for fashion or otherwise." Even at Simon's and the Bay in Montreal, Fortin's Rachel F. line is not merchandised in the staid fur salon but on the first floor accessories hall, among the hats, bags and belts displays near the perfumery.
"In Quebec, people are really ready to embrace it," says the Montrealbased Fortin, whose recycled fur is worked by traditional artisanal furriers in Quebec's Lac St.-Jean region. "My clientele is fairly young (30 to 50) and the past five years I'd say it's day and night from five years ago." Fortin's line, priced from $25 for fur earrings to $400 for a big fur handbag, is made entirely with recycled Canadian fur from old coats, bags and accessories that she tears apart (it must be at least 50 years old), mixed in with similarly repurposed leather or wool that's then silkscreened or embellished with grommets and other hardware details. "My goal, given that it's recycled and more financially accessible, is to fulfill the needs of a clientele that wants to make even small gestures toward more sustainable living, things that are more durable and eco because it's biodegradable. Compared to faux fur, which [because it is petrochemicals] is not ecological."
Or, as Herscovici rather more succinctly puts it, "You want to help nature? Ride your bike to work, put out your blue box and buy a fur coat."