CAROLINE BERNARDO, furrier, is showing me her wares. I am standing in front of a full length mirror in the showroom of Bernardo’s of Dublin, the oldest fur shop in Ireland, transfixed by the image of myself decked out in mink. I am wearing a neat little sheared fur jacket in an electric shade of blue. The design is a cropped box cut, very neat, very chic, very Parisian. It’s an utterly classic style, or would be, if it was rendered in wool, say, or tweed. As it is, the colour and the plushness of the fur have turned it into something else entirely. I look like Cookie Monster, if Cookie Monster wore Chanel. Hairy, explosive, well-tailored, bright blue. And entirely on-point fashionwise.
Fur is having a moment, as style-watchers know. Not that it ever really went away. Fur became anathema, briefly, about a decade or so ago, thanks to a high profile anti-fur campaign by animal rights group PETA, the zenith of which saw the highest paid models in the world stripping off to declare, “We’d rather go naked than wear fur”. Everybody remembers when Cindy, Christy, Naomi et al took their clothes off to make the point that animals should be able to keep theirs on, but 20 years later real fur is back on the catwalks, and back on Naomi again.
The supermodel, alongside Jennifer Lopez and actress-turned-clotheshorse Diane Kruger, is one of a long list of celebrities happy to be seen and photographed wearing real fur. The stuff that once clothed our neolithic ancestors was also a star player at New York Fashion Week, a key trend in all the big name shows from Marc Jacobs to Alexander Wang. Over 500 American designers used fur in their autumn collections last year, and worldwide sales of fur topped $14bn dollars. The European Fur Breeders Association says the value of EU-farmed fur is 1.5 billion, and the industry currently creates 60,000 full time jobs. Fur is big business, and the product is in demand.
What of recession-stripped Ireland though? There are five mink farms in the country, and they exported 200,000 pelts to the value of €7.5m, but surely there’s precious little disposable income in Ireland to be spending on the finished product in these straitened times? Au contraire, says Caroline Bernardo. “People are saying they’re losing their money hand over fist in the banks and they might as well spend it. And then so many people are retiring, so they’re using some of their money to buy a little something for themselves.”
Fur as a substitute for a savings account? That’s how it’s always been. Throughout history, one of the quickest ways of telegraphing wealth and importance was to drape yourself in animal skins. Wearing your money isn’t a new idea; everyone from Henry VIII to Carmela Soprano has shown the world what they’re worth by parading around in fur. Historically revered for its warmth and durability, fur has come to represent beauty, and luxury in a way that no other fabric can. A full- length sable says you’re worth it in a way that a Paddington Bear-style dufflecoat never will.
Fur has been storming the fashion capitals of late. The past 12 months have seen a constant parade of pelts draped over models at all the major shows, everything from beaver to raccoon, muskrat, rabbit and arctic fox. Prada started it with their outrageously dyed fox fur stoles last year, but the others were quick to follow suit.
Everyone from Marni to Missoni has featured some form of fur in their recent collections, whether they’re referencing the vintage look of the 1940s (Miu Miu), experimenting with textured lambswool suiting (Louis Vuitton) or, just for the hell of it, putting tufts of what looks like gorilla hair on skirts (Marc Jacobs). French designer Sonia Rykiel is another who has enthusiastically embraced the trend. A self-professed fur addict, she sent her models out in fox fur stoles that were dyed candyfloss pink and was unapologetic in interviews afterwards, “I started to make fake fur, but I just adore the real thing. It’s so very soft,” she says.
She’s right. I’m still in front of the mirror in the Cookie Monster coat. The collar is cerulean blue. Once it was a chinchilla, several chinchillas probably. It is the softest thing I have ever put next to my skin. Softer than duck-down, softer than feathers, chinchilla fur is softer than satin and the soles of newborn babies feet. Chinchillas are shy little rodenty creatures, super-cute and native to the Andes. They look like guinea pigs with a better hair-do. Their hair is a genetic marvel — 60 hairs per follicle — this is the reason why wearing a chinchilla collar feels like being kissed.
I would not like to hazard a guess as to how many chinchillas in total are hanging up in Caroline Bernardo’s showroom, in her grand old fur shop across the road from the statue of Molly Malone on Grafton Street. Many, many chinchillas, probably. Also, many former minks, foxes, sables, rabbits and Finn raccoons. Bernardos has been trading since 1812, and Caroline’s manners come from a bygone era as well. “We don’t sell you a fur-coat, we help you choose one,” she says with the same gracious politeness she lavishes on her loyal customers. She and her shop are so charming that you almost forget, for every coat in her showroom, dozens of animals were killed.
It can take anything from 40 to 100 pelts to make a fur coat, depending on the animal you use. Estimates vary wildly when I ring around, but the consensus seems to be that for an average coat, about 45 mink would be a start. Chinchillas have small little bodies, so it probably took a few to make the collar of the jacket I tried on.
The vast majority of the fur we’re seeing on the catwalks is factory farmed. Factory farming is the standard nowadays, fur from animals reared on farms has the advantage of being of uniform quality and density, the pelts of wild animals are subject to a huge amount of variation in terms of lustre and condition, depending on the life the creature led before it was caught. Animals most commonly used for fur include mink, fox, rabbit, sable, Finn raccoon and chinchilla, although according to the International Fur Trade Federation, over 85% of the industry’s turnover comes from commercial farming of mink and fox. Foxes are slaughtered by electrocution, and minks by being gassed. The rearing and killing of these animals is governed by whatever legislation exists in the countries where they are farmed.
Some countries (like Ireland) are part of larger industry bodies such as the EFBA which spend time and money demonstrating to the public that they are self-regulating and their fur farming is carried out in a manner that is clean and humane, but other, large-scale fur producing countries like China and Russia are not. The fur trade is a huge international industry, which claims to be operating to self-imposed high standards, at least in Europe and the US which, according to the fur trade, is where most of the pelts come from. The treatment of animals bred and slaughtered for their fur has been the subject of wide-ranging controversy for decades. According to groups who represent fur producers, like the EFBA, breeding fur-bearing animals is a legitimate agricultural practice, the same as breeding cows or hens. The industry says it’s one of the most regulated in the world and it is constantly moving towards implementing its own standards of good husbandry as well.
Currently, the EFBA is putting in place the Welfur Quality Project, which aims to roll out a common standard of animal care on European fur farms. It’s due to be implemented this year. The purpose of all of this is presumably to allow fur farmers to move away from the image of hellish cruelty with which their industry has been associated for the last 20 years, and give fur farming the same sort of consumer acceptance that other types of animal farming enjoy.
Most of us can stomach the idea of farms, even if we don’t eat the meat. The fur industry is hoping that self imposed standards like Welfur will mean that people will start thinking about fur farming in the same way, as a practice that isn’t objectionable, whether you choose to wear the finished product or not.
Certainly the fur farmers’ adoption of basic standards sounds heartening. But you’ve got to wonder, how well this industry is policing itself, when with just one click you can go from the EFBA report, with its glowing language of best practice, to the PETA website and watch a video from a fur farm (narrated by Stella McCartney) of a caged fox who has gnawed its own paw off, down to the bone.
There are other foxes in this video, one who has cannibalised its cage mate, another too weak and malnourished to stand. These are images which keep their shock value, even in a world where we’ve all become desensitised to animal cruelty to a certain extent. These foxes are utterly wretched. They are the best weapons in PETA’s arsenal, their suffering is real and extreme. PETA says the footage from the video was taken in North America, where the fur industry claims to have set high standards for itself. I would be interested to meet the sort of woman who could watch that video and treat herself to a Prada fox fur stole.
“Fur industry standards look good on paper, but every single time we get behind the scenes and we document these farms it consistently reveals acts of heartbreaking cruelty,” says campaigner John Carmody. “What we are saying, is wherever animals are used, corners will always be cut.” Carmody is a well-spoken vegan, accustomed to dealing with the media. He is the founding member of the Animal Rights Action Network (ARAN) which has become the de facto irish arm of PETA for nearly two decades.
When we meet, ARAN is gearing up for a protest, another push to have the Irish fur industry outlawed. The previous government promised action on the issue, but momentum was lost in the change of administration, and with all the licences for Irish mink farms due to expire later on in the year, it’s an ideal time to lobby the politicians.
Carmody set up ARAN nearly two decades ago after seeing images of a Canadian seal cull. The pictures gave him an awareness of cruelty to animals that he now tries to keep in the headlines every day. A week later I go along with him and his supporters to one of ARAN’s direct actions, a picket on Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney’s constituency office in Carrigaline, Co Cork.
Carmody orchestrates the whole protest and is professionalism personified once it kicks off, wrangling his twenty-something team of mostly female protesters, with their anti-fur chants and placards.
He is unfailingly polite to gardaí and media, answering questions and discussing the logistics of a small suburban protest, his blue eyes hidden behind a natty pair of shades. They’re Prada, but he’s so upbeat and enthusiastic, I don’t have the heart to mention the stoles.
Coveney wasn’t there to meet the protesters, and a request for comment on this story also went unresponded to by his office. Is such a seemingly indifferent attitude indicative of Irish people in general, though? Do we think there’s anything wrong with wearing fur?
Not if our purchases are anything to go by. Fake fur is flying out the door at Topshop and Next, even though both chainstores are famously free of real fur. And fur shop owner Caroline Bernardo says there’s no shortage of Irish women willing to splash out on the real thing. The majority of her customers are under 40, she says, “young executives, trainee solicitors and barristers” coming in and buying for themselves.
Vintage is also popular for the under 25s. “We would have some vintage down in the basement, and they’re coming in for that. Irish women know what they want, they’re very with it, they aren’t behind the door anymore.”
Whether it’s a sign that we’re fashion forward or not, it certainly doesn’t sound as though we’d rather go naked than wear fur. John Carmody says the industry has just gotten a bit more clever about how it sells its wares.
“In the early ’90s people were turning their backs against fur and most people didn’t want to be seen wearing a full-length fur coat. At that stage, designers were coming out against it, very few people wanted anything to do with fur, it was almost a public liability. At this stage, the fur industry started to get worried, they obviously knew that they needed to shift focus in order to market fur. Now they have started to redesign. You can get a three-quarter length fur with a leather belt or sleeves for example. They’re breaking it up, visually.”
Carmody claims the fur industry is extremely fláthúlach when it comes to VIPs. “They are literally shoving fur into designers’ hands, into celebrities’ hands, they are given these furs for free.”
Big name designers are pushing the price of fur up, says Caroline Bernardo. She’s been bidding against them at the big fur auctions in Denmark over the past few years.
All the fur is sold at auction, and higher prices have been an immediate knock-on effect of the increased demand.
“On one hand it’s great the designers are using it, but on the other hand it pushes the prices up between 30% and 60%. You need to be an economist to go to those auctions now.”
John Carmody decries the spectacle of celebs cloaked in fur, whether or not they’re getting it for free. Kim Kardashian in particular has drawn the ire of ARAN. “She’s a fur pimp,” says Carmody. “Kim is consistently donning fur. Full length coats, three quarter lengths, the whole lot. Her sister Khloe is one of the faces of PETA’s ‘I’d rather go naked campaign’ and yet Kim herself is constantly bathed in fur.”
For those celebrities happy to wear fur, there are others equally happy to take a stand against it. Penelope Cruz is the catch of the day when John Carmody and I meet. Cruz is the latest star to lend her smoky eyes to PETA’s cause, alongside other famous anti-fur covergirls Eva Mendes and Charlize Theron.
The rationale for having stars front the campaigns is that it creates visibility and awareness, and that, according to Carmody, is what the whole issue is about.
“We say, if you want to wear a full-length fur coat, or buy a fur trimmed jacket, then by all means go ahead and do so, but you’ve got a responsibility to know how these animals are killed.
“If you’re OK with them being skinned alive, or being gassed while fully conscious, if you’re happy to stomach and bear that, then absolutely, go ahead and wear that jacket.”
When he puts it like that, I’m glad I only tried on the Cookie Monster mink. Fur doesn’t look, or feel, as good once you know what goes into it.