Millions of pelts will be sold for record prices this month as models wear fur on the catwalk again
There is a popular uniform for many of those attending the present round of fashion shows in the world's hippest cities – skinny jeans, trainers and a fur coat. Big-name design houses including Dolce & Gabbana, Alexander McQueen, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Tom Ford have been pushing fur on the catwalks, and the fur coat for the male market is a major new trend for next winter.
This month the biggest auction of furs ever seen in the industry will take place in Helsinki, when dealers and designers will be vying for 11 million mink pelts, two million fox and one million assorted wild animal furs. Prices are expected to reach record levels.
Mark Oaten, chief executive of the International Fur Trade Federation, says that demand for fur is so huge that the industry is suffering a desperate skills shortage. According to Oaten, a younger generation has discovered fur, while recent technological advances mean that the industry can do far more with fur in terms of mixing it with other fabrics, thinning it and dyeing it.
"The traditional fur was grandma's fur coat, which was a one-off luxury buy that you bought and treasured all your life," he said. "But five or six years ago technology moved on and allowed designers to use fur in fashion, allowing it to be used in a million ways. It can be affordable and there is a whole new generation to fall in love with fur."
The renaissance of fur poses a major challenge to anti-fur campaigners such as Meg Mathews, who is now leading the latest effort by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) to persuade people to stop wearing furs.
Mathews was behind last week's decision by the nightclub Mahiki, frequented by London's young rich, to announce that it would no longer admit anyone wearing fur. She spent last Thursday evening at the Mayfair venue's front door, handing out "no fur" badges to customers. "The idea of wearing an animal's fur has always made me feel sick," she said. "You only have to see the videos of skinned animals lying in a heap, still breathing and lifting their heads, to understand that stealing an animal's skin for the sake of vanity is wrong.
"I remember when Peta released its first iconic 'I'd rather go naked than wear fur' campaign in the early 1990s – back when few people had ever seen a video or even a photograph of how horribly animals die for fur. The impact was huge. Almost overnight, wearing fur became unfashionable and designers couldn't wait to shout about how they were fur-free and fabulous. Retailers such as Selfridges and Liberty brought in strict no-fur policies.
"There are so many great designers working with cruelty-free fabrics, and that's what we should be celebrating during fashion season.
"My daughter Anais is at a time in her life when she's making choices about the kind of person she wants to be, and I want to show her that it's cool to be kind and that making compassionate choices shows character. We had a great turnout this week for the celebration of Mahiki's new fur-free policy, and we hope that other clubs follow Mahiki's positive example by going fur-free as well."
But can anyone persuade the fashion-leaders to abandon fur? Vocal anti-fur campaigners Stella McCartney, Sadie Frost and now Mathews are all chums of model Kate Moss, who has a wardrobe packed with fur jerkins and sealskin boots and seems supremely unfazed by her controversial choices. Models and celebrities have been notoriously contrary around the issue. Naomi Campbell appeared naked in 1994 in an advert for Peta under the strapline "I'd rather go naked than wear fur"; 15 years later she caused consternation by becoming the face of a furrier firm. Cindy Crawford was another high-profile defector from the Peta cause.
Shortly after Tony Blair's government signed into law a bill banning fur farming in the UK – which came into effect in 2003 – his wife, Cherie, was unhelpfully photographed while wearing a rabbit-fur coat.
Designer Vivienne Westwood has gone the other way. Persuaded to strip out fur from her collections, she became a convert after seeing a video of steel traps used to catch wild animals for their furs – some 10% to 15% of fur comes from wild as opposed to farmed animals.
Many high-street shops in the UK have banned fur, including H&M, Topshop, New Look, Selfridges and House of Fraser. Diesel, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Zara joined them last month. But there are plenty of specialised UK outlets selling fur, including a new one specialising in buying and selling vintage and remodelling existing items.
One owner of a store in northern England asked not to be named by the Observer but said: "We're very cautious about drawing attention to ourselves because of past events and the way some people are. There's definitely a resurgence and we are happy to see our sales growing; it's nice to see."
Peta rejects the defence that a fur is fine to wear if it is vintage or second-hand. "Whether the animal died 50 years ago or last week is hardly relevant. Wearing it is sending an unacceptable message that it is OK to wear fur," said Ben Williamson of the lobby group.
He urged people to give any furs they have to Peta. "We use them as bedding for animal rescue centres," he said. "You will always get celebrities and designers using fur to provoke controversy, but it doesn't translate to what people are wearing on the streets. An RSPCA survey in 2011 showed that 95% of British people would not wear fur."
The cold winter has seen record sales of fur in New York, while China and other Asian markets are clamouring for it. Even Dubai now has 400 shops selling fur.
Peta is holding out for a hero to change the mood. Can Mathews be the one to get fur's most famous UK ambassador, Kate Moss, to stop wearing it? "We're always hoping," said Williamson.
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