Collaring the hip in canine couture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 January, 2007, 12:00am

The sporty look is in this year. Think tennis skirts and polo shirts for the spring collection. Of course, you can't go wrong with four-sleeved Burberry raincoats, fur-lined paw booties or a diamond-encrusted collar.

In fashion-conscious New York City, au naturel is for the dogs. Nowadays, the catwalk scene at the fire hydrant is hipper than Studio 54 in the 1970s.

And canine couture is big business. Just ask Susan Bartholomew. She left a high-paying job as an executive at Christian Dior Couture to open a high-end boutique called 'Zoomies' that caters for dogs. 'The dog industry is one of the hottest industries out there right now,' she said. 'People want their dogs to have nice things.'

Last year, Americans spent US$39 billion on their pets, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association said. People spent US$17 billion in 1994. At least US$750 million went to canine apparel, said Bob Vetere, the association's president. 'The folks who have really focused on dog fashion are baby boomers and dual-income families with no kids [dinks],' he said. 'In both cases, they are looking for pets to be members of the extended family. They want to reward them in human terms.'

The result is a booming business, which includes everything from braces and trousers to leather-lined bomber jackets, Spiderman and cat costumes on Halloween - and even a Santa Claus costume for a ferret.

Mr Vetere's Labrador retriever, Dakota, wore antlers and a Santa hat during the holidays. 'Me and the dog are happy to just throw a ratty old tennis ball around.'

The Big Apple is the centre of this growing trend, with Los Angeles a close second. And it has become so big that the fashion is now even specific to neighbourhood. Visit the Upper East Side, home to the rich, old-moneyed women, and you're likely to see more dogs in tweeds, real fur and diamond-encrusted accoutrements. Downtown in the Village, the products are more grungy and urban. Think camouflage raincoats, leather and crystals.

'In New York City, some people have a lot of money,' said Wendy Diamond, editorial director of Animal Fair Magazine. Nowadays dressed-up dogs are 'a fashion statement'.

Jodi Cowen agrees. Her two-year-old Havanese, Eddie, has a number of outfits, including a fleece-lined corduroy coat, a turquoise vest, a green parka with orange fur hood, a fleece sweatshirt that says 'dog' and a black hood with a white bone on it. 'It's more about me looking cute with a fashionable dog that's cute than really Eddie liking his sweaters, because he hates them,' she said.

In New York, canine styles mirror the clothes worn by human models on the runway because 'marketers are smart enough to know that humans are doing the buying', Mr Vetere said.

'Our spring line follows what's on the runways,' said Laura McCann, manager of Canine Styles in Greenwich Village. 'Sporty attire like polo shirts and tennis skirts are in this year.'

But sometimes the dogs set their own trends. In 1999, Animal Fair Magazine launched an annual dog charity fashion show called 'Paws for Style' and asked top designers to come up with new styles. Ms McCann isn't sure if 'Paws for Style' is the reason, but she agrees the business climate has changed dramatically in the past eight years.

'When we first opened, the resources and the ability to stock the shelves were limited,' she said. 'You either had pet store generic products that were ugly and cheap or you had top-of-the-line stuff that was expensive.

'But people started to realise they could make money and produced in bulk, bringing prices down. We used to sell cashmere sweaters for US$250. Now they retail for US$125.'