Fur love and money

Adele Rosi

THE FASHION INDUSTRY isn't called fickle for nothing. A decade ago, fur wearers were widely considered evil or stupid, particularly in Britain and the United States. Fur-coat wearers were attacked with paint; a dead raccoon was thrown at shameless fur fan Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, while she was dining out. She reportedly covered the animal's body with a napkin and carried on eating. Anti-fur organisation Lynx (now defunct) depicted supermodels in fur coats dripping with blood under the slogan: 'It took up to 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat but only one to wear it.'

Now, fur has come out of the fashion closet - and the glossies are awash with pictures of models and celebrities in the latest designer pelts. Naomi 'I'd rather go naked than wear fur' Campbell, once the celebrity face of animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), was sacked by the organisation for wearing fur in 1997 and hasn't looked back since. Another former anti, Cindy Crawford, made a catwalk comeback in furry splendour at Roberto Cavalli's Milan show last month.

Most designers are now using furs as freely as any other fabric and Stella McCartney's fur- and leather-free collections are the only notable exception. In recent weeks, Celine featured red-fox bomber jackets, Dolce & Gabbana sent out mink jackets and a fox coat with leopardskin lining, and there was so much fur at Fendi it seemed designers Karl Lagerfeld and Sylvia Fendi were indulging a fetish. Even the usually minimalist Prada went full pelt.

'Almost every leading fashion designer is now using fur in collections - up from 170 designers last year to 300 this year,' says Brenda Fung of the Hong Kong Fur Federation (HKFF). 'Department stores and boutiques such as Christian Dior and Chanel were full of fur last winter.'

But Hong Kong tells a different story: even in the face of a mild climate, fur never really went away. The HKFF annual gala for celebrities, designers and industry types has been held for more than 20 years. Socialites such as Lelia Chow, Lily Wong and Olivia Davies often sport fur stoles, jackets and bags around town. No SAR department stores follow the example of their counterparts in the US and Britain, such as Selfridges, which maintains a no-fur policy. Lane Crawford has a long-established fur section and Seibu wouldn't be adverse to one.

'Because of the weather we have more demand for leather and shearling [the skin of a year-old sheep that has been sheared once],' says Frankieanna Woo, senior buyer for Seibu's ladies division. 'But items with fur trim are becoming popular and we're quite keen on fur.'

Furriers from Shanghai first set up workshops here in the 1950s. During the fur furore elsewhere in the 1980s and early 1990s, business boomed thanks to the Japanese market and Hong Kong is now the world's leading fur manufacturing and garment export centre. According to HKFF figures, Hong Kong's fur exports rose 29 per cent to HK$1.8 billion in 2000. They climbed by nine per cent from January to October last year and local Fendi stores reported record sales despite high prices and the economic downturn. That's good news, unless you're a mink or fox, local manufacturers' favourites; 61 per cent of the world's mink production is processed here.

'The majority of pelts are sourced from fur farms in the United States and Scandinavia,' says Fung. 'The finished garments are mostly exported to the US, Japan and Europe, as well as to newer markets Russia and China.'

Licences are required to farm and export fur and, according to Fung, farms in major producing countries are subject to strict government regulation. Mink and fox, she says, require excellent conditions to produce healthy skins so it is in the farmers' interest to provide good care. Fur from mainland farms accounts for only a small percentage of materials used in Hong Kong, adds Fung. With China's World Trade Organisation accession, the fur trade there is upgrading standards and tightening regulations to conform to industry norms worldwide, she says. 'Strict government controls here ensure endangered species are never used,' says Fung. 'The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [Cites] regulates the entry of all animal products into the country and every fur-producing and fur-consuming country, including the HKSAR, has ratified the Convention.'

This argument doesn't wash with anti-fur activists such as Jill Robinson, founder of the Hong Kong-based organisation Animals Asia Foundation. She has visited numerous fur farms in South Korea and on the mainland and says conditions are 'appalling'. 'How can the fur industry say conditions are humane when these farms are far from replicating the normal life these animals would have in the wild?' she says.

Mink are nocturnal, solitary and semi-aquatic and usually live for about 11 years. They are predatory carnivores, often stand on their hind legs and males usually weigh less than 1.8kg, Robinson explains. 'On these farms, I saw mink kept in cages no bigger than microwave ovens, lying in their own faeces. They can't stand up and are fed so they weigh in excess of 3kg because a fatter mink means more fur - which means more profit. They are only allowed to live for six months.'

Mink are killed by carbon-monoxide inhalation or neck dislocation, which is carried out by untrained workers so the animals usually die a painful death, Robinson says. Foxes are dispatched by means of anal electrocution. There are more humane methods of killing animals, says Robinson, but the cruel methods ensure no damage to the fur. 'Pro-fur organisations always argue that wearing fur is the people's choice but a lot of Hong Kong residents aren't au fait with the issues and the truth behind the industry. Once they understand, many reject fur,' Robinson says. 'We need to make people aware that wild animals are being exploited by an industry that is cruel and unnecessary.'

Despite the conspicuous wearing and trading of fur in Hong Kong, Peta, whose members frequently protest on international catwalks, are rarely heard here. It did not picket the 1997 Hong Kong Fur Federation gala - and hasn't targeted the event since - because of local indifference, although last month two of its members, who call themselves the Leopard Ladies, painted black spots on their bodies and stood in Central handing out leaflets.

Dawn Carr, Peta's European campaigns manager, says the Leopard Ladies generated a lot of public interest and the organisation hasn't forgotten about Hong Kong. 'Compassion for animals has no national barriers and there are many people in Hong Kong who feel strongly about farmed animals,' she says. 'We work with a network of activists worldwide, including in Hong Kong, and we will continue to plough forward to educate people about animal cruelty and try to end horrific and needless practices.'

Not an easy job in a place with a traditional lack of sentiment about fur and animals. 'Fur has always been valued on the mainland for its comfort and warmth, particularly where winters are severe,' says Fung. 'Wearing fur is the same as wearing leather shoes.'

Add the modern connotation of fur as a status symbol and the result is a society which has little conscience about a second skin. 'My favourite kinds of fur are sable and chinchilla,' says Davies, who owns 15 to 20 pieces. 'I'm not worried about protesters and have no fear about wearing furs anywhere - maybe because no one has thrown paint at me. I'm from an older generation so I don't really feel guilty.'

Jennifer Fong, whose grandfather Stephen Fong Sun-tou was one of the first furriers in Hong Kong and whose family runs the Siberian Fur Store in Central, agrees with Fung. 'It's a cultural thing,' she says. 'Fur has always stood for wealth and glamour, for which many Hong Kong people strive. They see the end product and don't think too much about its origins.'

Fong's shop, the only specialist retail furrier here, stocks 'all kinds' of fur including mink, chinchilla, fox and sable, which are bred on licensed farms around the world. 'Leopard is now illegal here,' she says. 'But we would have sold it when it wasn't.'

Fong believes fur smuggling goes on but says she has never been offered illegal furs and wouldn't buy them if she was. Man-about-town Charles Yang, who has been known to step out in a fur or two, says otherwise. 'In 1992, I was having lunch at the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club with a mainland client when he told me he had two snow leopard skins - one of which he wanted to give me.' He declined the gift.

Although Lane Crawford and Siberian Fur still have their core of mature customers, both outlets acknowledge fur-trimmed clothes and accessories are becoming popular with well-heeled younger generations, who wear fur as a fashion item rather than a statement of wealth. That said, a mink coat which comprises an average of 65 pelts costs from $25,000 to $100,000 at Siberian Fur, while a wrap from Lane Crawford could set you back $50,000.

Converting the young to fur is HKFF's mission. It runs an annual competition for design students at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the Institute of Vocational Training and the Clothing Industry Training Authority, to give them a taste of working with the material.

The winner of the Full Fur category is awarded a scholarship to the Saga Design Centre in Copenhagen, Denmark, an affiliation of Scandinavian mink and fox farmers. It produces 66 per cent of the world's mink and 61 per cent of fox and is credited with having spearheaded the current fur revival.

'The fur competition is promotional and educational - to make students aware of fur as a viable design option,' says Miranda Tsui, associate professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's school of design. 'As to whether I support the competition, it's a difficult question. The animals are bred for their fur so I suppose they are like chickens and pigs.'

With fur in fashion ascendant, many people seem able to overlook their conscience in favour of fashion consciousness. Out of sight is definitely out of mind. 'I don't feel guilty for owning fur because I don't see the animals being killed,' says Chow. 'It's like eating chicken. You don't mind it because you don't see how they are killed. When I'm at the wet market, I just look away when they kill a chicken for me.'