All photos by Sonja Sharp
When Ashley Perez first started at New York's No Relation Vintage in the mid 2000s, the racks of rabbit, fox, and Persian lamb were among the least-coveted items in the shop. But just as fast-fashion staples like Forever 21, Zara, and H&M have flooded with modacrylic mink this season, the 24-year-old has been inundated with millennials looking to lose their furginity.
"The younger kids are all about the glamour of it," Ashley said as she reviewed the store's current stock of rabbit, mink, coyote, and raccoon dog with the educated pleasure of a connoisseur. "Fur is sort of a powerful statement. It gives an illusion, rather than a puffer or a goose down."
Logically, the opposite should be true: It takes almost as many birds to make a down coat as foxes to make a fur one, and most down fowl are raised in factory farms and plucked live several times before being slaughtered for foie gras—if you were born after 1980, you know that fur is murder, and murder fell out of fashion in New York around the same time as mink stoles.
Yet in 2014, fur is surging. Trend watchers will point to the pelts on the runway, just as animal rights activists will peg it to the rising quality of so-called "cruelty-free" synthetic alternatives. The rise in those alternatives, they believe, has made people crave the real thing. "We're seeing a lot of fur out there because there's a lot of faux fur out there," Humane Society spokesman and fur opponent P. J. Smith told me.
But today, fur is less a fashion statement than a complex geopolitical reality, one few enthusiasts or opponents fully comprehend.
Most first-time fur buyers don't know that more fur-bearing animals are trapped here in New York than in any other state in the US, or that most of the minks farmed in Wisconsin will end up in Hong Kong. That the war in Ukraine and new anti-corruption laws in China have more to do with the price fluctuations in silver fox than whatever struts down the catwalk. That one day soon, the industry that begat New York City will have all but disappeared from it.
The global fur market is "extraordinarily changed," even from five years ago, explained Mark Oaten, CEO of the International Fur Federation.
China's emerging elite now consume more than 16 percent of the world's pelts, putting the Chinese neck-and-neck with Americans and just behind the Russians, who at about 20 percent of the market still buy far more fur than any other country.
"It's because of China's massive economic growth; they're huge consumers of fur products," Smith agreed. "The Chinese government has recently cracked down on gifts and corruption and that seems to be where a lot of the fur was going."
(Oaten acknowledged a slowdown in Chinese sales over the past several months, but said it has as much to do with the economy as with the new gift policy there. Sales have also slowed in Russia, due to consumer anxiety over the conflict in Ukraine and fluctuations in the ruble.)
Fortunately for the furriers, new shearing techniques have allowed them to tap luxury markets in previously unfathomable corners of the globe, including the mega-wealthy Persian Gulf, despite the year-round high temperatures.
"Now you've got enormous use of color in fur, you've got trim, which has become incredibly fashionable, and you've also got lighter fur," all of which has made the material more palatable to younger wearers, Oaten said. "Some of your friends are wearing trim and they don't really think of it as fur."
All of which is to say, when money wants something, the market responds. USDA data shows a 25 percent spike in domestic mink production over the past four years, from about 2.8 million in 2010 to 3.54 million in 2014, with a nearly 15 percent surge in the past year alone. Indeed, with the high visibility of faux fur in fast fashion and the rise of trim and other accessories that don't look like animals, Oaten said he expects a banner year in the States, and while no official entity tracks the secondhand market, sellers say fur practically runs off the rack in New York.
"They don't really last very long in the store," Perez said. "You have people come in, try it on, and in that instant they purchase their fur coat."
While wearing fur in Beijing or Dubai makes you fancy, wearing it as a young woman in New York can still make you look like an iconoclast. It's kind of like smoking menthol cigarettes or failing to shave your underarms: awesome if you're into it and discomfiting if you're not.
Full disclosure: I love fur. I'm a vegetarian who loves fur so much I once traded my California State disabled person's parking placard for a midcentury fox stole with glass eyes and its original claws.
Like most consumers in wintry climes, I also love leather boots and down puffer jackets, and while these, too, are made from dead animals, I've never once been stopped by a stranger in the subway who wanted to know whether my North Face parka was real goose. (It is.)
That's fur's Faustian bargain: if you want to wear it, you've gotta own what it is. So what is it, exactly?
A fur coat is made out of a dozen or more cute little animals—most commonly mink—often raised in small cages and then killed and skinned, their pelts tanned and auctioned off in a lot and then cut into little itty bitty strips and painstakingly hand-stitched by a highly-skilled craftsman in Hong Kong or Turkey or South Korea. A faux fur coat, by contrast, is made largely of petroleum byproduct—modacrylic is the mink of the faux fur industry—that's mixed in a giant vat and extruded into long fibers called tow that are then mechanically "tufted" into a polyester backing, which allows a faux fur coat to be cut and sewn much the same way a T-shirt or a hoodie is cut and sewn and in much the same manufacturing environment, most often in mainland China.
Gus Xanthoudakis, 79, one of the last men standing in New York's storied fur district
The pro- and anti-fur factions each cite studies claiming to prove that their product is better for the environment, that it has a smaller carbon footprint and a longer lifetime. Anti-fur activists rightly point out that there are far fewer regulations placed on the treatment of animals raised solely for their pelts than on those whose flesh is eaten before their skin is worn; furriers counter that American and European pelts are prized precisely because the animals are treated so well, that the high standard of care at most Western fur farms leads to such a superior product that economic pressure alone will force producers in emerging markets to follow suit.
None of which changes the fact that while more of us than ever want to wear it—as fringe lining the hoods of our down-filled parkas and pom-poms bobbing on top of our knit wool hats—few of us want to acknowledge that most of what we wear through the winter is made from animals, and that all of it is made by other humans.
For a generation, the argument over fur has hinged on notions of cruelty, but in a global garment industry driven by Rana Plaza–style sweatshops, most faux fur merely trades one kind of cruelty for another. All but the highest quality is cut and sewn by semi-skilled laborers in the same kind of factories where $7 T-shirts are stitched for fast fashion brands whose labor practices often raise eyebrows.. Whether a mink is raised in a cage would seem infinitely less important than whether a garment worker is forced to raise her family in squalor, yet as consumers we've been taught to care intensely for one and not at all for the other.
Unlike modacrylic and other faux furs, which have been mechanized since their inception, animal fur is an artisan industry whose products are still made by hand. Ironically, those who have suffered most from the backlash against fur are farmers, trappers, and craftsman who, if they worked in any other sector, would be celebrated as artisanal holdouts in an automated world.
"It's a crisis for us, because we're losing that skill," Oaten explained. "So many other industries have adapted with high-tech solutions, but it's still a real skill to put the fur together, and we haven't got the people to do it."
Perhaps no one knows this better than Gus Xanthoudakis, 79, one of the last men standing in New York's storied fur district. When he started working there in 1956, the manufacturing sector filled seven streets and three avenues in midtown Manhattan. Now it barely exists outside history books.
"Eighty percent of the world's production was here in New York," Gus explained while he made repairs to a vintage mink coat in his 29th Street workshop on a recent fall afternoon. "All the buildings were fur buildings. Now they're kicking us out. They don't want us."
For years, Gus has sought out students to learn the craft he perfected as a young immigrant from Crete. But as much as they might want to wear it, young people would rather not reckon with the reality of where their clothes come from.
"I don't think they pay attention that much to exactly what they're wearing. It doesn't register," he said with a shrug. "If you put on a down coat, you would not think of fur, even though you're wearing feathers inside. But when you're wearing fur, you know it's fur."
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