Fifty designers are using fur at London Fashion Week this season and as a result we have seen protests outside show venues. In a time when the luxury industry is imploring reinvention, Natalia Romagosa discusses why exotic animal goods polemically remain in the creative minds of emerging designers.
The luxury fashion industry faces a time of change. Despite generating continuous media frenzy through catwalk shows, advertisement campaigns and red carpet sightings, the luxury market is victim to unsteady economic and political climates that now call for an immediate shakeup of the industry.
While big brands rework their business and staffing strategies throughout, a small yet influential group of talented designers feels drawn to the luxury market and designs for it, hoping to one day have their own names decorating shiny billboards. Their passion stems from the beauty and benefits of their products, while their ambition is money driven. Their goal? To cater to the world’s elite (particularly from China and the Middle East) through exotic animal goods.
While plenty has been said about the exotic skin and fur trade industries for their own merits, it is now, more than ever, essential to understand how these emerging designers came about deciding to position themselves within the luxury market and what drives their business towards exotic luxury goods.
Exotic goods: Whim of the richest or epitome of craftsmanship?
Animal skins and fur have been important, even essential clothing materials for centuries, used all over the world for protection as well as adornment. Their existence in the context of fashion as a trend can be traced back to the 1890s, when British curator James Laver mentions the Russian Tsar visiting Paris, an event that began a vogue for furs in both men and women. “[W]omen wore furs in the form not only of trimmings, but of whole fur coats, whereas men’s fur coats had fur only on the inside, the fur being visible only in the collar and cuffs”, he wrote.
Historically, wearing these materials in a fashionable context has been almost exclusively reserved to the higher classes. Initial prices, as well as aftercare, can add up to costly figures. Some luxury brands have publicly vowed to stay away from them, while others consider them part of their commercial DNA.
Truthfully, there is craftsmanship and beauty in working with animal products. Beyond their luxurious connotations, the manual work and expertise that goes into creating a high standard piece of clothing or accessory are admirable. In a country such as the United Kingdom, where the fashion industry contributes over £26 billion a year, events such as London Fashion Week and London Craft Week have established platforms where designers and artists of all areas can come together and showcase their work. In a merger between creativity and skill, participants are given a right to choose their interests and explore them, moving around a network of resources, as well as media and PR contacts. This location provides a unique set of conditions hardly available elsewhere.
Who are today’s emerging designers?
Graduate weeks are approaching and so is a new generation of talent ready to take the fashion industry by storm. Emerging designers are those who have not only graduated recently, but who also show promise in terms of innovation and exposure. We usually like following their trace, not only because of their work but also to understand the way newcomers think about and process fashion.
Matthew Cholefko is an accessories designer and Middlesex graduate. His brand Maks Miuk produces luxury leather bags and accessories incorporating exotic skins. The brand has been receiving a lot of attention lately from a number of channels, such as Vogue Italia, BBC and LFW. Matthew chose to work with leather while still at university, finding it both challenging and exciting to manipulate. The motivation to produce luxury products out of exotic skins came shorty after: “Any product that uses exotics is priced higher. In two bags of the exact design, the price difference could be in the thousands. I felt I could do luxury, and do it better”. Matthew considers his materials to be of top quality and visually appealing. Beyond that, however, there is also a significant connection he has developed with exotic skins. Alligator, springbok, snake, baby snake… He speaks passionately when describing each one of them, taking his time to analyse their texture, movement and creative possibilities. “I love the idea of working with nature”, he says. “Each piece is unique and you don’t have to alter it in any way. It is what it is.”
It was a similar calling for Rebecca Bradley, a former Central St. Martins student who also found her passion for fur while studying. At her atelier in north London, Rebecca not only designs, but also provides pattern cutting, alteration and repair services. She proudly refers to the artistry revolving her profession: “Working with fur is a craft, and here I try to reinvent and reinvigorate it into something new and exciting, while using old and new techniques”. Rebecca has worked with big brands, such as Louis Vuitton, Oscar de la Renta and even the Bolshoi Ballet; and she is an active member of the British Fur Trade Association.
How transparent is the exotics industry?
Ethicality, sustainability and animal welfare have been active topics of discussion surrounding the use of animal products for decades. New findings emerge on a weekly basis on the issue, with designers and brands receiving heavy criticism from organisations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and its allies, in the form of very public accusations. On the other hand, entities of the likes of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the British Fur Trade Association (BFTA) work on supervising and regulating operations, providing consumers with a certain level of credibility and assurance. Yet all of this brings out some speculation – how well justified and transparent is the industry?
The BFTA widely promotes the fur trade – valued at over £70 billion worldwide – on its website, indicating it “plays an important role in completing the agricultural nutrient cycle”, that it provides “important employment and income for rural communities”, and that farming follows “regional, national, welfare, agricultural and environmental standards”. In Cholefko and Bradley’s cases, they both show confidence in their sourcing providers. “I source from a warehouse in London”, says Cholefko. “I’m comfortable in knowing that everything they use is a food-by product, so the animal hasn’t been killed for its skin”. Bradley is more defensive on her position: “For me, fur trade is much more responsible and respectful than many other industries in the UK.”
Yet Sonul Badiani-Hamment, campaign assistant at PETA, argues against these positions: “The reality is that suppliers often intentionally mislead their customers, telling them what they want to hear in order to secure the next order”. Millions of animal skins are imported every year into the European Union, but Badiani-Hamment is quick to add that today’s consumers are aware of issues surrounding the industry, which has prompted a decline in business. PETA resorts to undercover investigations seeking to evidence animal mistreat and poor farming conditions, something that is received with divided opinions from members of the public and the fashion industry in general.
CITES, an international agreement between governments, works by issuing traffic permits to ensure that “trade in specimens of wild animals does not threaten their survival”. Whenever a consumer buys a product with an exotic material in it, a CITES certificate needs to be presented to them. This certificate is part of a permit previously issued by CITES to the retailer. According to Matthew Wright, from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), in 2015 alone, 6,548 permits were issued. This represents a decline of nearly 2,000 permits versus the previous year. Although CITES does not look into the welfare of animals per se, it does investigate each permit application individually, aiming to ensure the survival of endangered species. That is where PETA comes in and why their task is so challenging. “It’s impossible to conduct audits across the global supply chain to ensure animals are not mistreated for commercial reasons”, sustains Badiani-Hamment.
Neither Cholefko nor Bradley are pleased with how organisations such as PETA approach designers in their line of work. In Cholefko’s case, he argues that the organisation was not popular among his classmates at university: ‘Everyone kind of hated them; they storm fashion shows and ruin the creative process”. Bradley, on the other hand, has learnt to “take criticism on the chin” and move forward.
Cholefko feels that PETA’s efforts create an inverse-psychology effect, with students feeling challenged to use exotic materials. Badiani-Hamment declines to say whether PETA engages with fashion students in an educational, approachable setting. He does however emphasise that many companies have now chosen to eliminate fur and exotic skins from their ranges. High Street retailers Mango, H&M and Topshop, as well as high-end brands like Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood and Ralph Lauren, are only a few of them.
In the context of craftsmanship and keeping fashion traditions alive, exotic skins and fur have remained consistently popular throughout the years, with garments and accessories turning into family heirlooms, museum objects or even investment relics. As Bradley points out, it could be argued that other fashion-related industries have similar impacts on the environment and society in general, thus polemically tackling the subject of ethicality. Sadly, a multi-million valued black market and continuous accusations of mistreat and illegal farming haunt the exotics business, making it very difficult to prove the veracity or consistence of statements made in its favour.
The presence of these materials in fashion objects is still seen as the epitome of luxury and excess, with exotic and fur pieces often taking centre stage in magazine spreads, shop floors and catwalks. Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Prada and many others still incorporate them, while designers as Cholefko and Bradley embrace them.