Once upon a time, there was nothing more modern than an authentic fur statement piece. At once a status symbol and voluminous body warmer, fur coats have historically signified “the kind of woman you are and the kind of life you lead,” according to a Vogue feature in 1929.
This may still be the case, but in a different way. Once a sign of opulence, real fur is now more likely to mark a woman as retrograde and tone-deaf. It helps tremendously that in fur’s place now is faux fur, a progressive and increasingly luxurious alternative that also sends a strong message about its wearer to the world.
This message has begun to infiltrate all corners of the fashion world. In August, Vogue Paris released an issue on cruelty-free and eco fashion, featuring faux fur-clad model-activist Gisele Bündchen. More recently, Gucci announced that starting with its 2018 spring fashion lines, the fashion house would go fur-free, with Versace to follow suit in 2019.
Fur’s fall from grace and magazine pages can be attributed in part to heightened awareness of animal cruelty in the fur industry, which gained mainstream prominence following People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA) 1985 formation. In an interview with 1843 magazine, Donatella Versace supported this sentiment. “Fur? I am out of that,” she said. “I don’t want to kill animals to make fashion. It doesn’t feel right.”
Business and style have been equally important factors. Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri agreed that style contributed more to his decision than ethics. “I don’t think it’s still modern,” he said of fur, “and that’s the reason why we decided not to do that. It’s a little bit outdated.”
Bizzarri also explained that the change was necessary in order to attract top talent to Gucci. This applies to Gucci’s customers as well: Half of Gucci shoppers are millennials, a demographic cohort well-known for their ethical-minded consumption patterns. Hundreds more brands are likewise committed to fur bans, with pressure mounting against those still in the game.
Ready-to-wear and luxury fashion brands are embracing faux fur and other vegan materials as fur fades. As an expert told the New York Times in 1924, “Whenever a fur becomes fashionable, the trade hunts for a substitute, because the girl in Sixth Avenue wants to look like the fashionable woman on Fifth, and we must help her find her way.”
Nearly a century later, fur substitutes are finally eclipsing the real thing with a huge variety of pieces available at a spectrum of price points. The uber-trendy teddy-bear coat and Shrimps jackets are just two examples of faux-fur styles that employ comparable fashion-forward edge for our new era.
Much improved from the 1920s and 30s, faux fur production today combines the best of art and science to create looks that are glam, not tacky. Says Shrimps founder Hannah Weiland, “given the capabilities of modern technology, you can now produce faux fur with the same level of softness, quality, and warmth as the real thing, which makes the argument for animal-based fur much harder.” Weiland’s textile, sourced from China, is 80% modacrylic, 11% polyester, and only 9% nylon.
The environmental impact of such materials are worth investigating as they gain popularity. After all, significant energy is used to create synthetic fur and it isn’t biodegradable. That’s not ideal, but it’s greener than the real thing. When you consider the energy used to raise animals on a farm, years of storage and maintenance, and the toxicity of processing, real fur has been found to use three to 10 times more energy from start to finish.
Environmentally conscious faux fur shoppers should research the seller before purchasing, as some brands are greener than others—like Stella McCartney, whose fur-free-fur is produced using environmentally sound processes. As its website explains, “We … encourage customers to care for their items and be responsible with their garments, never throwing them away. Luxury does not mean landfill—it means forever.”
Luckily, there’s no reason not to shop for keeps, considering faux furs won’t rot or require special storage. To be an unequivocal success for the planet as well as the fashion industry, faux fur must continue to prove itself better than the real thing.
As Weiland explains, “Faux fur, I find, also allows for far more creativity—you can work with more colors, shapes, prints, and patterns. … You can also have lengthier trials and sampling processes, knowing you are not harming animals.”
As such, the best faux furs aren’t reminiscent of grandma’s mink stole. Instead, they offer plush fantasy via a variety of new shapes, styles, and colors. Clothed in these utterly modern creations, women can feel both empowered and high-minded. Isn’t that what fashion has always been about?
Devorah Rose is the editor-in-chief of Social Life. She has no investments in or associations with the companies mentioned in this article.