The fur is flying.
With retail sales up by a third from last year, the debate on fur has reopened. Some say it's the ultimate luxury, others denounce it as a cruel trade. Rin Simpson investigates
FEW things are more likely to get the fashion world in a tizz than mentioning the word 'fur'. There aren't many people who have no opinion one way or another, and the issue has lead to massive public debate, with animal rights campaigners and furriers vying for converts and favourable legislation.
For a while it seemed like the animal rights camp had won out, and fur kind of faded from the media spotlight. But today it looks like fur is on the rise again and both sides of the fence are gearing up for a fight.
The 2006 London Fashion Week was a prime example. Welsh designer Julien Macdonald defied the anti-fur brigade with a number of animal skin creations, and was rewarded with a bag of flour which protesters dumped all over him and his star model Paris Hilton.
But despite fierce opposition the fur industry, like Julien, remains upbeat. 'Fur is a popular choice with consumers of all ages,' confirms British Fur Trade Association (BFTA) spokesperson Andrea Martin.
'Fur is very appealing as it is now much more lightweight due to new techniques like knitting, shearing and plucking. Lightweight garments and fur trimmed garments appeal to younger people.
'Designers are realising the versatility of fur and there are now many more options than just a classic fur coat. There are endless possibilities to the designer with fur. Therefore, as long as designers continue to be inspired and creative they will continue to capture the consumers' interest.'
The British Government banned fur farming in 2003, but it can still be imported from abroad and the BFTA reports that the UK fur trade is worth around pounds 500m a year.
Retail sales have risen by a third in the UK, and globally sales have risen from pounds 5bn in 2000 to pounds 6.6bn last year, according to the International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF).
For animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), this is totally unacceptable. 'There's no defence for the fur trade,' says Peta campaigns co-ordinator Anita Singh. 'Anyone who supports it by buying fur is actually paying the killers, they're hiring the killers.'
Peta focuses its attention on four main areas - the fur trade, factory farms, laboratories and the entertainment industry - which they say are the ones that cause the most suffering to animals. They encourage consumers to boycott fur by buying 'no fur or faux fur'.
'It boils down to the fact that every year across the globe many animals are trapped, they're drowned, they're gassed, and a very popular method of animals on fur farms today is anal electrocution,' says Anita, describing a process whereby an electrode is placed in an animal's rectum and metal place in their mouth. 'With the flip of a switch you have 240 volts coursing through the animal. And it doesn't always work the first time.'
Anita describes video footage of animals screaming in pain, their teeth shattering and falling out. It brings to mind the botched execution scene in The Green Mile.
However the BFTA says this is not the case. 'It's in the interest of the farmers to look after their animals well. The end product is the fur, so farmers have to look after the animals,' says Andrea, adding, 'I'm satisfied that the farms we are talking about and the industry do have high standards.'
In fact not only is the fur trade not cruel, animal fur is a perfect product for today's climate of environmental awareness and sustainable resources, according to the BFTA.
'Real fur is a natural, renewable resource,' says Andrea. 'It's also a versatile and very warm material for clothing. Real fur remains a supreme example of a fashion product that derives from a wholly natural, sustainable resource, is long lasting but ultimately biodegradable.'
Naturally, Peta disagrees. 'If you actually bury a fur coat in the ground you'll see, five years later, that it's still there because of all the toxins and carcinogens used in the manufacture to preserve the fur and treat the skins,' says Anita.
Then there's the farms themselves, which Peta says aren't very environmentally friendly. 'It actually takes 20 times more energy to manufacture a fur coat than to make a synthetic one.'
Of course the main draw of real fur over faux fur is not its potential environmental friendliness but the way it looks and feels. 'There is no real comparison between the two - real fur cannot be matched for its beauty, softness and glamour,' says Andrea.
And it is this that attracts so many high profile designers, not to mention celebs like Madonna, Naomi Campbell and Sienna Miller.
According to Peta, some companies are dyeing or trimming furs to make them look fake in order to 'pimp their wears' to unsuspecting customers who don't know what they're buying.
Anita says, 'A lot of fur coming into this country is coming from China where there are absolutely no animal welfare laws, where anything goes. These animals are literally strung up and skinned alive. It's horrible. It's hard to stomach but caring consumers need to know what's happening.'
The BFTA's response is that, as well as using a labelling scheme which shows what type of fur a garment is made of, the IFTF promotes 'the adherence to strict codes of practice that meet or exceed many international, national and state government standards for animal welfare'.
However there is a tacit admission that things could perhaps be better in China. 'We also actively support and encourage the adoption of Western fur farming practices on China fur farms,' the statement reads.
For consumers the decision to wear fur or boycott it is not an easy one, with much of the available information provided by parties who have an interest one way or another. And once the pre-agreed, well thought out arguments for and against are used up, there are always the more subjective ones.
'We say one thing and I suppose Peta will say the opposite,' says the BFTA.
'If they have no scruples when it comes to killing animals, they certainly aren't going to have any scruples when it comes to fabricating the truth,' says Peta.
There is unlikely to ever be a resolution between the two factions, but will one prevail over the other? Will fur be banned completely? Or will it make a total comeback?
Ultimately it's up to the consumers. Retail statistics, after all, are based on where people spend their money.
As the debate kicks off once more, perhaps it's time each of us had a good think about whose argument is the most convincing.