Flo Fulton is stalking the stores of Manhattan for a white mink jacket, a fur-lined reversible raincoat and a knitted fur vest.
“I fell in love with fur at a young age,” says the 32-year-old New York event planner. “A blouse and jeans can look so chic with a fur.”
Fur is making a comeback because of shoppers like Fulton, and fox boleros, rabbit-trimmed jackets, as well as coyote shrugs are showing up at Neiman Marcus Group Inc. and Saks Inc. as stores gear up for the fall fashion season.
Last decade, some women stopped wearing fur following an anti-pelt campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Now younger customers are warming up to fur as the industry works to farm animals more humanely and market so-called “cruelty-free” pelts. A renewed interest in fur has also coincided with a move to dressier, refined fashion, or what Neiman Marcus’s fashion director calls “ladylike” clothes.
U.S. retail fur sales will grow faster this year than the 3.1 percent gain to $1.3 billion in 2010, predicts Keith Kaplan, the Fur Information Council of America’s executive director. He didn’t provide a specific forecast.
Designers showed 2,200 fur looks in their fall 2011 collections in New York, London, Paris and Milan, compared with 384 six years ago, Kaplan said. Oscar de la Renta sent 30 on the runway in February versus 16 a year earlier while Vera Wang showed 15 versus 6, the council says. The trend also has moved to labels like the Olsen twins’ The Row that appeal to younger fashionistas.
The newfound popularity of fur may help rebounding luxury retailers as they navigate slower U.S. economic growth. The material allows them to sell more goods at higher prices, which can augment their overall sales volume and enhance their profitability.
Saks President Ron Frasch said earlier this year that adding fur in the fall season will “dictate” higher prices. The New York-based retailer has projected that sales at its stores open at least a year will grow as much as 9 percent in the second half of 2011 and that its gross margin -- the percentage of revenue left after the cost of goods sold -- will increase as much as 50 basis points.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 Retailing Index has gained 7.3 percent this year, compared with a 5.9 percent gain for the S&P 500.
Fur sales fell since 2005 because of the recession and warmer winters and only began to recover last year, the West Hollywood, California-based trade group says.
‘Underground’ So Long
“After being underground for so long, fur has got a new vibe,” says Roseanne Morrison, fashion director of Doneger Group, a New York-based retail consulting firm. “It’s actually fun.”
Celebrities also are inspiring shoppers in their 20s and 30s to buy fur, says designer Adrienne Landau. Kate Moss, Jennifer Lopez and Catherine Zeta-Jones are among the better-known wearers of fur.
The fur business is trying to align itself with a wider trend toward goods considered “cruelty free,” an industry term used to refer to a multiple products such as meat, cosmetics and rugs produced in more humane ways.
Consumers are 19 percent more likely to buy fur with an “Origin Assured” label, says the U.K.-based International Fur Trade Federation, which started the independently monitored initiative almost five years ago. The “OA” label is granted to certain species sourced from approved nations such as the U.S., Canada and Denmark that have regulations specifying humane trapping methods for wild animals and ensuring farmed animals are protected from injury and given proper shelter, food and water.
“Women have always loved fur, and it became, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’” says Landau, whose fashions are sold at retailers including the Intermix and Saks chains and the Gilt Groupe Inc. website. “Now it’s, ‘I can wear it. I don’t feel any guilt.’”
Fifty-six percent of Americans believe wearing fur is morally acceptable, and 39 percent consider it wrong, according to Gallup’s annual moral acceptability survey released in May.
In the first category is supermodel Naomi Campbell, who modeled fur for designer Dennis Basso in his winter 2009 ad campaign after appearing naked in the PETA anti-fur ads in the mid-1990s. Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour still wears fur despite being attacked by anti-fur activists.
PETA has been “the social conscience” for the fur industry -- which sources from small-scale growers and trappers -- and has influenced it to be more humane, Doneger’s Morrison said.
PETA doesn’t consider the industry reformed. Production became crueler as it spread to China, says Dan Matthews, a Norfolk, Virginia-based senior vice president for campaigns. China is not an “OA” country.
Fur wearers are a minority with a “cavalier” attitude toward the suffering of animals, some of which are skinned alive, he said. PETA counts fashion guru Tim Gunn and singer and fashion entrepreneur Justin Timberlake among its supporters. Stella McCartney is famously anti-fur.
Other design houses are mixing fur with less costly materials to help raise prices and boost profitability, Morrison said. The average price of U.S. mink pelts sold at February and May auctions surged 26 percent to $81.90 from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Fur is such a predominant trend this year that Neiman Marcus’s fashion director, Ken Downing, highlighted it as a must-have for the second straight fall season. Among the items the retailer’s website currently is touting are a $3,980 J. Mendel fox bolero, a mink collar from Akris for $1,580, and a Marc Jacobs beaver fur-collared tweed jacket for $2,800.
Laser-cutting and micro-shearing -- which produce finer, more detailed fur pieces like geometric shapes, and a lower, velvety pile -- now allow for lighter fur clothing. That makes possible garments that can go beyond traditional pairings with evening gowns and be rolled into carryalls, thrown over casual clothing, and incorporated into layered looks, Landau said.
“Women have a chance to be a little more creative,” Landau says.
Long-haired varieties and color-saturated furs, in burgundy, amethyst and emerald are in, Downing said. A novel silhouette this year is the chubby, a short boxy coat worn in the 1930s and 1940s, he said. PPR SA-owned Gucci’s collection, featuring such attention-grabbing looks, stood out, Morrison said.
“We’ve been wearing yoga pants for so long,” says Marie Driscoll, an apparel equities analyst at Standard & Poor’s in New York. “You feel completely different when you put on something sophisticated and grown-up. It’s got romance.”