There was no shortage of eye-popping fashion at the Toronto preview of Lanvin genius Alber Elbaz's stellar capsule collection for H&M this month. Standing out amid all the tulle frocks, one-shouldered cocktail dresses, faux ostrich outerwear, men's bowties and shiny blue oxfords, however, was guest Beverly Creed, who had donned a swingy fur sweater jacket for the occasion.
A long-time fan of Canadian designer Jeremy Laing, the grande dame of dry cleaning - husband Jack owns Creeds Cleaners, a local institution - happily encouraged two admirers to slip into the piece themselves, mainly so they could feel how lightweight it was. "I wasn't looking for fur, but I tried it on voluntarily," she recalls of her visit to Laing's studio. "We live in a country where you need to wear fur."
There are, of course, people who would strongly disagree with that statement: Creed herself admits to mixed feelings that she doesn't experience when, say, eating meat or sporting leather shoes. But like a growing number of consumers and fashion designers, especially in Canada, she has gradually acquired a fresh perspective on the practice of wearing real fur, which is being buoyed these days by greater transparency concerning sourcing and regulation, more humane trapping standards and a concerted push by the industry to relabel fur as a long-lasting "green" material. Clearer information on the difference between wild versus farmed fur, for instance, is helping to create a cultural climate increasingly accepting of fur as more than just a symbol of high-society excess. The outdated notion of saving fur for special occasions is also going out the window, as trendier fur neckwear, vests, hats and boots edge out the oversized full-length coats once purchased in stuffy salons.
"We're finding that younger people are interested in fur again," Alan Herscovici, the executive vice-president of the Fur Council of Canada, says from Montreal. "New looks are all over the place." Indeed, this season has seen a particularly strong comeback for both real and faux fur. It was all over the Chanel runway, where models in fake iterations resembled high-style Wookies. Real fur trim also appeared on shoes and bags from Lanvin, Dolce & Gabbana, Christian Louboutin, Marc Jacobs, Céline, Yves Saint Laurent, Sonia Rykiel and Fendi. Earlier this year, Canadian designers Laing and Sunny Fong worked with the Fur Council to create a striking array of pieces, reflecting Herscovici's assertion that a new generation of designers is becoming increasingly curious about the material, especially its uses in non-traditional ways.
"I think that, deep down, people actually love the texture of fur, but can be overwhelmed by the idea of a whole coat made of it," says Christina Nacos, creative director of Furb Atelier, a two-year-old Montreal boutique that specializes in plush accessories, including hats, blankets and boot warmers made from fur scraps. "People are comfortable, I think, with fur as an accessory or accent. Touches of it give the best of both worlds. You get the luxury, but you don't have too much." In addition to working with and supplying such ready-to-wear labels as Féraud, Bill Blass and rising star Prabal Gurung, Nacos's family company, Natural Furs International, is doing a booming business in the restyling of old fur coats that have been sitting in people's closets. The long, robe-like mink coats of yesteryear are no longer what most customers want, Nacos says. Instead, she notes, they're gravitating toward more modern silhouettes, such as sporty cropped chubbies.
In turn, designers are applying a range of innovative techniques when it comes to fur, stitching strips together or using individual pieces to create shoulder, arm or chest panels. This kind of "knit fur" has been Canadian designer Paula Lishman's specialty for more than two decades; now, other studios are starting to give the labour-intensive process a go.
One of the newest is Izma, a collaboration between designer Izzy Camilleri and former FashionFile host Adrian Mainella, who together created a collection that launched this fall. Consisting of hoods, ponchos, stoles, shrugs, sweaters and wraps, the line is made entirely of pelts "assured" by the North American Fur Association, a consortium of fur producers. "I had always wanted to be part of a design process and, if Canadians own one thing that's uxury, it's fur," Mainella says. "We did our homework, as we had some concerns with how [the line]would be received. But the more we talked about how to create something that would be truly Canadian and could compete nationally and internationally, the more we realized [it involved] sustainable fur."
What exactly is sustainable fur? In a nutshell, it's fur and pelts from animals, such as red foxes, wild minks, beavers and coyotes, that have been trapped in the wild. According to NAFA, today's regulations require that trappers replenish their stocks, preventing the risk of depletion. Trappers in many countries, including Canada and the U.S., are also bound by a lengthy list of criteria ensuring scientific and humane methods for obtaining wild fur. For Mainella, using a renewable resource was a key consideration in his adoption of fur, as was its versatility. In Izma's case, pieces are suitable for both day and night, many featuring furs that have been sewn onto stretch fabrics. "They keep you warm, but you don't boil and they move with you," Mainella says. Longevity was also a factor. "We want women to invest in something that will continually complement their wardrobe as they change."
As Herscovici is quick to point out, real fur can last for decades: Mothers pass it down to daughters and it often gets coveted as vintage. "That has major environmental value," he says. Naturally, he has strong feelings about faux fur, which is typically a derivative of petrochemicals. "It gives you the price point and it's better than it was. But when you touch it, the feel is not the same," he says. "I'm not against synthetics, but don't tell me that they're better for nature."
If one thing can be agreed on, it's the fact that fur as a design medium isn't likely to go away soon. According to Nacos, the material will remain popular as long as fashion designers remain enchanted with volume. "Fur offers natural volume with weightlessness and it's pretty hard to fake volume," she says.
Designer Laing, whose current collection explores the beauty of the Canadian fall, says he used fur in the line because of its symbolic value. He also grew to appreciate what he says is its significant technical advantage over fabric. "There's a lot of flexibility while working with it; the material itself covers faults - you can take it apart and reassemble it with no visible impact," he says, emphasizing that he uses only wild fur. Among most designers who work with it, he adds, "there's much more respect for fur because of its implications, because it was once alive. There is no waste. It's not disposable. It's not fast fashion. It's treated with a care that other materials don't get."
Styling by Yso (www.foliomontreal.com); hair and makeup by Paco (www.agencesatellite.com). Shot on location at Dépanneur Simon Anthony, Paradis de la Bière in Montreal.