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Classic Furs, Styled for Youth

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2004; Page C02

While there are those who see a fur coat as an example of man's cruelty to animals, there are others for whom a ranch mink coat will always be a reminder of their mother dolled up for a big evening out or their grandmother wearing her Sunday best.

Fur sales have been on the rise for several years, according to the Fur Information Council of America. That is due, in no small part, to the hip-hop community, whose enthusiasm for an expensive pelt is rivaled only by its affection for large diamonds and a head-bobbing beat. Last year, sales of fur and fur-trimmed apparel rose 7.5 percent to $1.8 billion, according to FICA, and more than half the customers were under 44. The majority of that fur was mink.

Designer Rick Owens brings elongated silhouettes, raw edges and asymmetrical proportions to Revillon. (Maria Valentino - For The Washington Post)

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But the fashion industry is not simply churning out more appealing versions of the traditional shawl-collar, full-length Blackglamas or ever-more-ostentatious music video chubbies. Instead, designers are treating fur with the same nonchalance as wool, silk or organza. For all the images of luxury and exclusivity that fur continues to evoke, the fashion industry no longer treats it as a precious commodity. Embraced because of its associations with grown-up elegance, it is being styled in ways that are youthful, informal and naive. Sometimes the pelts have been so highly manipulated that they don't even look like fur, but rather corduroy, velvet or even tweed.

The fashion industry is using the emotions and ideas associated with fur to set a mood. With lush fur scarves wrapped around the neck or swaddling the shoulders, and tiny fur capelets adding cover to breezy chiffon dresses, designers have found a way to suggest glamour without indulging in a low-cut neckline or otherwise showing a lot of skin. In many runway collections, including Alberta Ferretti's, the fur shrugs and capelets were essential to the distinctiveness of the garment. Without them, the designer was offering little more than a familiar silk or chiffon dress. With the addition of a fur wrap, the dress stirred up images of soignée ladies of the 1940s sipping a glass of Veuve Clicquot.

Fur stoles accompanied prim suits and sturdy dresses, too. They gave reserved attire a bit of dazzle and panache but in a way that suggested estates and country lanes rather than McMansions and cul-de-sacs.

The fashion industry has no qualms describing its wares as sophisticated or adult and will even tolerate the label "classic." But the accusation that clothes have suddenly turned mature would not be greeted with much enthusiasm. Mature implies old, and no one wants to invest in clothing that promises to make them look as though they qualify for a senior discount. So designers have taken great pains to style fur in ways that speak loudly of youth. The idea is to look like the debutante or the siren, not the matron.

So a fur stole is worn with a pair of cropped pants at Marni. At Dries Van Noten, a fur jacket comes in a cheerful patchwork of strong colors. The old French fur house Revillon hired designer Rick Owens to create a line of jackets, coats and throws. They reflect the style of Owens's signature collection, which is based on elongated silhouettes, raw edges, asymmetrical proportions and a rough-hewn sensibility. It is as though the pelts have been torn rather than painstakingly cut. Owens is using the luxurious connotations of fur as a lure and then styling it so that it can be worn to the movies with a pair of jeans.

The current fascination with fur has not been limited to expensive jackets, coats and scarves. There are detachable collars, fur cuffs, hats and even fur handbags. And because many of the new fur jackets have been cut to look as though they have been plucked from a vintage store, the fashion industry's editors, stylists and muses have raided consignment shops and flea markets to find used fur jackets with three-quarter sleeves and portrait collars. Mid-priced brands have created accessories using inexpensive rabbit fur. And brands ranging from Banana Republic to Stella McCartney are offering fake fur.

The point this season is not whether the fur is real or faux, rabbit or sable, new or used. Designers are intrigued by glamour, tradition and indulgence. They are infatuated with the fantasy of a fur-wearing lifestyle.

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