Fur What its Worth
Nick Foulkes examines the hair-raising comeback of fur in men’s fashion and finds a silver lining
THE OTHER DAY I got a very excited call from a young lady at the ‘Fur Information Bureau’ or whatever it is that the body protecting the interest of furriers calls itself.
She’d heard that I’d been asked to write about fur by the editor of Spear’s, and I got the distinct impression that she was thrilled for once not to have to counter the arguments of the anti-fur brigade. I daresay she wanted to explain how those cuddly little animals actually want to leap into traps or succumb to the culler’s bludgeon, so eager are they to meet their end and be made into fur coats.
When you think about it, ending a life is never a cheery thing, and yet those of us who eat meat or fish, wear leather shoes, carry leather luggage or use crocodile watch straps and wallets and so forth are of course participants in, or accessories after, a death. But fur is particularly emotive: as one of fashion’s flashpoints, the wearing of the pelts of small and not so small animals is right up with there with size-zero models and heroin chic. But there’s fur and there’s fur, and at least as far as men are concerned the use of fur in clothing is enjoying new respectability.
Of course, there’ll always be statement fur. The stereotypically ghetto fabulous variety as sported by Denzel Washington in American Gangster springs to mind, but these days chinchilla-lined bathrobe bling has given way to an altogether more subdued and, it might even be said, practical use of fur in top-end menswear.
There are a few factors that appear to have brought fur back into use. The first is the obvious one of the climate. Harsh winters with heavy snowfall have returned, the continent being plunged into chaos at the end of 2010, as was much of the eastern United States. Then there’s the appetite for luxury at the very top of the market, with men more open to precious raw materials. Other factors are the purchasing power of China, where one estimate puts consumption of fur at two-thirds of global production, and the former Soviet Union, where there’s a tradition of men in fur.
Then there are some great artisans and designers. Henri-Georges Zaks is the founder of Seraphin, a niche brand that has built a name as a designer and maker of high-quality leather garments for men. From his ateliers in Paris, Zaks has earned a reputation for innovation and excellence both as a maker for other brands and under his own label — he’s a genius.
Zaks delights in creating garments that completely conceal the fur from anyone but the wearers. A typical example is the use of highly durable goatskin suede from Afghanistan that has been tanned to be used as shoe leather, to make a blouson that he will then line with long-haired variegated opossum; it’s a little like using Hermès scarves to line your suits.
I FIRST CAME across Zaks thanks to the late Joseph Ettedgui. Joe was a great retailer and one of the men who shaped the tastes of chic modern London. I still wear one of the shearling coats Zaks made for Joseph when he had Connolly: it’s based upon the traditional overalls of New York’s meatpacking district, and whereas sheepskins tend to be voluminous and heavy, this is light, warm and preternaturally soft, almost as soft as shaved mink.
Shaved mink is in much demand at Zilli, but again as a lining rather than a statement. Zilli is based in Lyon and is run by the charming Schimel family, some of the most civilised people I have met in the fashion biz. Of course if you want, Zilli can whip you up a swaggering fur coat, but they prefer the sotto voce stylish use of fur for linings.
It’s practicality rather than ostentation that Alexandra Schimel, whose father founded the business over 40 years ago, wishes to emphasise. She regards lightness as crucial to modern man’s fur. Squirrel is one of the surprise lining choices suggested by Schimel for its lightness.
I am seduced by the Italian trend for fur-lined heavy-knit cashmere cardigans from the likes of Zegna, Canali and Ballantyne. But fur is not just a continental taste: British brand Alfred Dunhill is reviving the opulence of the beaver-lined overcoat. ‘Back at the beginning of the last century, Alfred Dunhill was making fur-lined coats for early motorists. We use fur to create a masculine look and feel. It’s not about bling, it’s about manliness,’ says CEO Christopher Colfer.
That said, it is interesting to see how ideas of manliness have changed. A few years ago I wrote a history of Alfred Dunhill and one of the pleasures was ransacking the archives and poring over old catalogues in which I found some gems. For instance, during the Edwardian era Dunhill offered a white sealskin motoring coat with a raccoon collar and a near floor-length coat of Siberian wolfskin. While it was deemed perfect for the automotively inclined Edwardian gentleman, it’s the sort of thing that might have proved even a little de trop for the wardrobe department of American Gangster.
Nick Foulkes is a contributing editor at Spear’s