The Devil Wears Fur (and Prada): Documentary ‘Skin Trade’ Exposes the Truth about Fur in the Fashion Industry

L-R: Sharon Stone, Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen, Mary J. Blige

The exquisite Chanel jackets…the lush Prada bags…the sexy Jimmy Choo shoes…I love watching the movie The Devil Wears Prada; getting lost in the eye candy whirlwind of NYC and high fashion.  Like many people, flipping through the glossy pages of fashion magazines excites yet soothes me; it’s escapist fun.  But I also know that there’s a darker side to fashion…fur.  So I was eager to see the new film Skin Trade, a documentary that confronts the controversial topic of fur in the fashion industry.  But I was also apprehensive as I’ve seen the horrific footage out there regarding animal cruelty.  So I steeled myself; ready to plunge into the activist world.

The film chronicles the fur industry from animals’ capture, the inhumane treatment of animals on fur farms, the making of fur, its role in fashion and myths in the fur industry.  Actors, musicians, fashion designers, writers and activists like Ingrid Newkirk, Ed Begley, Jr, Martin Sheen, James Cromwell, Rikki Rockett, Alexandra Paul, Dan Piraro, Jorja Fox, Todd Oldham and Rory Freedman lend their voices and viewpoints on fur to the film.

Director and co-writer Shannon Keith spoke with the Elephant Journal about her impetus for making the documentary:

“I wanted to make a film about an issue that is winnable for us. If we can end the fur trade, it will be one big step towards ending animal cruelty. No one can argue there’s any good reason for fur.”

Cindy Crawford wearing fur on cover of Russian Vogue

I completely agree with Keith, as do many animal lovers, that there’s no need for fur.  However, some consumers proudly wear fur coats and fur-trimmed clothing.  If you pick up a copy of Vogue magazine, you see fur dominating the fashion world.  So designers must be behind the fur fad, right? Not quite.  Jessica Szabo, a pet columnist, author and former fashion journalist, states in the film,

“Everyone naturally assumes fashion designers are the ones who are dictating the trends and calling the shots in terms of what people wear.  But the reality is it’s the editors of the top fashion magazines who are doing this.  And that’s because they are having to put out month after month, a magazine, a book, images that are supposed to draw the reader in and want to make them be a part of the lifestyle portrayed…”

Some have deemed Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, “the most powerful woman in the U.S.” In the documentary The September Issue, Wintour said, “There’s always a way to wear fur.”  She has also said, “Vogue is there to report on the fashion industry. Fur is part of fashion and we will continue to report on it as long as that is the case.” But is it that cut and dry?  No.  The Cruella de Vil of fashion feigns that she bends to the will of the fashion gods.  But what she fails to acknowledge is that fashion and beauty editors like herself make the demands on designers, determining what images will grace the glossy covers and spreads.  Wintour decrees what designers will create.  As publisher Tom Florio said, “Nobody was wearing fur until Anna put it on the cover in the ‘90s.”

Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief at Vogue

Now of course designers share responsibility as they could choose not to use fur in their lines.  Mainstream designers like Stella McCartney, Mark Bouwer, Calvin Klein, Todd Oldham and Ralph Lauren do not use fur.  And some companies like have stopped selling fur or any fur products, turning away vendors who do sell fur.  This season, fashion powerhouses Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui all created faux fur collections for the Fall ’10 runway.  So if designers can create beautiful faux fur fashions, why do people still don fur?

Eva Langoria Parker in fur

Fur is a status symbol of excessive wealth, luxury, prestige and power.  Joshua Katcher of the vegan food and fashion website The Discerning Brute asserted, “Wearing the fur coat says you have power, literally over the animal.”  Rory Freedman, author of the vegan diet book Skinny Bitch said in the film,

“I think people are still wearing fur because they’re seeing these Hollywood types and celebrity types wearing them.  Unfortunately, our culture really looks to these people to set the tone.”

Freedman is right.  In our celeb-obsessed culture, we look to actors and musicians as to what’s hip and trendy.  And many celebs like Jennifer Lopez, Sharon Stone, Eva Longoria, Kanye West and the Olsen twins flaunt furs as a status symbol.  Yet many other celebs like Alicia Silverstone, Pam Anderson, Drew Barrymore, Alec Baldwin, Eva Mendes, Persia White and Pink protest the cruel and inhumane industry by posing for PETA’s ads such as the “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign.

Eva Mendes for PETA

But there are many myths surrounding the making of fur and treatment of the animals.  There’s no regulation in fur trades and inspectors don’t visit the farms to maintain humane treatment.  The Canadian Fur Council perpetrates the myth that fur is eco-friendly.  But the vast amounts of toxic chemicals in fur prevent decomposition, make it far from green.  As environmental attorney Jan Schlictmann, of A Civil Action fame, states in the film,

“Saying fur is green is like saying toxic sludge is good for you…There’s no way of getting around the fact, the process of tanning requires huge amounts of water and chemicals, metals, dyes, solvents, acids; there’s just no easy way to de-flesh these things, to de-fur to remove the furs from the skins.”

Anna Sui’s faux fur collection for Fall ’10

Another tactic of smoke and mirrors is the blatant mislabeling of fur origin.  Keith interviewed Representative Jim Moran (D-VA) regarding the legislative bill HR 2480 “Truth in Fur Labeling Act.” Many people buy faux fur thinking it’s a humane option.  Unfortunately, much of the faux fur out there trimmed on coats, vests, hats, etc. isn’t even fake at all.  Rather, it comes from dogs and cats in China where there are absolutely no animal regulations whatsoever (although there aren’t many here in the U.S. either).  But the kicker is that if an item is under $150, a company doesn’t have to label the fur ingredients.  So if you bought a winter coat under $150 with a faux fur trim, you probably bought something with real fur in it anyways.  The passage of HR 2480 would force companies to reveal the true origins of fur and faux fur.  Unfortunately, the bill was recently sent to a committee, which is the death knell of a bill.

What Skin Trade does well is in focusing on how the editors mandate fashion trends and the blatant lies in labeling.  I also like that Shannon Keith, the film’s vegan director, appears in the film.  Otherwise, it makes it seem as if an omnipotent force has created the film.  All film creators have bias; it’s nice to see what a documentary maker’s is upfront.  I also adored the sassy Joshua Katcher and his on-the-street candid conversations with women wearing fur which were not only informative in providing people’s perspectives who are pro-fur but also hilarious and provided much-needed levity.

Kanye West & girlfriend Amber Rose, both in fur

But I found the soundtrack (the 80s called and wanted their music back) and the cutesy animation sequences distracting.  It feels as if Keith wrangled up some of her friends and taped them.  Erik Mayer, a “historian” who appears in the film certainly doesn’t appear to be an expert as a quick Google search showed that he isn’t affiliated with any universities, think tanks, non-profits or advocacy groups.  Instead, he oversees an online magazine with courses and papers, none of which are footnoted, contain a bibliography or have an academic tone.  Keith could have turned to Eric Jay Dolin, PhD who just released his book Fur, Fortune and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America.  In the film, Mayer states that Ben Franklin started the fur coat craze by wearing a full length bear coat to France.  However, not to get technical but he actually wore a fur hat.  And women in France, at least the aristocracy, wore fur-lined clothing centuries earlier.  Small inaccuracies like this can derail an otherwise fantastic documentary.

Regardless, Keith’s vital and urgent message needs to be heard.  She told the website The Vegan Police,

“My thought was that if I could make a mainstream film with celebrity representatives, I just might be able to actually reach those who make the decisions in the fashion world, and change the face of fashion to a more compassionate one.”

Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel’s faux fur collection Fall ’10

If Keith wanted to change people’s minds about fur, I’m not sure this was the best route to traverse.  I keep thinking about the intended audience.  Who will watch who isn’t already an animal activist, a vegan or someone opposed to fur?  Will some of them even watch due to the graphic content?  The film depicts horrific clips of raccoons being slammed into the ground, foxes caught in traps, anal electrocution, animals’ necks breaking, clubbed seals and animals’ fur being peeled off their bodies.  The film is a deluge of nightmarish cruelty.  I had to keep stopping the film as it was almost unbearable to watch.

The horrific, gory and gut-wrenching scenes may never be viewed by those who actually need to see them: fur purchasers, fur salons, fashion designers or fashion editors.  However, we as consumers wield the power of purchase; to refuse to perpetuate this cycle of cruelty.  So ladies (and gents), the next time you see a fab coat in a boutique window or on a department store rack, just remember you don’t need to be an activist to purchase something else.  You’ll look even more fabulous without the fur.

12 thoughts on “The Devil Wears Fur (and Prada): Documentary ‘Skin Trade’ Exposes the Truth about Fur in the Fashion Industry

  1. Rikki Rockett?!!!

    I enjoy documentaries, regardless of the subject, but your description leads me to believe this might be a bit too graphic for my tastes.

    Honestly, it sounds like “Hostel” with animals cast, as the actors.

    I never understood the obsession with fur.
    You can get faux-fur that looks exactly the same, and is compassionate!
    I never realized it was still such a huge draw in the fashion industry, as i’d always considered it limited to “rich, old ladies.”
    Strange how times HAVEN’T changed in fashion circles.

    In closing, i just want to add that Eva Mendes has a really nice….
    (Well, look at the picture!)

    • if you were to watch the movie…you may have found out that “faux fur” you’re accually buying is 90% dog and cat…just don’t buy it at all..!

  2. @Julian, I could not agree with you more. I never understood the obsession with fur either. After the 80s, I thought we were over the fur fad too but sadly, no such luck. I just hope more designers become more compassionate and start making more faux fur clothing.

  3. It is appalling that the fur trade thrives, with celebrities continuing to glamorize such unnecessary cruelty. I’ve already seen enough fur horror videos on youtube that I can skip the documentary, though. I viewed one of a German shepherd, tail still hopefully wagging, being led to a fence to which its neck was then firmly attached, after which a man started skinning it from a rear leg, and another in which a bag of live cats is tossed into a vat of boiling water, among other almost unimaginable atrocities.

    BTW, I suspect those “raccoons” being slammed into the ground are actually raccoon dogs, a wild canid native to Asia. It was later introduced to Northern Europe specifically to boost the fur trade, and has done so well there as a species that it has become a “pest” in some areas, threatening native fauna as well as agricultural crops. Although they can be trapped or hunted, I believe the pelts are mostly taken from farmed, i.e. caged and bred animals.

    A bit of good news: the House recently passed the bill you mentioned, H.R.2480 – Truth in Fur Labeling Act of 2010, which would require ALL products containing fur to follow fur labeling requirements. It would also require the FTC to replace the term “Raccoon, Asiatic” with “Dog, Raccoon”. (I guess that means the bill’s authors think that people who are okay with wearing raccoon might have second thoughts about dressing up in dog fur.) Although the companion Senate bill S.1076 was referred to committee in 2009, it has continued to gather co-sponsors, with an encouraging 32 as of January. People, call your senators if they’re not among them!

  4. These stars in fur look almost as good as I do when I wear it! It is so glam. I disagree with the statement that Anna Wintour brought it back. People would wear what they want regardless of what she or you say about it. That’s part of freedom. Animal rights is a useless cause for borgeois types who are full of guilt and feel better about being so rotten towards people by getting involved in a worthless cause! I’ve seen a photo of Jon Katcher. He looks like a big rodent. He is gay but ignores gay rights ( a matter of life and death for gay people) yet sets himself up as a spokesperson for seals. Seals that will be eaten alive by polar bears regardless of what he does.

    I urge you to reconsider your movement trying to tell everyone what to do and get involved with something worthwhile. Animals in the wild are not cute little teddy bears. If this is a site by Chloe Jo Berman please don’t contact me as she is rancid and crazy. But from the way it was written, it appears it is written by someone sane.

  5. I just wanted to add that my comments were not meant to insult. I came by this site by chance. I wish you good luck being vegans and wearing synthetics that pollute the atmosphere when disposed of! Seriously. Good luck. You will never never stop people from eating meat, or wearing leather of fur. Never. The reaction of myself and my girlfriends to hearing someone was attacked when they wore fur would be just to buy more of it. Most of the ones commenting against another person’s wardrobe need a mirror anyway. In my opinion, many of the animal self appointed spokespeople are really the ones who are most cruel to animals: you hear about them having 70 cats living in filth. Just insane. Anyway, hope you allow my food for thought. I won’t look her again.

  6. I think Cathy’s disturbing posts show a few good points. 1) people don’t wear fur to dominate animals, they don’t care. 2) if fake fur were as good as you claim, we would not even know who was wearing the real thing. But we do above. 3) we can not claim to be good and decent people when we use someone like Alec Baldwin as an example of a good friend to our cause. He treats his very daughter in an abusive manner. And, you, a feminist!

    We can only walk the walk and show by our example how it is right to treat animals. The whole campaign against what other people ear or wear is something that nets no result and puts us in the same position as Hitler who told his girlfriend Eva Braun not to use cosmetics made from animals. I don’t walk by McDonalds and yell about people mis treating animals. I just don’t go there.

  7. @Gina, thank you SO much for your thoughtful and articulate comments! I truly appreciate you providing the link about the legislation. I used to intern at the MA State House and whenever a bill was sent to committee, it was usually the polite way of saying the bill was killed. So I’m delighted to hear that the bill’s passage is progressing.

    @Cathy, I appreciate diverse opinions and think it’s important to engage in dialogue. However, I’m unsure why you felt the need to attack those who are opposed to fur. I do not advocate dumping red paint or flour on fur coat wearers for I do not believe in destruction of property nor do I believe that it does any good in swaying opinions. As you yourself said, it just makes fur wearers more adamant that fur opponents are crazy nuts. Yet you fail to mention that most people who oppose fur are neither animal rights advocates nor vegans or vegetarians. Most people, at least in the U.S., acknowledge that fur is cruel.

    Yes, we do have freedom in the U.S. including freedom of speech, so people are entitled to their opinions no matter how ignorant they might be. However, it’s foolish to ignore that freedom and individuality are Western constructs and that we are all influenced even on a subconscious level by the media and pop culture. It doesn’t mean we are slaves to it, just that it affects us.

    Regarding synthetic furs polluting the environment, if you were actually concerned about pollution, you would not be wearing fur. As I stated in my article, fur is not eco-friendly; it contains toxic chemicals required to preserve the fur and remove it from the animal.

    On a final note, Joshua Katcher as you accurately state is gay. However, you are wrong to assume that he ignores gay rights as he has worked with the non-profit Gay Mens’ Health Crisis. Also, many people support myriad causes. I myself am a vegan feminist, choosing to support both animal rights and women’s rights.

    @Marc, I think you raise some very valid and interesting points. You’re absolutely right; many people who wear fur just don’t care. Also, to clarify, I personally do not condone Alec Baldwin’s misogynistic behavior towards his daughter. Rather, I was showing that there are celebs who do not support the cruelty of fur. As I wrote in a previous post on myths about vegans, I also do not support PETA’s sexist tactics to raise awareness for animal cruelty. I don’t believe you should slight one cause to support another.

    I think you’re also right that we need to lead by example. While I’m very passionate about my beliefs, I don’t go around telling people how they should live their lives.

  8. I think there is a larger issue many people overlook. The entire textiles industry represents 8% of international trade and the fact is, it needs an overhaul. In the Western world we have a mentality we want goods on mass at cheap prices. The ongoing repercussions of this are seen in the manufacturing countries where the farmers producing the textiles are forced to deal with our decision of buying that $6 tshirt from Target. Over 300 000 cotton farmers have committed suicide in India, often by drinking the pesticides they use in the production of the cotton – in the hope their families debt will be forgotten and they can start from scratch again. This is just one of the many facts involved in the production of textiles, I’m sure you’re all informed of the harmful and toxic pesticides used in the production of all non organic synthetic (faux fur?) and natural fibers, which by the way, often get into food and water sources killing humans and animals. We need to look at manufacturing and fair trade on a whole and not narrow it down simply to animal cruelty. It isn’t a matter of not buying fur, it’s a matter of finding a way to acquire the fur in an ethical manor. After all “The exquisite Chanel jackets…the lush Prada bags…the sexy Jimmy Choo shoes…” are all made of leather…it’s the same thing, produced differently.

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