NEW YORK — There may be no item of clothing quite as controversial as the fur.
And yet fur is everywhere this season, in ways that designers hope will take some of the edge away from its usual critics.
Some top labels, including Chanel and Nina Ricci, put faux fur on the runway that was indistinguishable even by trained eyes from the real thing. Accessory brand Be & D uses rabbit fur and lamb shearling that are byproducts of the meat industry.
The comeback has less to do with newly humane treatment than with the return of luxury. If animal rights activists with cans of red paint grabbed the headlines, it was the recession that dealt fur a knockout blow.
"There is a comeback of fur as there is an acceptance of luxury again," says Gilles Mendel of J. Mendel, a brand with fur in its DNA. "After the difficult years in retail, the economy and the world of fashion, now people want to think about luxury that is precious and offers longevity."
When consumerism was all the rage a few years ago, fur made a splash as head-to-toe outfits, sometimes dyed in bright neon colors – not exactly a practical look. There was a fast 180-degree turn when the economy tanked as shoppers, even in the designer market, couldn't afford pricey fur – or at least didn't want to look like they could.
Now, fashion is aiming for a balance, positioning fur as a versatile item that will outlast a fancy handbag or sequined top while playing up softness and warmth.
It's being used as trim on bags and boots, the lining of a hood or the fabric of a dress that is light as silk. It pairs with jeans as well as an evening gown. There's a craftsmanship to fur that makes it a worthwhile investment, Mendel says.
"The beauty about fur – fake or real – is that it can glam up anything. If you have a little cardigan that's sitting in your closet, a little fur trim can make it special. The gray coat that needs sprucing up? Adding a fur collar is great alternative to buying a new one," says Marie Claire fashion director Nina Garcia, author of "Nina Garcia's Look Book: What to Wear for Every Occasion."
For Adam Roberts, executive vice president of the animal advocacy nonprofit Born Free USA, claims of fur only as a byproduct seem farfetched. "I think a lot of shoppers want to justify their choices. They want to feel better about buying one product instead of looking at the industry holistically," Roberts says.
It seems, he says, that there couldn't possibly be enough rabbit eaten in the U.S. to meet the fashion industry's demand, making him skeptical of claims of more ethical fur.
And the use of faux fur could fuel the market for real fur – even inadvertently. "If people see it, they want it – and that increases demand, and then more people will want it and it becomes a trend. Anytime fur is available, no matter what the source, demand will increase," Roberts says.
This go-around of fur started in street fashion, not in couture boutiques, says footwear designer Stuart Weitzman, whose fur-inspired boots have been his best-sellers this fall. He notes, though, that many of his "fur" looks are really sheepskin made to look like mink or chinchilla.
Advancements in the tanning processes allow for the use of "a throwaway material" such as sheepskin to be recreated as a fur substitute, Weitzman explains.
Animal fur, however, has a practical side – its warmth – and continues to be popular, says Dani Reiss, CEO of outerwear brand Canada Goose. Canada Goose's fur-trimmed jackets, made of coyote fur, are worn by researchers and adventurers in the Arctic, but they're also selling well in fashionable cities.
Coyote fur doesn't freeze and, in Canada, coyote is readily available, Reiss says. "The fur ruff on our hood is very functional. Our use of fur goes back to the reason why people in northern Canada always made product out of fur: It keeps wind out of your face."
Steve Dumain, Be & D's founder and creative director, says he particularly likes the look of fur trim when it plays off rugged leather – something like a hiking boot or boho bag.
"I feel like fur really goes back to protectivewear," he says. "When you are talking about fall and winter, fur protects you from the cold, and the whole `hunter and gatherer' thing seems right for the season, and it can look modern and edgy."
This season, instead of a thick, cozy coat – a coveted status symbol for generations – the fashion trend is toward knit or tightly sheared furs, or just a puff of fur on accessories. It's a marriage of sportswear and sophistication that caters to modern day-to-night, workwear-to-weekend wardrobes.
Sasha Iglehart, deputy fashion director at Glamour, says economics is still a factor, and that is now seen as a plus for fur.
"I think there are two issues, maybe you're going to splurge and get something super-chic and warm, and then fur can be the one thing you buy," she says. "Or, you figure you can wear a fur jacket over jeans or a dress so you'll get a lot of use out of it."
Wearing fur is a personal choice, but whether you prefer faux or real fur, it's a fashionable way to stay warm, she says.
"Last year, when it was so bitter cold, you saw everyone with fur trapper hats on. It was really fun to see people taking care of themselves and being warm for a minute," she says. "For a huge part of the country, winter is something people have to live with for a long time and fur makes it better."