In 1988, at the dawn of the age of anti-fur chic, I bought my first shearling coat. It was a black, collarless swing style made from featherweight Spanish pelts, and I got it wholesale for under $1,000. My husband called it a drug dealer coat because at that time in New York about the only people who dared to wear fur on the street were pimps and pushers, those menacing Superflys of the night who haunted the subways in platform shoes and mink dyed neon magenta and blue.
I didn't worry, though, about having red paint thrown on me by an animal rights crank yelling "fur hag!" Shearling didn't seem to register on the radar of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Once, while huddled in my shearling outside a Broadway theater, someone stuck an "I'm an asshole, I wear fur" sticker on the back of a mink-clad woman nearby, but ignored me. I suspect Anna Wintour would not have had a dead raccoon dumped on her plate at the Four Seasons one day in the 90s had she run pictures in Vogue only of shearling coats and not ones made of mink, ermine, sable, fox, lynx, and chinchilla .
Those skins make me queasy, too. Mink, especially, reminds me of small, cute animals. Also, it makes me look like a Mafia wife.
Of course, shearling is fur. It's made from the skin of a sheep or lamb shorn shortly before the creature is slaughtered. If I think about that...well, I'd rather not think about it. No one else in the fashion world is, either, it seems, because fur is back.
Actually, it's been back several times since 1988, most recently this month during Fashion Week in New York. Ruth la Ferla of the New York Times was among those who spotted the trend, noting in a blog on February 16, the monkey, fox, goat, and Mongolian lamb at shows by Preen, Alexander Wang, Diane Von Furstenberg, Thakoon and Ruffian.
These aren't dowdy furs like the ones in your mother's closet, or even Old Style glamour furs like those featured in the famous Blackgama "What Becomes a Legend Most?" ads of the 1970s for which celebrities from Audrey Hepburn to Martha Graham posed. These are hipster furs, edgy and fashion forward, worn with youthful insouciance by the likes of Beyonce Knowles, Kate Moss, and Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.
The new spotlight on fur might seem out of step with the horrific state of today's economy. But fashion -- "that intoxicating release from the banality of the world," as Diana Vreeland put it -- is all about the triumph of fantasy over reality. And what could be more fantastical than Thakoon Panichgul's bomber jacket furs in crayon yellow and purple and Donna Karan's long-haired shearling gauntlets, which look like they'd been ripped from the sleeves of a warrior in "The Lord of the Rings?"
There was a time, in the 90s, when Donna Karan, riding the wave of anti-fur frenzy, let her fur license lapse. Calvin Klein did, too, after PETA raided his New York office and spray painted "Kills Animals!" under Klein's name in the reception area.
The PETA police are not as active these days, though recently a few scrawled "fur hag" in red paint on the Hollywood Walk of Fame stars of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, a rather anemic gesture compared to their stunts of previous years.
Celebrities are returning to fur in droves, perhaps in fulfillment of their destinies as consumers of luxury goods. Even those who once fought flamboyantly against it, now joyously don fur. Cindy Crawford, for example, who posed in PETA's "Id rather go naked than wear fur" campaign, appeared on the cover of Russian Vogue in 2007 sporting a sumptuous coat, which according to one PETA blogger, looked like it was made from "an entire family of dead animals."
Fur never goes out of style in freezing Moscow. Nor in blustery Chicago, where I live today. Maybe, now that the city has real fashion influence thanks to Michelle Obama (who's been known to wear fur), we'll see women across the land in bold, floor length sables like the ones worn by a group of stunning Chicagoans who traveled with me recently on a plane to D.C. for the inauguration.
After I moved here with my family in 1991, I got more use out of my shearling than I did in milder New York. In fact, I wore it to death, and by 1998 it was starting to show its age. The prices of new ones in the department stores were outrageous -- $3,500 to $5,000 for anything of the quality of my New York coat. So I held off buying until August, when I drove three hours with a friend from my home on the near North Side to the Wisconsin State Fair, where I'd heard that shearling coats were available at deeply discounted prices. In the sheep pavilion, we found plenty of sheep, but no coats. "What did you expect from Wisconsin?" my friend snapped on the long ride home.
That fall, I bought a fitted gray shearling made from baby lamb skins with an unsheared Persian lamb collar, cuffs and hem for $400 at a discount store around the corner from my house. It looks like something Julie Christie might have worn in Dr. Zhivago, very feminine and romantic. Still, the sleeves are too tight to get it over a jacket or bulky sweater (probably the reason it was so inexpensive), and the pale color makes it impractical.
I've had my eye out for a more versatile coat for years, and during this storm tossed, brutally cold winter, my search grew hot. After the holidays, when everything was on sale - reduced 65 percent in some cases, I prowled the stores that sell fur on the luxury thoroughfare known as the Magnificent Mile -- Dennis Basso, Neiman Marcus, Saks, and Macy's. No luck. The shearlings had been picked over, and all that was left were generic, boxy styles.
As I searched the racks at Saks, the sales associate, a tall, angular woman with a severe bun and a European accent, studied my wool coat - noting its jaunty A-line shape, the dramatic, wide lapels, and the saucy leather belt. Not finding anything even remotely enticing, I started to walk out, when she shoved a mink in my face. "I see what kind of woman you are," she said in the tone of a headmistress delivering a good report card. "I know you'll love this."
The coat looked like black velvet, only richer, more ethereal. It was fitted to the waist, from where it flared gently; in character and personality, it reminded me of my beloved gray shearling. Actually, it was shirred mink, reduced from $16,500, but still steep at $5,775, the most understated, elegant fur I'd ever seen. I wondered why so many women walked around with vulgar, hairy skins on their backs, when coats like this existed.
I slipped it on, the first time ever I'd tried on a mink in a store. I couldn't believe how soft and light it felt, almost like wearing a silk kimono. It did not remind me of small, cute animals. Nor did it make me look like a Mafia wife. Had I been one, though, maybe I could have afforded it.