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Animal-Friendly Accessories
Jeanine Poggi 09.16.08

Each year, animal lovers from the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals descend upon the tents erected at Bryant Park for New York Fashion Week to protest the use of animal fur in designers' collections.

Most years, designers ignore the protesters. Sure enough, the fall runway was filled with real fur cuffs, collars and animal-skin bags by designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs and Oscar de la Renta.

But for spring, some designers are starting to listen to the protesters--and even work with them. With new fabrics that are indistinguishable from animal products, there is now an abundance of luxury, cruelty-free alternatives available from the world's top fashion houses.

In Depth: Animal-Friendly Accessories

Calvin Klein, Stella McCartney, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Betsy Johnson are among the handful of designers who have pledged not to use real fur in their collections. Max Azria and Cole Haan have said they will discontinue the sale of fur by this fall.

Charlotte Ronson's spring runway show last week went a step further: It was sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States. Ronson, who committed to being a fur-free designer after attending the HSUS' 2007 "Cool vs. Cruel" awards ceremony, incorporated the HSUS "No Fur" buttons into her show and hands them out for free at her SoHo store.

The downside? Faux doesn't necessarily mean wallet-friendly.

This season, McCartney, the queen of cruelty-free fashion, is featuring several inventive alternatives to fur and leather, such as her over-sized faux leather tote. Cruelty-free, yes; cheap, no. It retails at $1,295.

Other top designers with a commitment to cruelty-free products include Miu Miu, Ports 1961, Marc Bouwer and Sheila Frank.

Vegan For Less
There are some new entrants to the market at mid-range prices, though. Actress Natalie Portman, a practicing vegan, teamed up with specialty footwear brand Te Casan to create a cruelty-free line of shoes since she was having trouble finding fashionable vegan apparel and accessories. The collection, which includes peep-toe pumps, ballet flats and wedges, ranges from $185 to $495, with some of the proceeds donated to charity.

"The vegan lines that exist right now are either low-end, on the casual side or very high-end and extremely fashion-forward," says Yaniv Shirazi, president of Te Casan. "There has been a void in the marketplace at our price point and lack of classic styling in vegan footwear."

Helping designers make the leap from animal products, while remaining fashionable, are recent technological advancements of synthetic materials, which have made faux fur and animal skin practically indistinguishable from the real thing, says Jayne Mountford, vice president of trend reporting at Stylesight, a trend forecasting firm. New simulation techniques have been developed that are able to replicate mink, otter and beaver, for example, by blending polymers with other natural fibers like silk, wool and mohair.

"Polyurethane fibers from Italy look exactly the same as the original, and the only way to really tell the difference is by scratching the surface with your fingernail," Mountford says.

The fibers that make the bed of fabric are softer to the touch than they once were, the bags have a lighter weight and you don't sweat as much wearing faux fur, says Vasilios Christofilakos, a professor in the Accessories Design Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Faux fibers often cost less to make, but the designer name attached to the items is what drives up the prices.

Big Interest, Small Market
Unfortunately, the fashion industry still has a long way to go when it comes to embracing synthetics. While the mass market has embraced faux skins and furs (consumers at the mass-market level are buying these items and often don't know the items are fake unless they read the fine print, Mountford says), at the high-end, many consumers are still demanding the real thing, which has kept the fur industry booming.

Do buy fake fur or real? Why? Weigh in. Add your thoughts in the Reader Comments section below.

Sales of fur clothing worldwide increased 11% in 2007 to $15 billion, according to the International Fur Trade Federation. The industry's nine straight years of growth is expected to continue this year. And designers like fur's versatility.

"Designers can do anything with real fur, such as imitate textile fabrics by changing the color and pattern," Christofilakos says.

But with shoppers becoming more concerned about the environment and the ethical treatment of animals, Mountford thinks the movement toward using alternatives in the luxury market is right around the corner.

"This ecologically friendly niche market is growing, and it's only a matter of time before the high-end sector of the industry catches on," she says.

In Depth: Animal-Friendly Accessories

Courtesy of Charlotte Ronson

Charlotte Ronson

For the past two seasons, Charlotte Ronson's runway shows have been sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Ronson, who committed to being a fur-free designer after attending the HSUS' 2007 "Cool vs. Cruel" awards ceremony, incorporates the HSUS "No Fur" buttons into her show and hands them out for free at her SoHo store.

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