On a visit to Fifth Avenue's chic Henri Bendel department store last week, Pietra Jones caressed a spiky, oval-shaped hat made from fox, dyed lilac and purple. "I love fur!" purred Jones, 26, unconcerned about the process that turns living creatures into fashion accessories. "My sister is totally into PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] and she reams me out every time I buy fur, but I can't stop myself. I know it's un-PC, but when I shop I really separate myself from thinking about the animal."
It's an attitude more and more people seem to be adopting. A decade after protesters stormed Calvin Klein's office and used red paint to write KILLS ANIMALS under his logo, fur is baaack. Thanks to hip-hop stars like Sean Combs and Foxy Brown, animal pelts have migrated from high society to youth culture, joining jewel-encrusted bike chains and 24-inch "spinner" rims as essential status symbols for the bling-bling set. And you don't have to drive your Hummer to Rodeo Drive to get a piece: Express, a fixture at malls nationwide, sells baby pink rabbit ear muffs for $32. "For me, wearing fur is old-school glamour," says Brown, who launched a line last month. "It's also versatile because it can be classic or funky."
Fur is also, of course, controversial. Back in the early 1990s, no red-carpet affair seemed complete without a paint-hurling protester redesigning a celeb's sable coat. But for twentysomethings who are too young to remember Joan Rivers's getting doused on her way to the opera, fur has little stigma. Not surprisingly, the fur industry is overjoyed. "So many of PETA's campaigns incensed people--urging kids to drink beer, not milk--people have decided it's time to make up their own minds," says Keith Kaplan of the Fur Information Council of America. PETA spokesman Dan Mathews blames the media for hiding the truth about fur production. "We live in such an escapist society that they don't even let you [air] ads that show graphic footage of animals' being killed or electrocuted on fur farms," says Mathews.
Although fur sales peaked along with Alexis Carrington's shoulder pads in the late 1980s, they fell drastically in the early 1990s. Since 1999, sales have climbed steadily, reaching a record $1.8 billion in 2003, and are expected to be even higher this year. Much of that revenue will come not from high-end couture, but from lower-priced accessories, like BCBG's $178 rabbit poncho and Coach's $400 coyote-trimmed duffle bag. "In the 1980s, you had coats, jackets, stoles, and that's about it," says Timothy Gunn, head of fashion at Parsons School of Design. "Now, you can find fur almost anywhere. It's affordable to more people, and that makes a huge difference."
Not everyone is blase about wearing this season's berry-colored rabbit shrugs. Some, like Amanda Harding, still think fur equals murder. Harding, 30, was shocked while shopping in New York last week to hear a 25-year-old fashion buyer touting the merits of fur. "Fake fur keeps you just as warm, looks the same and costs less," says Harding. Next, PETA launches a new antifur billboard, featuring Charlize Theron and her dog. As the fur continues to fly off shelves, it remains to be seen if the paint will fly again, too.