Style: Not Your Grandma's Mink

For fur lovers, the 1980s and 1990s were harsh years. Groups like PETA took to splashing ink on minks and parading hideous images of suffering animals outside fashion shows. The 1990s brought a wave of minimalism that forced many to put their pelts on layaway. But lately the controversial clothing has made a roaring comeback. For the fall/winter 2002 shows nearly all the major designers, from Gucci to Jean Paul Gaultier to Dolce & Gabbana, included fur in their collections. "We said, 'There is a phenomenon here,' and we noted it," says Carine Roitfeld, editor in chief of French Vogue, which devoted its September issue to the subject.

But the New Fur looks nothing like the old. Gone are the heavy, shapeless, ankle-length coats that could make a woman's knees buckle. Instead, designers rolled out a slew of hip, light and colorful creations at last spring's shows. Jean Paul Gaultier combined fur with jersey fabric in his "rolled pullover"--a cowl-necked top wrapped in mink spirals. For Fendi, Karl Lagerfeld unveiled a full cape of wild fur, draped over a silvery, see-through evening gown. For men, too, there was a surprising array of choices, including Dolce & Gabbana's fur-lined zip-up sweat shirt and a Martin Margiala bomber jacket ("It's very sportswear and less feminine than a cashmere coat," says Roitfeld), as well as numerous accessories, including thick fur scarves.

The trend was sparked by a series of innovations in fur production. New treatment and shearing techniques have allowed designers to leave garments unlined. Sheared mink, for instance, has a velvety feel and is light enough to be fitted to a silhouette--no more of that walking-rug look. Furriers are also experimenting anew with color, sculpting techniques--and even knitting. New York furrier Dennis Basso has created a collection of knitted garments and accessories that have a "whole sweaterlike quality." He's also designed contemporary reversible mink and broadtail coats (fur on one side, suede on the other) that resemble shearlings. Says Bridget Foley, executive editor of W and Women's Wear Daily, "Designers are increasingly using fur the way they might use silk or cashmere or any other fabric." They've also combined fur with other materials, like denim, corduroy and brocade. The new styles have helped bring down the average age of a fur customer to 35, from 48 just two years ago. Says Basso, "For women in their late 20s and 30s, fur is something totally new. And they're experiencing it in a completely new way."

Tip: Women should choose little jackets with a modern cut, or shearlings. Fur vests look great over chunky or fitted turtlenecks. Combine with jeans. For men, stick to simple designs or accessories, like fur-lined coats or chic hats. But even the longhair, ankle-length fur look can be pulled off, says Foley--as long as it's worn with bravado.