Did it hit a peak last July at the Paris couture shows? Who can say? But even Giorgio Armani threw his sedate reputation out the window when he showed a fuchsia crocodile jacket, and on the runways this fall, the taste for exotic fur ballooned to gorilla-coat proportions. And as recently as Tuesday, Burberry invited customers into its Beverly Hills store to get their favorite handbag made to measure in anaconda or python.
Forget mink. Forget leather. How ordinary. Kangaroo, shagreen stingray and lippi cat are the talk of the town. Exotic furs and skins are getting ever more exotic. Conspicuous isn't nearly conspicuous enough.
The unspoken irony is that we're seeing this trend at all. As the rest of the world turns green and conscience-driven, the continued appeal of fur and skins in fashion circles defies popular expectations. Clearly a spin is on -- indeed, some argue that fur farming has made fur a renewable resource -- and all boundaries have blurred.
Today we have models who love fur, models who disdain fur -- and models who used to disdain fur. We have companies that market their furlessness and companies that are happy to let the fur fly. We have designers "bored with fur" (vide Miuccia Prada in Milan last spring) and designers who dream rhapsodically of the day when "fur becomes democratic and . . . young people approach it without remorse" (that being Simonetta Ravizza, also in Milan).
Even the protest strategies have morphed. PETA, that perennial banner carrier for the ethical treatment of animals, has eschewed the paintball strategies of old and now specializes in a theater of protest more fitting for the runway than the street. For their part, designers seem more shrill, evasive and intransigent.
Just listen to Julien Macdonald, the Welsh designer who never saw a fur he didn't like. "I think the fashion industry is proud of me for doing something that I believe in," he told British newspaper the Independent last year. "There is hardly anyone like me, really. . . . There are hardly any really glamorous labels out there."
What is clear is that what was once discreet, perhaps a trifle guilty, is now extravagantly visible. There are knitted furs, sewn furs, dyed furs and shorn furs, faux furs, "ecological furs" (tell that to the poor rabbits) -- and as always, there are the skins of reptiles whose champions are hard to find. As fashion veers toward the glam and shaggy-beast look, the taste for exotics shows no sign of slowing. So how to explain this?
Ask Dan Matthews, PETA's veep, and you'll think you've revisited a class in Marxist dialectics. "There will always be insecure rich people desperate for the world to see how rich they are," he says.
Ask the industry -- Neiman Marcus and Fendi, for instance -- and your calls go unanswered. Ask Giorgio Armani and the e-mailed reply is terse -- "We use very little furs and exotic skins in our collections and do not therefore have any comment on respective trends" -- even as the fall/winter collection features sharkskin boots, crocodile shoes, a snakeskin belt and a stingray briefcase.
For the rest of us, however, the appeal is elementary: Furs and skins belong to the id. Brush your hand through mink and feel the primal, perhaps even instinctual chords, be they appreciation or dominance, no matter. Few treatments of apparel come loaded with such lush beauty, latent intent and hidden meaning. Rub your fingers on python, and lose yourself in a world of colliding pleasures, appealingly sensual and suggestively wild. Add an element of retro-opulence and you might assuage any vestige of guilt with the power of precedent (and the bonus of adding a potential heirloom to your collection).
Beyond the visceral appeal, there is also the element of danger, which in the case of exotics often is the music to which designers, celebrity models and consumers willingly dance. The line between "shocked and appalled" and "fashionable and stylish" is thin, sometimes disappearing in a matter of months as a trend slowly emerges. And wherever a trend goes, buyers will follow.
"The products can't be decadent enough," says Christine Plott Redd, director of sales at American Tanning and Leather Co., who has seen the appetite for exotics pick up in the last four years. The Georgia-based distributor of high-end leathers such as Nile crocodile, American alligator and porosus crocodile to Proenza Schouler and J. Mendel, among others, has charted a 37% increase in sales of alligator and a 102% increase in crocodile between 2004 and 2007.
"They want more and more: bigger diamonds, more lush furs," Redd says. "They don't want regular calfskin; they want lizard, they want alligator, they want ostrich. They want these high-end items, and designers sell out of them."
So when will enough be enough? Best to abandon the fashion police and call in a monitor of popular culture.