SENDING A MESSAGE: Members of PETA sit in a cage in front of a fur exhibition… (Mike Clarke / AFP / Getty…)
Somehow you don't expect to read the phrase "throwing kittens on barbecue grills" in an e-mail exchange with Pamela Anderson.
But there it was on the screen during an electronic conversation about her longstanding involvement with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, an organization that's at least as well known for its strategies as its causes. Whether it's splashing Vogue editor Anna Wintour and other fur supporters with blood-colored red paint or enlisting stars to bare all in glossy advertising, the group has been enormously successful, if incredibly polarizing, in garnering support — and gathering enemies.
This year, PETA celebrates its 30-year anniversary, and with it, many animal rights victories the Virginia-based nonprofit believes it's had a hand in winning. U.S. mink imports were down 30% in 2009 versus 2008, according to the fur trade journal Sandy Parker Reports. Demand for the alligator and crocodile hides used in handbags and boots dipped 40% worldwide from the first quarter of 2008 to the same quarter of 2009, according to the Associated Press. Late last year, the New York Times reported that the U.S. alligator farming business is tanking.
Numerous retailers, including H&M and Overstock.com, have stopped selling exotic skins, such as snake, lizard and ostrich. And designers such as Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger have all pledged to stop using fur in their jackets, boots and handbags.
But what's truly attributable to PETA and what's merely the result of a dormant economy, the cyclical nature of fashion or other cultural factors, such as the ever-growing green movement, is a matter of debate.
"PETA's done a remarkable job of making itself known," said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn., adding that PETA has not only "made faux fashion OK," but caused celebrity stylists to think twice about putting their clients in fur, lest they be photographed and targeted for their insensitivity.
But the change of attitude toward fake furs also coincided with the democratization of fashion, Metchek said.
"It happened with the onslaught of H&M and Forever 21 and Topshop and Mango, where you can be fashionable at any price," she said. "It takes money to wear fur. There is a lot less fur at the lower levels."
Still, there were some animal-derived products, prompting PETA to pursue, and recently win policy changes from, Stockholm-based H&M, L.A.-based chain Forever 21 and the Internet retailer Overstock.com. Overstock, which generates annual sales of more than $834 million and, at the prompting of the U.S. Humane Society in 2008, stopped selling fur, and H&M, which has 1,800 locations worldwide, are no longer selling items made from real exotic animal skins, such as snake, alligator, crocodile, kangaroo, shark and stingray. Both retailers cited a PETA video showing snakes being skinned alive as a factor in their policy changes. Forever 21, having been pelted by a major PETA anti-fur campaign, now sells only faux.
Some industry observers say technology has played a role in the declining use of animal skins and fur.
"There's more great faux leathers and furs than ever," said Janine Blain, vice president of L.A.-based retail trend consulting firm Directives West, noting the increase in retailers' willingness to take on fakes has come on strong in the last year. "Stores are more than ever open to buying fake furs because the products look very, very good. In the past, there was never that variety," added Blain, who attributes the rise of fake furs and leathers to "an economy where people don't want to spend a lot of money. It's all about value right now. Obviously, [real] leather and fur can be cost prohibitive."
Furs, in particular, are the domain of the wealthy — and the fabulous. In other words, celebrities, whom PETA has pursued with a vengeance for the last several years, beginning with "Golden Girls" star Rue McClanahan in the '80s and continuing today with stars such as Pamela Anderson, Charlize Theron, Khloe Kardashian and Eva Mendes, all of whom have posed in PETA's ongoing, bare-it-all ad campaign, "I'd rather go naked than wear fur."
"PETA isn't going to the Roseanne Barrs of the world," said Nick Nanton, who runs the Florida-based website celebritybrandingagency.com. "They're going to people who set trends. You've seen them in US Weekly showing you what to wear before. Now they're going to show you what not to wear.
"Fur has always been associated with glamour and sexiness, so the closer you can get to glamour and sexiness and show people, 'Hey, you can be sexy without fur,' that's the most successful pairing."