LOS ANGELES — A funny thing happened on the way to the fur salon: The fur was forgotten. Designers instead turned to polymer chemists for a substitute that could please fur-coveting consumers and possibly assuage a few concerns of animal rights activists. This fall, some of the most eye-catching jackets and accessories incorporate realistic fake fur or are made from other materials with textures reminiscent of fur.
"It's really about the tactile nature of the season," says Colleen Sherin, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, speaking about the fall trend. "We're even seeing things happening in knitwear where the yarn is cut specifically for a furry effect."
Stores and online sites, including high-end designer brands and mass-market retailers, are full of garments with materials that look like mink, cheetah or beaver.
Even at the high end, fake fur is being used widely by designers who note the improved quality and realistic nature of materials coming from Europe and Japan. These imported materials allow for more versatility in design, not to mention lower costs compared with real fur.
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The trend has been bubbling up for a couple of years.
It's increasingly difficult to tell the difference between real and fake, says Dan Mathews, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has opposed the killing of animals and manufacture of fur in high-profile campaigns for many years.
Mathews cites a major spike in fake fur sales over the last several years and says that fewer celebrities are choosing to wear real fur as more high-end designers offer garments made from synthetic material. Still, he is concerned that the look and feel of the new realistic fakes could perpetuate people's desire for the real thing.
Consumers will encounter the high-faux look on items including boots, bags, coats and vests. At the wholesale level, sales of fake fur reached $250 million in the United States last year and those sales are expected to increase by 30 percent over the next two years, according to Pell Research, a Washington, D.C., firm that identifies new markets and trends for major companies.
"The fur trend in the U.S. is toward fake," says Amy Lechner, an analyst with Pell Research. "The stigma of fake fur is rapidly decreasing."
Indeed, fake fur used to be known for its cheap, matted quality, but today designers are seeing it as a desirable fabric, a category unto itself not solely meant to mimic real fur.
"It's all about a fashion statement and creating a look, just like you would with any other fabric," says designer Dennis Basso, who works with real fur in his ready-to-wear line, but also creates a robust faux fur collection for his Dennis by Dennis Basso Collection for QVC.
"You're able to do some things with faux fur you can't do with real fur. Like, you would never make something in real leopard or cheetah. Women will buy something in faux not just for how realistic it seems but because of the look and design. It was originally made to imitate fur, but today it stands on its own."
Faux fur vests and accessories have been bestsellers on HSN, according to the direct response retailer's fashion director, Lauren Wilner.
"Vests do really well, as do cropped jackets," she says. "Leopard is the biggest seller. Actually leopard print across the board is really great for us."
Judging by the wide array of fake fur items hitting stores for fall, this season faux is the real deal.
The fur flies, and no animals are harmed
The stigma once attached to fake fur — it had a reputation as being thick, matted and sticky — has mostly diminished. In fact, the material has evolved into something that looks and feels rather luxurious.
Generally, fake fur starts with the manufacture of synthetic fibers that are then sewn onto a polyester backing. This process is fairly consistent throughout the whole industry, and the quality of the fibers makes the biggest difference in look and feel.
Tiger J design director Guillaume Poupart says there are two main characteristics of high-quality fake fur: softness and resilience (meaning the fibers bounce back to their original form after being touched). In addition, a higher density of fibers is usually equated with a higher quality.
"It gives faux fur a more realistic look and adds to the softness," says Poupart, who acknowledges that there can be too much of a good thing — too many fibers per square inch can produce an unpleasantly stiff garment.
Machines are used to give the material the look of, say, cheetah or mink. Material is sheared to make fibers the right length, and heat is often applied to the faux fur to coax it to lie in a certain direction (similar to the way a blow dryer works on hair). Dying helps to achieve a realistic look and sometimes involves seven or eight layers of color. Brushing is the final step in the process, adding the softness most people expect of fur — faux or real.