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Fur better or fur worse

April 18, 2011

After years of decline, the German fur trade is bouncing back. Despite animal rights protests and rising raw material prices, fur appears to be making a comeback on European catwalks.

A rack of fur coats
Fur is making a comeback in fashion circlesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

After decades of replacing genuine fur with faux replicas, many fashion labels appear to be embracing the controversial material once again.

Accessories such as fur boots, fur handbags and even fur glasses have all found their way into the 2011/2012 collections of designers such as Givenchy and Armani. That's welcome news for the German fur industry.

"When I look at In Style or Vogue, in the last few years there has been more and more fur," said Guido Adrian, owner of Pelz Adrian, a luxury garment maker in Cologne.

Models wearing fur at Berlin fashion week in January
The catwalks were lined with fur at Berlin Fashion WeekImage: picture alliance/dpa

"There's hardly a pair of shoes, stilettos, boots on the catwalk which don't have some sort of fur material - it's very fashionable at the moment," he added.

Revenue up

The global fur industry is worth an estimated 10.5 billion euros annually. Recent figures from the German Fur Institute show that Germany racked up revenues of just over one billion euros in 2010, up 4.5 percent from last year.

If fur remains designers' material of choice, the market looks set to grow and grow.

But the future hasn’t always looked so positive for the German fur industry. The embattled trade faced a series of challenges in previous decades.

In the 1960s, when post-war Germany was thriving, many people considered fur garments a must-have status symbol. But that changed with the emergence of a strong anti-fur animal rights movement in the 1980s.

Anti-fur campaigns

Animal welfare groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) gradually collected a host of celebrity backers who featured in anti-fur advertising campaigns.

Animal rights abuses in the fur industry gradually came to light. As recently as 2007, the EU was forced to make a high-profile ruling against the import of cat and dog fur from China, which had allegedly reached the European market.

Although the German fur industry insists that the fur it uses is mostly sourced in Scandinavia from animals kept in good conditions, graphic video footage from Chinese fur farms undoubtedly turned many consumers against the industry.

A blue mink is seen inside a cage at a mink farm in Harbin, China
Anti-fur activists complain that mink farms are unethicalImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The anti-fur movement still enjoys considerable support in Germany. In March, the streets of Frankfurt were filled with hundreds of animal rights activists chanting "fur is murder" as they marched past shops known to stock real fur.

"We have to go on the streets to make them see what's wrong because this cruelty has to end and it has to end now, not tomorrow," said Lynne Keller, an organizer of the event.

"You can wear beautiful clothes without real fur so it's not necessary at all," she added.

Competition from China

While animal welfare groups have struck a chord with many consumers in Germany, the market for fur clothing and accessories in Asia, and China in particular, is growing.

That may sound like good news for German furriers looking to export their wares, but there are considerable snags.

Fur coats hanging on a rack
German businesses mostly deal with fur garments which were made in ChinaImage: RIA Novosti

Increasing demand in Asia means fur traders have seen the price of raw furs double over the past two years. There has also been a boom in the number of Chinese manufacturers competing to serve the domestic and regional markets.

Labor costs are lower in China, meaning that over the last 20 years, many German fur manufacturers have chosen to move production abroad or have simply given up.

Fewer German workshops

In Frankfurt, the historic center of the German fur trade, the effects of this are striking. Streets like Niddastrasse, which was once filled with workshops producing fur garments, now host banks and other stores instead.

"Twenty years ago we had about 2,000 workshops in the Frankfurt area," said Mathias Zeidler, one of only a few fur dealers still working on Niddastrasse. "And today we have about one, maybe two percent left."

The Zeidler family, which has worked in the fur industry since the 1930s, has given up manufacturing and now only deals in garments produced in China.

"We had our own workshops and we produced in Frankfurt and we did the things by ourselves. We had employees, we had everything, but today I'm all alone. Today we are just dealers," said Zeidler.

Luxury still sought after

Others in Germany, however, have been able to find a niche in the growing market by focusing on quality and an eye for fashion trends.

Cologne-based Pelz Adrian is one of the few fur companies that still operates a workshop in Germany. It has survived competition from China by creating a custom-made product that mass producers can't replicate.

Master furrier, Kai Theurech organising mink in a workshop in Cologne.
Mink are organized by colour to create a unique patternImage: DW

"You have to study for three years to be able to do this job," said Kai Theurech, a master furrier at Pelz Adrian.

"In China, they use cheaper material, which is of a lower quality, and they don't have our level of workmanship," he added.

Creating handmade luxury garments has been key to Pelz Adrian's survival. But equally important was its awareness of developments at major fashion houses.

"Many shops closed because they didn’t move with the times and weren't fashionable enough," said Guido Adrian, the owner of Pelz Adrian.

"You can't just rely on the older customers who at some point aren't going to be around. You have to stay fashionable, and many shops didn’t realize that," he added.

Author: Charlotte Chelsom-Pill
Editor: Sam Edmonds