When designer Marc Jacobs announced that he wanted to shear sable, the furriers he works with at Maximilian were aghast. Once the long guard hairs were removed, they told him, a $50,000 sable would look like any $20,000 mink. "Who cares?" Jacobs told them. "Just shear it."
Jacobs turned his sheared sable skins into skinny, lightweight coats cut as snugly as a sweater. He made velvety turtleneck sweaters out of black mole and offered shirt jackets in sheared burgundy mink.
"I abandon rules about fur because you can't treat fur in a young way if you're precious about it," said Jacobs, who is known in the fashion world for taking the expected and turning it inside out. "I have a reverse snobbism approach to fur. There's a high luxe factor to using sable, but to me it's almost more deluxe to not know it's sable than to know it is. You want to break down those images of what a fur coat is. I don't want to think about what becomes a legend most."
This less reverential approach toward furs is being echoed by a fresh crop of designers who are injecting a youthful spirit into a staid industry. While some designers are producing styles that may look like thrift-shop bargains to the average person, others are playing retro glamour to the hilt. They're evoking Lana Turner, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford and even Doris Day in slinky wraps, fur-trimmed evening gowns and entrance-making hats. And they're not shy about capturing the extravagance of Hollywood's golden era in white and pale blond furs and silver fox trim.
"The most exciting thing happening in the industry is the phenomenal increase in the number of designers creating fur fashions," said Sandy Blye, director of fashion promotions for the Fur Information Council of America, a trade association. In 1985, there were 42 designers working in fur. That number has jumped to 144 and includes names such as Michael Kors, Isaac Mizrahi, Byron Lars, Donna Karan and Victor Alfaro. "What's also important is that most of the new designers are young, so they're targeting the young consumer. They're all bringing a different sense of freshness and modern silhouettes to the industry," says Blye.
The new ideas are coming at a time when fur appears to be regaining both visibility and acceptance. With luxury and status goods from diamonds to designer belt buckles making a comeback, fur is also rebounding. According to the Fur Information Council, sales climbed 10 percent in 1995, to $1.2 billion. Although mink prices are at their highest in years -- furriers estimate that they've jumped 25 to 30 percent at retail -- that only seems to add to their cachet. In fact, the highest priced furs, particularly sable, are among the fastest sellers.
Giving furs an added boost is "The First Wives Club," the hit female buddy revenge movie starring Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton. "It's all fur," boasted Nick Pologeorgis, president of Pologeorgis Furs, which holds the fur license for Michael Kors and Zandra Rhodes. While that's something of an overstatement, the movie features at least a half dozen fur coats, ranging from a swingy sheared topper on Midler's middle-age housewife character to the pale blond knee-length fur on the trampy young mistress of her ex-husband.
Madonna, hardly a stranger to setting trends, should add further oomph to fur sales with the Christmas release of "Evita," which will feature her draped in stoles and coats specially made by Fendi.
Now that designers are treating furs as another fashion item, the trends mirror those in clothing. And designers like Jacobs and Kors don't stop at coats: They use flatter furs such as broadtail in sweaters, vests and skinny pants.
The predominant look in coats is long and lean. That's very long, as in maxi coats reminiscent of the '70s. Lighter-weight furs from sheared beaver to pony and Persian lamb minimize the bulk, and some of the sheared furs look as supple as velvet. Lean coats that just hit the knee are also gaining ground with younger designers. Military looks are prevalent and range from the obvious epaulets and brass buttons to the slim trench coat from Fendi or the icy pink pea coat from Jerry Sorbara.
Zandra Rhodes did safari coats with leather buttons in both short and long lengths. Designers also favored leather in military styles, adding fur accents or a reversible fur lining.
Sporty styles that aren't relegated to special occasions also remain important. Shearlings lend themselves well to more casual shapes in both long and short lengths. But sheared mink and beaver also work when they're turned into hooded duffel coats and anoraks. Byron Lars shaped dyed rabbit jackets close to the body to create a snow-bunny look.