Beauty and the leash

Pet Fashion Week gives four-footed friends a chance to embrace style

August 27, 2006|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,[special to the sun]

In a trailer for the coming movie Running with Scissors, actress Jill Clayburgh is seen contentedly nibbling on dog treats like they're salted cashews. When questioned about her appetite for animal products, she shrugs off criticism, attributing it to narrow-mindedness.

A similar, topsy-turvy level of eccentricity - make that pet-centricity - was evident last weekend in New York City at the inaugural Pet Fashion Week, where exhibition booths at the Metropolitan Pavilion displayed the latest in pet accessories and products, including sunglasses, perfume and apparel ranging from silk and velvet dresses for females to "manly" styles in leather and Harris tweed.

Americans will spend an estimated $38.4 billion on their pets this year, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, based in Greenwich, Conn. While the APPMA doesn't break out numbers specifically for pet accessories, the estimated amount for grooming and boarding ($2.7 billion) gives some sense of the potential market at stake.

Pet Business magazine reports in this month's issue that there is a growing trend of making fashions for cats and even larger birds, but more than 90 percent of pet fashions are designed for dogs. Clearly, those willing to spring for a canine cashmere sweater or a pair of Poochey Shoos ("Designer Paw Wear") are now a dog's best friend.

Furry fashion

"It's unbelievable the number of requests we have for pet fashion," said Virginia Byrnes, co-owner of Dogma, a store in Canton. One of the thousands of buyers, manufacturers and designers in attendance at last weekend's trade show, Byrnes placed orders for down parkas and trench coats for dogs, among other items. "Things have really changed, even in the last two years. The overall look is becoming much more sophisticated."

Pet fashion, industry experts agree, used to be something of an oxymoron. Until quite recently, designs were either highly functional (rain ponchos, sturdy chain-link leashes), or extremely whimsical - such as tulle tutus worn by toy dog breeds. What's different now is that animal apparel is meant to be worn every day and coordinates with fashions worn by humans.

Are you a surfer dude? Then perhaps you'll want to outfit your mutt in CocoJor Hawaii, a Honolulu-based company that creates "Aloha-wear" in flowery, tropical-colored fabrics, with real coconut-wood buttons. Sports fans might prefer Sporty K9 of Austin, Texas, which makes doggie-sized dugout jackets for teams in Major League Baseball. "I'll have the Orioles by next spring, I promise," said the company's owner, Sharon Kelly.

Should your taste run more to nautical motifs, there's MHound, whose owner, Lynne Wieder, refers to the Newport, R.I., company as the "J. Crew of pet fashion," with hand-knit sweaters of cotton and Alpaca wool that sport anchors and American flags.

"Pet fashion is reflective of the owner's sense of style," said Jane Knittle, owner of A Pet's World in Manchester Center, Vt. One of Knittle's newest styles is a coat made of fleece in fuchsia and pale pink, with appliqued flowers. "It is perfect for a girl dog, a sexually confused male dog or even a transvestite dog," she gamely explained.

Size matters

As with human fashion, where models on Paris runways are usually no more than a size 2, the overwhelming majority of pet styles are designed for smaller breeds such as Chihuahuas, Maltese, Yorkies or poodles. Whereas a fashionable dog might once have owned a single bandana, or a harness vest, now it's likely to have a whole wardrobe, with different looks that change seasonally. Christmas-themed apparel is particularly popular.

Said Dogma's Byrnes, "Our customers don't just buy one sweater, but they buy several in different colors and styles, almost like they are buying for their child."

And, in some cases, a very well-dressed child. On twice-daily fashion shows during Pet Fashion Week, human models walked along the runway with dogs dressed in costumes that either met or exceeded haute couture quality.

"Our customers demand the beading and handiwork be just as good as on their own dresses," said Eleonor Hallstrom, a designer for E&E Hallstrom in Hartsdale, N.Y., while standing beside a dog's dress shaped like a butterfly, with wings encrusted with red Swarovski crystals. (It sells for a cool $4,500.) Hallstrom's customers are usually women who are about to attend a lavish party or wedding. They are having a one-of-a-kind dress made for themselves, and want one for their dog, too.

What, you might be wondering, does a dog think about prancing about in a butterfly-shaped ball gown? Christine Sang, a professional "animal communicator" with thriving practices in New York and Southern California, is convinced that dogs have good enough senses of humor to be in on the joke. Dogs are attuned to human emotions, Sang believes, and if it makes their owner happy to buy them sweaters or gowns, it makes the dog happy, too.

As proof of this novel thesis, Sang told of a recent session she'd had with Boo, a Chihuahua in Los Angeles whose owner runs an antique shop. Sang said that Boo understands that when she makes an appearance in the store, prices go up.

"Boo's owner loves to dress Boo up, and Boo enjoys the attention. It makes her laugh," Sang said. "Then again, Boo really is a diva."


A Pet's World 877-738-8683

Dogma 3600 Boston St., Baltimore 410-276-3410

E&E Hallstrom 914-949-2781

MHound 888-364-6863

Sporty K9 512-266-3320

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