There is a small, Australian-based fashion brand whose name tells it like it is: Unreal Fur – not, please note, “fake” or even the overly genteel “faux”. It’s a three-year-old midmarket label that uses the textures and patterns of natural fur to produce something defiantly unnatural. Suppliers of the real thing have been trying to persuade designers for years that it should be viewed as another material to be manipulated creatively, but now designers are playing them at their own game by using not just conventional, manmade fake fur as a creative tool, but giving other, natural fibres soft, fur-like finishes.
Luxury fake fur may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s a growing and gloriously exuberant part of many high-end brands’ winter collections, reflecting a mix of designer inspiration and technical innovation. The idea probably started, as so many do, with Miuccia Prada and her bright-striped fur stoles in 2011, which she followed with tie-dyed fur for Miu Miu two years later – both, incidentally, incontrovertibly real. But the genius who transformed the material into an irreverent fake is British designer Hannah Weiland, whose retro-modern “fur” coats with three bright stripes became cool must-haves two winters ago and whose Shrimps label has blossomed into a full collection (Bobbin striped coat, £635, bags from £195). “I’ve never worn real fur, so working with imitations was natural for me, especially as they’re now so soft and luxurious,” says Welland. “Fake fur has become a medium of its own rather than an alternative,” agrees Judd Crane, director of womenswear at Selfridges, “and demand is increasing fast. Women want to wear it all year round and it’s becoming established as a versatile, high-quality fabric for clothes and accessories.”
Now luxury brands are starting to wake up and smell the new materials. Fake fur is far from unknown at this level: Karl Lagerfeld’s collections for Chanel have included clever, seamless blends of tweed, long-haired shearling and even longer fake fur, and look out this season for sumptuously shaggy, high-waisted mohair coats (£3,876). But while previously the hues have been largely naturalistic, Prada and Shrimps have freed designer imaginations to treat the concept of “fur” as a playful, colourful fabric and this season’s offerings are increasingly adventurous.
Changes in manufacturing are the catalyst. The traditional home of quality fake fur was Europe, but in the early 2000s the industry was hit by competition from Asia, which, aside from producing mass-market faux-fur clothing, also introduced some inspiring innovations. Fake-fur coats and accessories brand Ruby + Ed launched in 2001 with slippers made from Tuscan shearling and rabbit skin, but found it difficult to get skins of consistent quality. “Ten years ago we reluctantly turned to synthetics, but were not happy with the pile length and feel,” says brand director Nazia Govaria. In 2008 the label started working with a Chinese manufacturer on new fabrics. “The yarn is technical modacrylic, but it feels exactly like natural fur. I collect vintage furs and if I give them an example, they replicate it and add fun colours and patterns. The only limit is our imagination.”
Helen Moore’s experience is similar. Her eponymous brand has evolved to count 900 stockists worldwide, having started 16 years ago by making fake-fur interior items. “As we progressed from cushions to oversized fake‑fur collars [£38], bags [from £55], scarves [such as the multicoloured Vixen, £126] and capes [£215] we needed better quality and found that the manufacturers were moving with us,” says Moore. “A simple test is to blow on fake fur – a good one will separate out into a circle as real fur does. It should also have a polished finish, which is inherently fire retardant, and it will last – it can be washed without deteriorating.” Sewing the pieces properly is highly skilled work. “Our machinists are trained to hold the ‘fur’ so the seams are invisible,” she says. “All fabric cutting must be done by hand and finishing standards are very exacting.”
Even so, items from brands like Ruby + Ed and Helen Moore are moderately priced. So why has fake fur piqued the luxury industry’s interest? “It’s the appealing playfulness the fabric lends a piece,” says Browns’ buying director Laura Larbalestier. “Designers this season are using it in fun and unexpected ways – take Awake’s colour-blocked coat [£994].” For others it is a matter of principle. “As a retailer with a no-fur policy we need a permanent alternative, especially for luxury outerwear,” says Selfridges’ Crane, who cites standout pieces by Stella McCartney and Brunello Cucinelli.
Once accused of not being able to scale the heights of luxury without using materials like fur or leather, McCartney now has her critics eating their words with her enormously soft and voluminous jacket (£2,580) and coat (£3,220) in specially developed modacrylic. For rising star Natalia Alaverdian of Awake, animal cruelty has to be balanced with the environmental impact of manmade fibres. “I mix synthetic and natural fibres, such as modacrylic with cotton or even viscose and cotton [red Astrakhan coat, £956].”
Moore maintains she doesn’t have a political agenda, but that the ethical side of fake fur has become fashionable along with the fabrics. “If fur’s irresistible tactile quality can be achieved without harming animals, high-quality imitations become very appealing.” Indeed, feel is at the heart of good fake fur and what the most luxury brands are exploiting in ever more ingenious ways.
Cucinelli describes in detail the making of his “cashmere fur”, an outrageously soft, teddy bear-like fabric used for casual hooded jackets (£1,950). “A pure cashmere yarn is woven with another with a small percentage of technical fibre, the latter creating structure and the yarn providing the links,” he says. “The links are cut open to leave little fringes of soft cashmere along their length.” It creates a more enveloping and luxurious feel very different to fine knitwear. “Our aim is both to highlight the natural properties of the fibre in a new way and to satisfy customers who are sensitive to the issue of fur.”
The same enveloping feel enriches German designer Dorothee Schumacher’s candy-pink coat (£989). You might expect soft toys to be made from fake fur, but the upmarket Steiff ones from Schumacher’s homeland are mohair, and when the firm offered her their material she jumped at it. “It’s sustainable, much lighter than shearling, takes colour brilliantly and reminds me of a cherished part of my childhood,” she says.
Indulging in colour makes fake fur, both technical and natural, appeal to designers and consumers. “I love artists who work with lots of colour; this was the starting point for my brand,” says Welland, who adds brilliant fake-fur trims to tartan or patent pleather coats (from £450) and crystal-embellished clutches (from £365). Julie de Libran, artistic director at Sonia Rykiel, agrees. “Faux fur is fun and imaginative, providing fashion brands with colour and volume in a quality unimaginable 10 years ago.” She uses alpaca mixed with yak hair in a leopard-print cape (£1,665) and technical fake fur for vibrantly striped stoles (£260) and a bright green coat (£615) with abstract white florals.
Statement coats are also evident at London-based German design duo Felder Felder, whose rich blood-red and teal long-hair designs (both £1,200) with oversize collars have a huge glamour quotient. Another master is Giorgio Armani, who works natural-fibre fake furs in a palette of purple (£2,250) and blue (£2,565). Fake fur is the new fun in luxury fashion.