| A model in a fur jacket in New York. (Reuters)
New York, Feb. 8 (Reuters): Fur is back and prominently displayed by top designers this week on New York's fashion runways, with nary a peep of protest.
Not so long ago a woman in fur might fear a hail of insults and a pail of paint getting lobbed her way while the designer would face a pelting of tomatoes. But clever marketing, hip-hop culture and the perpetual lure of luxury are bringing fur out of the closet, experts say.
Sales are up and the average age of buyers is down.
Sales among traditional fur retailers hit a record $1.8 billion in the 2003 season in the US, a 7.5 per cent increase over the previous year, according to the Fur Information Council of America. Ten years ago, fur sales were about $1.1 billion.
More than half the customers are under the age of 44, the council said.
Innovations making fur more versatile ' it's often sheared, dyed or knitted ' have been key, said Keith Kaplan, the council's executive director.
'Designers have discovered the creativity and adaptability of fur,' he said. 'It can be used now as any other fabric.'
A recent survey by Women's Wear Daily showed three-quarters of 200 high-end speciality stores carry fur, and most of the remaining stores planned to add it.
Buying fur like never before are men and younger consumers, particularly in the hip-hop world, experts say.
'People are taking 'bling' to the next level,' said fashion analyst Irma Zandl. 'It's one thing to throw red paint on (Vogue editor) Anna Wintour, and quite another to throw it on P Diddy and J Lo.'
Anti-fur activists insist the battle is far from over.
A move by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to stage its own fashion shows in New York rather than disrupt others, shows how the anti-fur perspective has been accepted by the mainstream, said spokesperson Lisa Franzetta.
Dyeing, shearing and knitting fur are attempts by the industry to distance itself from its product, she said.
'A lot of the real fur we're seeing these days is being styled so that it looks fake,' she said. 'It's a very deliberate attempt on behalf of the fur industry to disassociate the fur from the animal.'
More than two years have passed since PETA grabbed headlines with a protest at a Victoria's Secret show. This week, it plans a protest at fur designer J. Mendel's show.
It also unveiled an ad campaign on Monday with former basketball star Dennis Rodman, featuring the heavily tattooed celebrity posing naked, with the slogan Think Ink, Not Mink.
Fur's role as a status symbol is hard to shake, and its absence may have made the heart grow fonder, said Ben Gomes of Fashion and Trend Information Company. 'Tell me I can't have something, and I want it,' he said.
Observers also say other issues such as war may have overshadowed concern over animal rights in recent years.