Fur bikinis? Brazil is new horizon for booming fur trade

Fur on Copacabana beach? Why not. Boosted by a 10-year surge in sales to Asia, the global fur industry is primed to take on what it sees as the markets of tomorrow.

Hobbled during the anti-fur 1980s and 1990s, the trade has rebounded as all but a few designers put fur back on the catwalks, and luxury-hungry China sent global sales surging 70 percent in a decade, to 15 billion dollars in 2011.

But Mark Oaten, a former British MP who took the helm of the International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF) last year, is already scanning the horizon beyond Asia and its six billion dollars in annual fur sales.

"The knack of any industry is to spot where the next market is," said Oaten, whose key targets are Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and -- despite some scepticism in the business -- Brazil.

"We know Brazil is going to be an economic powerhouse, we know Brazil loves its fashion -- this is the market in my judgement."

"This industry tends to follow where the wealth is. Our product has always been associated with the cold. But now our product has changed, and we are able to follow the wealth into warm climates."

New types of fur -- coloured, lightweight, trim -- are making the industry less dependent on the cold season.

"We will not sell grandma's fur coat in Brazil. We are are selling fashion," Oaten explains.

Philippe Beaulieu, head of the French Fur association, says European fur -- mostly mink and fox, accounting for 60 percent of world production -- has been transformed through working with fashion designers.

"Designers push us to do new things. We are now able to work lighter fur with a regular sewing machine instead of a fur machine. We can mix it with different fabrics, use laser to create patterns or cut holes, without damaging the fur."

Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, and Jean Paul Gaultier have each used lightweight fur for summer collections -- so is this the shape of things to come?

"Absolutely," said Beaulieu. "There are no hang-ups about putting fur on the summer catwalks, because it can be shaved so close it becomes like velvet or silk."

To woo new markets, the IFTF is launching a multi-pronged public relations drive, with an ad campaign in Vogue highlighting fur as a fashionista must-have.

Another ad in GQ magazine, in tandem with US designer Rick Owens, will be aimed at men, "the 50 percent of the population that's still untapped".

Full-page ads in The Economist will emphasise fur's performance through the recession, while a campaign in Home and Garden magazine will push fur as a home furnishing material.

A one-time candidate for the Liberal Democrat party leadership, Oaten resigned as its home affairs spokesman in 2006 after a tabloid revealed he had paid for sex with a male prostitute. He stood down at the 2010 general election.

His new job also brings more than its share of controversy, as champion of a trade, fur farming, that is banned outright in Britain, Austria and Croatia, could soon face a ban in the Netherlands, and remains contested elsewhere.

None of the IFTF's upcoming ad campaigns tackle the issue of animal welfare head-on, but since 2007 it has been working on a global welfare labelling scheme called "Origin Assured".

The OA label -- which currently applies to two thirds of furs sold worldwide -- ensures fur comes from a country that enforces Council of Europe standards on cage size, access to water, type and regularity of feed, housing conditions and pain-free slaughtering techniques.

"Ours is a controversial industry so the system that we have is under scrutiny the whole time," Oaten said.

The countries that currently meet OA standards are Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway and the United States.

The big exception is China, which produces 25 percent of the world's fur, much of it for the domestic market.

The IFTF has set up a Chinese branch to try to push its farmers towards European standards, but Beaulieu conceded "it will take time".

Oaten readily accepts that "in Asia, certainly in China there is less of a tradition of animal welfare" than in the West.

Towards the most virulent anti-fur activists, meanwhile, he is calmly dismissive: "There will always be vegetarians, people opposed to nuclear weapons, that's fine, that what healthy democracy is about."

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