“An Italian woman’s first fur is traditionally given by her parents when she turns 18,” says Ennio Capasa, a designer at the Italian label Costume National. “It is a symbol of her entrance into womanhood.” China lacks a similar tradition, although it is now home to the fastest-growing market for fur, trailing only the Russians in total demand. Chinese traders also make up the largest single group at the five-times-a-year meetings of Kopenhagen Fur, the leading auction house, which offers about 21 million mink skins annually, as well as fox, chinchilla, seal, rabbit and karakul skins.
China is a producer of mink pelts too, although animal rights organisations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have campaigned extensively against what they see as cruel and inhumane practices at many farms.
In response, industry spokesmen have tried to argue that wearing fur is good for the environment. Mink feed is made up of leftovers from fish and poultry processing (in other words, waste disposal). Moreover, discarded fur decomposes more quickly than other materials. “Compared with normal clothing… the chemical composition of fur is water, protein, fat and carbohydrates; they are all natural materials,” Zhu Xiaolin from China’s International Fur Association told New Weekly. “It only takes a month for fur to completely degrade in the ground. That’s five times faster than a pair of jeans and three times faster than linen clothing. And a lot of polyester material doesn’t break down, ever.”
“If you are a true environmentalist, would you buy a piece of clothing made from synthetic materials, which you might toss away after a few wears, or buy elegant fur which you can wear for life?” Zhu continues. “As long as you respect the ecological and ethical principles, there’s nothing wrong with luxury.”
Animal rights campaigners disagree strongly, of course, and they looked on aghast as Kopenhagen Fur reported a record $2.4 billion in sales last year. Purchases from Chinese traders drove prices to a new high of $102 per pelt. Much of that seems to have been speculative, predicated on increased demand from Chinese shoppers.
Then the market cracked, with prices halving in a matter of months. At last month’s auction mink pelts were selling at $48, although Danish spokesmen tried to sound positive by pointing out that prices were up on recent auctions in Canada and Finland.
Some of the Chinese traders are shellshocked by the collapse. “I have been in the industry for 20 years and I’ve never seen a decline in mink pelt prices so deep,” Ren Youfa, a merchant, told New Weekly. Many are blaming Xi Jinping’s crackdown on graft and gift-giving among government officials. “The spending of public funds on gifts has come to a halt,” Ren lamented. “Civil servants wouldn’t dare to wear fur coats in public.”
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