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Strike a Pose

Anti-fur activism is now as chic (and facile) as buying a pair of plaid thigh-highs. Have naked supermodels become the torchbearers for radicalism in our time?

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From the November 7, 1994 issue of New York Magazine.

It's a quiet Friday afternoon in the Revillon fur salon at Saks Fifth Avenue, and Dan Mathews is looking for something to handcuff himself to. "Things like this are always good," he says, rattling a T-stand holding $50,000-worth of sheared beaver. A bored-looking English teenager lounges on a nearby sofa, watching her mother model a sable-trimmed cashmere coat in a three-way mirror. "That one's too old for you, Mummy," she says.

"Wearing fur at all dates you," Mathews blurts out. "No young person would be caught dead in a fur coat." Just then a red-faced man in shirtsleeves comes flying out of an inner office and grabs Mathews by the arm—his scouting mission is over for now.

"This is neither the time nor the place," the salesman enunciates carefully, determinedly not losing his cool. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave immediately."

"You have nice breath, by the way," Mathews says brightly as he's hustled out past the lamb-lined denim barn jackets. "What kind of gum are you chewing?"

"Devil gum," snarls the furrier.

Mathews, the charismatic 29-year-old director of international campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), couldn't be more pleased. If fur salesmen are referring to themselves as the Antichrist, then PETA'S message must be hitting home.

Over the past year, the animal-rights group has cranked up its confrontational anti-fur campaign, besieging the industry with a steady barrage of confrontations, wacky stunts, and carefully orchestrated media events. PETA'S efforts to destroy the fur business represent only one aspect of the group's larger agenda, but it's by far the most visible. Aided by celebrity supporters like Paul McCartney, k. d. lang, Kim Basinger, and Alec Baldwin, PETA has staged well-publicized raids on the offices of Vogue and Calvin Klein, and enlisted a cadre of buck-naked supermodels to pose in its ads. In the latest pictures, debuting this month, Cindy Crawford wears nothing but a faux-fur hat designed for PETA by Todd Oldham—and a cat. The hats, which will be sold at Tower Records, are made of recycled plastic bottles. "It's so p.c. you could throw up, right?" says Oldham.

With this kind of celebrity wattage, it's little wonder that Britain's Time Out magazine recently declared animal rights the No. 1 hip cause on the planet, eclipsing AIDS, homelessness, and all the other depredations that afflict mere humans. And much of the credit belongs to Mathews, a six-foot-four-inch attack dog and strangely messianic presence. A self-proclaimed "media slut," Mathews has a frightening instinct for publicity and for harnessing celebrity to politics. His ongoing A-list party makes other causes look as wan as a PTA meeting.

Talk to anyone in the fashion business and you can smell the anxiety. "Ralph did fur a long, long time ago," a Ralph Lauren spokesman says pleadingly. Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Anne Klein recently abandoned their fur licenses. This fall, PETA'S siege of the fashion industry will reach new levels of intensity. Now PETA is going after the big one, Karl Lagerfeld—unrepentant fur lover, world-class recherché sybarite, and designer of the luxe fur collections for Fendi in Rome and Maximilian in New York. Plans are in the works to invade either Lagerfeld's New York offices—a surprisingly unsplendid suite on Fifth Avenue—or the posher confines of the Maximilian salon at Bloomingdale's. "Please tell Mr. Mathews that Karl Lagerfeld lives in Paris, not here," Jack Pearson, vice-president of Maximilian, says nervously. If Lagerfeld falls, can the rest of the fur industry be far behind?

PETA's success comes during an otherwise fallow period for left-wing stunt politics and for celebrity progressivism in general (remember the anti-nuke movement and pro-Sandinista movie actors?). Only a few years back, groups like ACT UP, Queer Nation, the Guerilla Girls, Earth First!, Greenpeace, and the Women's Action Coalition (WAC) could hold their chosen targets hostage with flamboyant demands and threats of sabotage. Once media faves, they've since, in varying degrees, faded from the spotlight. WAC, which only two years ago claimed 5,000 members in 32 cities, is now "pretty nonexistent," says its former spokeswoman Tracy Essoglou. "It sort of ate itself." The election of Bill Clinton robbed the group of an easily demonizable adversary. "Once we lose the enemy," Essoglou says, "the left tends to disintegrate."

That's basically what happened to the gay-advocacy groups Queer Nation and ACT UP. "Queer Nation in a lot of places is pretty much dead, and a lot of significant players left ACT UP," says Michelangelo Signorile, columnist for Out magazine, former ACT UP leader, and a man once notorious for outing closeted gays. "It's inevitable—people are screaming to be let in and then they're let in. Once you are given the voice, you better be responsible. You can't just sit and scream at them. You have to be careful to talk rationally when they're listening. PETA may not feel it's time yet."


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  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Nov 7, 1994 issue of New York
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