Strike a Pose

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.”

The way Mathews sees it, PETA’S “sort of an ACT UP for animals.” PETA, and its claimed half-million members worldwide, evidently don’t feel the need just yet to moderate an agenda that advocates an end to any exploitation of animals for human use. That includes clothing made of fur, leather, suede, shearling, down, wool (the sheep get nicked), and silk (silkworms are boiled alive); red meat, chicken, fish, dairy products, eggs, and honey (bees are smoked from their hives at harvest time); zoos, circuses, horse races, and rodeos; and any product testing and medical research involving animal experimentation, even for AIDS or cancer.

It’s not that PETA doesn’t care about people, insists co-founder Ingrid Newkirk. “There’s no trick to relating to yourself, your family, your own species. We’re saying don’t be stingy with your compassion.” Mathews says that “billions of chickens, rats, pigs, and other animals are consumed by human greed in various industries every year. People should feel compelled to fight against any form of suffering. I choose not to draw the lines on who or what I care for. At one point, someone might have said a Jew is not a person. I’m sure people who fought for civil rights in the sixties heard the same argument: ‘Why do you care about the blacks?’ I was always drawn to creatures who were the most defenseless—children and animals. It’s worst for animals, because they can’t communicate. Animal rights is perhaps the final frontier of social evolution.”

“For Halloween, the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin and I went as a cruelty-free bondage couple. I was herslave. Kirstie Alley and Parker Stevenson want to pose naked with their 2-year-old. RuPaul’s a friend.”

It’s comparisons like these that have gotten PETA into hot water in the past. Newkirk is still defending her infamous Auschwitz analogy, an argument she introduced in the early eighties in which she likened the death of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust to the annual slaughter of 6-billion broiler chickens. “Animals are individuals. When it comes to feelings like pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. You need to be compassionate across the board.” Is it compassionate to heckle fur wearers on the street or to invade someone’s office? “Inconvenience is different than hurting and killing living beings,” she counters.

Calvin Klein was more than inconvenienced by PETA’S occupation of his office in January. He was outraged. Nevertheless, he agreed to meet with Mathews and other PETA members. They showed him their four-minute video depicting the horrors of trapping and fur farms, and he showed them the door. But days later, Klein announced he was getting out of the fur business. (In his statement, he said the decision was made before PETA’S protest.) “The Calvin thing was a real defining moment for us,” says Mathews. “It showed that if you play hardball, you win.” The fact that Klein, like many other designers who’ve abandoned fur, still works with shearling, leather, suede, and other animal products doesn’t stop Mathews from claiming victory. “We’re encouraged by any small step anybody takes. We don’t want to ice the cake before it’s baked.” (Klein declined to comment.)

Mathews’s greatest insight is his seemingly intuitive (not to say cynical) understanding that causes are as much about trendiness as they are about conscience. His campaign recalls P. J. O’Rourke’s acidic comment that the left prevailed in the sixties because that’s where the babes were. “We’re a fun group,” Mathews says. “Action-oriented, but also fun.” By leavening their grim undercover investigations and confrontational raids with zany publicity stunts and campy events like the “Fur Is a Drag” ball, PETA has devised an MTV-generation smorgasbord for potential activists with short attention spans. “People don’t want to be informed, they want to be entertained,” says Mathews. “This way, they’re getting the message without even realizing it.”

Putting rock musicians and movie stars front and center is an essential part of this strategy. Mathews, who started as a $10,400-a-year PETA receptionist in 1985, has turned the cultivation of famous people into a vocation. “Many of my closest friends happen to be celebrities,” he muses. “I just see celebrities as activists, like me. As an activist, I look for any opportunity to get attention—they know that. We don’t need managers or publicists. I can just call k. d. lang at home in L.A. or in Vancouver, because we’re friends.”

And so he calls—and calls and calls. “For Halloween a few years ago, the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin and I went as a cruelty-free bondage couple. I was her slave. I got cruelty-free bondagewear at the Pleasure Chest and an animal-supply shop—all rubber, canvas, and cotton… . I had dinner with Kirstie Alley and Parker Stevenson at their house. They want to pose naked with their 2-year-old son… . ‘s a friend. We always get into some kind of trouble… . Whenever I’m in England, I always go out and visit the McCartneys. But it’s not like I’m asking Paul what was on his mind when he wrote ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.’ It’s like we’re cousins or extended family.

“We’re insiders now,” he marvels, all the while insisting he is still “basically white trash. I have fun taking out the garbage. The least exciting part of my job is being a celebrity troll. I’d much rather be taken away in handcuffs—I’ve been arrested I don’t know how many times all over the world.” He’s writing an article for Details rating jails of the world with one to five stars (Hong Kong’s is the best, Chicago’s the worst).

The guy who grew up listening to Pretenders albums in Orange County, California, now dances till dawn with his idol, Chrissie Hynde. “We’d been out all night, and he said to me, ‘I feel so spiritually connected to you,’ ” Hynde recalls. “Chrissie’s absolutely one of my best friends,” says Mathews. The day she visited PETA headquarters—at his invitation—was “the first day in my life that I ever felt anything but despair,” Hynde, a longtime vegetarian, says. “Face it, most people are natural-born followers. To see this growing army fighting, especially in America, one of the most conservative countries in the world—I was flabbergasted.”

After prices dropped, wealthy womenno longer wanted “to buy something theirmaids could have,” says a fur executive.

When word leaked out about a proposed PETA ad campaign starring River Phoenix, who had just OD’d (“I Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead in Fur” was the tagline) and Kurt Cobain, who had just shot himself to death (“You Need Fur Like a Hole in the Head”), Hynde decided to change her will. “I said, ‘In the event of my death, I invite them to exploit my name and likeness in any way they see fit.’ ” Mathews, says Hynde, is “a phenomenon—totally resilient, unstoppable. I feel like a big sister to him.” But she also fears for his life. “You can’t go up against these multinational companies. These are very dangerous industries. They deal in blood and profits. I worry that someone will take him out altogether. But if he died in the name of this cause, we’d all be popping open champagne bottles. That’s the way we all want to go.”

Perhaps the weakest plank in PETA’S platform is its unwavering condemnation of medical research involving animals. “No AIDS breakthroughs have come out of animal research,” Mathews maintains. A National Institutes of Health spokesman calls the contention nonsense: “We wouldn’t have been able to discover the AIDS virus as quickly as we did without animal research.” Mathews is unrepentant. “We have a lazy, sick society,” he says. “People bring diseases on themselves.” The best defense against illness, he says crisply, is prevention—”avoid getting the disease in the first place.”

The fur business, by comparison, is a big-downy, sitting duck. “It’s the easiest thing for consumers to do away with,” explains Mathews. “It’s deplorable to kill animals for a luxury product.” Last autumn, when PETA stormed Vogue’s offices to protest the magazine’s refusal to run an ad depicting the fur industry’s cruelty to animals, B-52’s singer Kate Pierson was among those arrested. “During the raid, some people at Vogue were laughing,” she recalls. “But some looked horrified. They do get a little bit afraid, and that’s not terrible.”

Somehow, the fur industry doesn’t see it that way. Taking a page from the tobacco-industry playbook, it’s set out to depict Mathews and his ilk as mad p.c. vandals whose true aim is to rob Americans of their personal freedoms. “Consumers are getting sick and tired of the whole notion of someone dictating their behavior,” says Karen Handel of the Fur Information Council of America (FICA). “What we decide to wear in life is a basic liberty. If I want to have a steak for dinner, wear a fur, or use some medical procedure that involved animal research, I have a right to do that.” “They’re the bullies in school—the bully flunks out,” scoffs Lawrence Schulman, vice-president of Alixandre furs. “That sort of stuff went out with Stalin.”

If the fur industry is modeling its rhetoric after the tobacco lobby’s, PETA’S protests are often uncannily similar to those of the far right, Operation Rescue’s in particular. What separates these animal-rights fundamentalists from the people who surround abortion clinics? “The difference is that we’re nonviolent and we have a sense of humor. We engage in publicity terrorism, but we’re against physical violence,” says Mathews. “Your average fundamentalist Christian condemns you to hell if you don’t believe.”

Designer Marc Jacobs, who designs a line of furs for Birger Christensen aimed at hip, young customers, doesn’t see the difference. “That’s so wrong,” he says, “for people who are so concerned with the ethical treatment of animals to attack other people. They wouldn’t want anyone to spray paint in their offices. What if someone threw paint on their vinyl coats because they didn’t believe in chemicals?”

Mathews’s rationale that he “wouldn’t want anything done to an animal that he couldn’t personally do to an animal” doesn’t hold water with Jacobs, one of the few young designers still working with fur. “I’m sure a nose job’s disturbing to watch, but I’m not against nose jobs. If minks were running around in Central Park, there would be poison down for them.” As yet, Jacobs hasn’t been targeted for any protests, in part because he and Mathews have developed a rapport of sorts. “He’s what I call a cynical trendy,” Mathews says. “I think he’s a very sensitive person. He just has a block against doing the right thing.”

Meanwhile, the dueling ad campaigns continue. PETA’S high-profile “naked” series, introduced in 1990 and still running periodically on billboards and buses, has featured the likes of Kim Basinger, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington, all of whom posed for free. Jason Priestley and girlfriend Christine Elise will be the first to bare all in the next phase of the campaign, which stars families and couples. How does an industry respond to this much fabulousness? The fur council’s latest ads star A-minus-list model Yasmeen Ghauri swathed in opulent furs, and a recent ad supplement in The New York Times Magazine depicted what the association’s Handel calls “high-profile individuals” such as TV and Broadway producer Gladys Nederlander and ballerina turned actress Leslie Browne, best known for her 1977 performance in The Turning Point. Not exactly superstars.

Adman Peter Rogers, who has art-directed Blackglama’s celebrated “What becomes a Legend most?” campaign since it began in 1968, admits that recruiting celebrities with the requisite amount of glama is becoming more and more difficult. “A lot of people wear fur, but they won’t pose in it. People are threatened. They’re afraid they’ll lose record sales or movie tickets.” This year’s legend, Tommy Tune, may be well known, but he’s not in the same league as Barbra Streisand, Lauren Bacall, and Bette Davis, all of whom posed as Blackglama legends in ‘68.

After cold weather, the fashion establishment is the fur industry’s best friend. This year’s much-heralded return to mid-century-style glamour is giving the industry hope that large numbers of women will once again lust after pelt. In this month’s Vogue, a portfolio entitled “Rethinking Mink” is devoted not to animal cruelty but to a new “youthquake” in fur design. In one photograph, a woman talks on a pay phone wearing a cuddly white mink by Marc Jacobs over a trashy see-through shirt and sequined pants—it’s campy, off-handed, ironic luxe.

Will the smart set suddenly rush out en masse to buy? The fur industry thinks the rebound is already underway—its numbers show that domestic retail-sales figures are up for the second year in a row, to $1.2 billion. They had plummeted to $1 billion in 1991 from a heady $1.8 billion in 1987. Independently, the International Trade Commission—measuring production and import/export figures—placed U.S. consumption at $338 million last year, down from $705 million in 1989 but up from $283 million in 1992. And Mediamark Research, Inc., which polls buying habits, says 5.4 million Americans bought furs last year, down from 7.6 million in 1989.

“Many of my closest friends happen to be celebrities,”says Mathews. “I see celebrities as activists, like me. As an activistI look for any opportunity to get attention—they know that.”

“The industry shrank to a certain degree,” says Alixandre’s Schulman. “The weak ones were weeded out when the economy took a nosedive.” But that decline had little to do with PETA, insists Bernard Groger, co-publisher of Fur World, a trade weekly. “PETA’S effect on the fur business is largely media hype. The fur industry is its own worst enemy. By teaching the public to wait for bargains, they’re blurring the lines between high-quality and lesser-priced furs.” Caught after the 1987 stock-market crash with huge inventories, salons started discounting their merchandise. Meanwhile, firms like Jindo and the Fur Vault began marketing cheaper pelts to working women—suddenly it seemed as if anyone who wanted a fur coat could have one just by waiting for a sale. As a result, fur lost much of its exclusivity. Wealthy women “didn’t want to buy something their maids could have,” says Kim Major, creative director of Birger Christensen furs. Fur wearers simply “weren’t adored anymore.”

Locally, the healthy market for lower-priced furs has made Stanley Schwartz a very happy man. As the fur buyer at A&S in downtown Brooklyn, Schwartz has what Groger calls “the biggest pencil in the metropolitan area.” A&S has the highest sales in the city, a particularly impressive achievement when you consider that tonier salons are peddling $42,500 reversible sable ponchos and the bulk of A&S’s fur business is coats in the modest $2,000-$5,000 price range. A recent newspaper ad featured a $999 mink coat that can be purchased on a credit plan for only $47 a month. To the upwardly-mobile types who presumably buy at A&S, PETA’S touchy-feely “fur is gross” message is not likely to have much of an impact—indeed, given the nation’s currently virulent anti-p.c. mood, PETA agitprop could even backfire.

Still, while the United States is still second only to Italy in fur sales, domestic pelt production has been dwindling for years—the number of mink farms, for example, has declined from 1,027 in 1988 to 502 last year, according to the government. “To the best of my knowledge, fur farms in this country are either finished or dying,” says Roger Caras, president of the ASPCA. But that doesn’t mean the fur industry is history. “People still emulate movie stars,” says Caras. “If Roseanne shows up tomorrow in a mink tent, every overweight woman in the world will want one.”

But it is the fashion models—who ironically, by dint of what they do, tend to be the least politically correct members of the celebrity class—who hold the fur industry’s future in their dainty unclothed hands. This is a long way from the Weathermen, but it stands to reason that the politics of voguishness should generate this new breed of voguish politician. And a message that says, essentially, “This is, like, so uncool” is the one that stands the best chance of reaching the adolescent girls who are tomorrow’s potential fur customers. At this week’s fashion shows in Bryant Park, model Fabienne Terwinghe will circulate a “Models of Compassion” petition for mannequins who want to publicly swear off fur. “I was shocked to find that people didn’t know that models do care,” she says. Terwinghe has also posed for the “naked” campaign. “When you get five naked models together,” she says, “people pay attention.”

Strike a Pose