December 14, 2012 5:29 pm

Animal instincts

These pelt-loving designers are also among the most public pet-loving individuals

The other day I got an email from a colleague entitled “strange question”. This is the sort of email that immediately makes me perk up (it’s always fun seeing what other people consider strange) so I opened it instead of putting it in the “get to later” queue. Given the timing, I was expecting a request for advice on the best charm bracelet, or whether sequins were too much for an office party, or whether it was possible to go tie-less in a tuxedo, but instead what I found was: “Are animal prints – leopard, zebra stripes, and so on – still in?”

Duh.

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Vanessa Friedman

“Leopard, zebra stripes and so on are always in,” I replied. If in doubt, simply look around. Yes, I know there was a recent, last-gasp fur protest in London outside Burberry, but in every other way this is the season of the fur coat, or fur dress, if you count Dior’s autumn/winter couture, or fur-like print, as in Roberto Cavalli’s show, which featured more species in one look than ever seen outside Greek mythology (snakeskin and fur and feathers, oh my!). Indeed, animal references of all kinds are so in this season that even during the last round of shows, nominally the spring/summer collections, one of the biggest trends was ... leather. And though Stella McCartney’s business, which is famously vegan, is reportedly growing by leaps and bounds, by and large the industry around her shows no signs of following her lead.

But here’s the weird thing: these pelt-loving designers are also among the most public pet-loving individuals in any sector. Anyone else see the irony here?

Presidents Obama and Clinton may have been vocal about their love of their best friends Bo and Buddy, but Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce have a giant oil portrait of their trio of labradors hanging in their living room, and when I ate lunch with them last year, the dogs ate with us too.

Meanwhile, Valentino Garavani has been famously immortalised in The Last Emperor cuddling up with his six pugs; Azzedine Alaia has nine – count ’em – different animals that live in his house/atelier/showroom, including a giant St Bernard who sleeps on a queen-size mattress in a corner of the kitchen where he entertains guests such as Lady Gaga, Marc Newson and Robert Polidori; and the blue eyes of Karl Lagerfeld’s cat, Choupette, inspired the spring/ summer 2012 Chanel into-the-blue couture show.

Indeed, designers are so into their pets that the glossy hipster magazine Man About Town recently devoted an entire issue to the subject. And last month the Battersea Cats & Dogs Home held a “Collars and Coats gala ball”, complete with fashion show and pet outfits created by Stella McCartney, Mulberry, Vivienne Westwood, Giles Deacon and Matthew Williamson (among other Fashion Week names), all emceed by supermodel David Gandy.

This is the sort of thing that might strike some people as an internal contradiction. Hypocritical even. It’s the sort of thing that might make them roll their eyes and make fake choking sounds.

. . .

On the one hand, style is helping lost animals and cosseting the ones it has. On the other, it is skinning them. Literally. And yet both realities co-exist, often in the same designers. In literature, this is the sort of dichotomy that leads to psychotic breaks as characters attempt to justify both realities, but in fashion apparently not so much.

Now I bet some people out there are just salivating to explain this away with reasons such as lack of moral scruples or just lack of self-examination – two charges often levelled at those in the fashion world, but I don’t think either is appropriate here. In fact, I think fashion is just doing its job of mirroring life as we know it right back at consumers.

And not just because in the UK alone the pet grooming/fashion business (yes, there is a pet fashion business) is a £2bn a year industry, but because, whether it’s consumers buying cars and giving to Greenpeace or wanting lower taxes and a lower deficit too (how does that work?), it often seems we have an endless and increasing ability to contain conflicting realities in a single head. Why should we think fashion, which is most successful when it represents in clothes what exists in life, would be any different?

Especially since fashion is in some ways often charged with finding beauty in contradiction: last July Raf Simons, in his debut Dior couture show (yes, the same one with the fur dresses) even sent out a group of two-tone dresses with fronts of elaborate embroidery and backs of a minimal colour contrast. And then there’s the temporal dualism inherent in thinking in one season while existing in another (showing spring/summer in October, for example).

I’m not saying the animal situation makes any sense, you understand; the fashion system, like many current national budgets, increasingly makes no sense at all. But it is worth acknowledging that fashion, as much as any industry, has a certain skill set predicated on working in two opposing planes at once. Indeed, for them, it’s only – well, natural.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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