Flashback: 30 November 1989 – journalist in fur coat receives “torrent of abuse”

27 years ago today Daily Express journalist Annie Leask decided to wear a full length fur coat on the streets of London to test what the reaction would be. In an article published the next day, entitled The fur is flying, she said:

“I had borrowed a £5,000 pastel mink and ventured out into London’s West End in trepidation after this week’s attack on a fur-clad businesswoman by animal rights fanatics. And it didn’t take long before I realised first-hand the ordeal she endured. One minute I was being courted by Crombie-clad gentlemen asking me to lunch…the next I became a victim of a vitriolic attack by an anti-fur protester.”

She tells how a young woman “wearing a Barbour-style jacket, canvas trousers and ankle boots” shouted: “You disgusting ******. How would you like to be skinned and worn on someone else’s back? Why don’t you just **** off. I think you’re ugly anyway.” Other women said “that’s vile” and “Ugh, it’s disgusting”although Leask claimed some middle-aged women gave admiring glances to the coat.

Leask said she was stunned and shaken by the experience and  understood how “the woman who had her silver fox coat ripped from her back must have suffered”.  She had asked three “respectable looking” women for directions in Guildford, Surrey, a few days earlier, who then: “hurled abuse, grabbed the coat and ordered her to get in her car and leave town.”

In Context: By 1989 the fur trade was in dire straits, having been under assault for 10 years. It began in 1979 when Fay Funnel of Coordinating Animal Welfare queued for days outside Debenhams in Oxford Street to buy a mink jacket in a sale. She took it outside and promptly burnt it in front of the press, calling it “a delayed cremation for the animals”.

As the animal rights movement grew in stature in the eighties, fur shops and farms across the country came under sustained pressure. Croydon in Surrey went from having two fur shops, a hotel fur auction, a fur farm and a department store with a fur salon to a fur-free zone in the space of three years. This was due to an effective local group and direct action.

Incendiary devices were placed  in department stores by the ALF  to devastating effect. By the end of the eighties Harrods was the only one holding out. The number of fur farms collapsed as well as did  the high street retailers, with 60% going out of business. Fur had become very unpopular – with polls consistently showing 75-80% of the public against wearing it – and deeply unfashionable.

One group which rode successfully on the anti-fur wave was Lynx, founded in 1985. It came to prominence with a cinema ad shot by David Bailey which showed a catwalk model trailing blood from a fur coat and the line: “It took 13 dumb animals to make this and only one to wear it.” Lynx merchandise such as t-shirts became trendy and were  “a staple garment of the socially-aware wardrobe.”

Finally, to cap a miserable decade, the world’s most famous fur company, Hudson’s Bay, pulled out of the UK in October 1989.

What happened next: The new decade saw the fur trade’s freefall go on. Harrods’ salon closed down. It was part of the House of Fraser group which had been relentlessly targeted by the ALF. This meant there were no longer any department stores which sold fur. In 1985 fur trade sales were about £80m but by 1989 the figure had dropped to £4m. There were few fur outlets outside London and the number of fur farms fell from 60 to 27.

The Evening Standard reported on 12 November 1990 that “a woman was ordered out of a London clothes store because she was wearing a mink coat”. She was told: “Please leave immediately, this is a fur-free zone.” Another newspaper summed it up: “Being anti-fur has become as controversial as being anti-child abuse…the idea that fur is inhumane has sunk into the British consciousness.”

But the fur trade began fighting back. The Fur Education Council was launched with a donation from a rich benefactor and in November 1991 held the first “Wear your fur coat day” to “bring fur wearers out of the closet.”  Its spokesperson, Henri Kleiman, appeared on a BBC documentary alongside an inuit trapper asking why “middle class whites are trying to destroy his people”. Another pro-fur group called Green Links denounced “vicious hydrocarbons” in fake fur.

Then in January 1993 Lynx went bankrupt due to a successful libel action by Swalesmoor mink farm near Halifax. The group was unable to pay £40,000 damages and £100,000 costs awarded to the fur farmer who denied his animals were kept in cruel conditions.

But despite fur becoming more popular with designers and fashion students by the mid-nineties, the retail sector was still in the doldrums. When Selfridges was exposed as reneging on its no-fur policy by keeping a secret back-room full of coats, it was bombarded by protests – including a home visit to a director – and restored the ban.

In 1997 the Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade was launched to work with local groups and carry out research, investigations and political work. That year there were only 12 fur farms left and CAFT said: “Isn’t it about time we got rid of fur farms in Britain for good?”

A campaign against a Northumberland fur farm began with activists gaining undercover footage of the killing of mink. The farm used the Protection from Harassment Act, introduced to protect women from stalkers, to gain an injunction against the protesters who were forbidden to go within half a mile of the farm or face up to five years in prison. The Act was also used by fur shops in central London, such as Philip Hockley, to force demonstrators away from the vicinity of the premises.

Labour was elected in 1997 promising to outlaw fur farming. After much delay and prevarication this finally happened in January 2003. Far from signalling the end of fur, however, the industry was growing due to an influx of cheap cat, dog and rabbit fur from overseas sold as fur trim. Harrods began selling fur once more as did Selfridges – although it changed its mind yet again after being targeted by campaigners. Chains such as Joesphs and Zara started selling fur trim. Harvey Nichols and Burberry have followed suit.

Twenty-five years ago The Independent said it was unlikely fur would make a comeback. It appeared for a while that the fur trade could be wiped out completely. What would happen to a journalist who followed in Annie Leask’s footsteps today? It would be interesting to find out.

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