In West Hollywood, Calif., an ethical fashion faux pas has been cemented into law.
Over the weekend, a citywide ban on the sale of fur apparel, passed by the city council two years ago, went into effect, making the city of 30,000 the first municipality in the nation, and likely the world, to have such a ban.
And while the ordinance has won the praises of anti-fur activists nationwide, it's ruffled some feathers within West Hollywood, especially among high-end retailers who say fur is an integral part of their business.
“When I first heard about it, it was shocking,” said David Klein, co-owner of Goldsmith and Klein, an upscale gown designer that closed its shop in West Hollywood in April and is in the process of relocating to New York. Klein said the fur ban was one of the reasons for the store's closure. "It's wrong to tell a business what to sell in your store, especially since it's certainly legal. If we had known about the fur ban, we would've never opened up in West Hollywood."
The ordinance bars any store from selling apparel that's made to be worn, such as shoes, hats and gloves that contain any fur. Wallets and handbags are exempt. Leather isn’t included, and second-hand stores are still allowed to sell used fur.
Given the exemptions and the small percentage of overall sales that fur account for in many stores, the activists and politicians behind the ban think store owners’ furor is overblown.
“This city is not in the business of curtailing business," said John D’Amico, mayor pro tempore of West Hollywood. "We’re in the business of creating an exciting place. Someone who is connected with the ideas that keep this city together will have a business that thrives. Someone who is disconnected with the goals of the city and has a rigid point of view (on fur) may have trouble.”
D’Amico and the others behind the ban say there’s no ethical way to produce fur. They point to videos and studies from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal rights organizations showing that animals used for fur are often confined to small cages, beaten and sometimes even skinned alive.
West Hollywood has a history of taking a stand on animal rights. This ban joins a long list of ordinances, like the city’s ban on declawing cats, retail sales of cats and dogs, and a prohibition on performances that feature exotic or wild animals.
Despite West Hollywood’s small population, previous bans have had ripple effects. After West Hollywood became the first city to outlaw cat declawing in 2003, seven other cities in California followed suit. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several associations representing veterinarians changed their guidelines to say declawing was not recommended.
Anti-fur residents of West Hollywood and the national animal welfare movement are hoping something similar happens this time as well.
“It’s really up to individual cities and consumers to end this cruelty,” said PETA’s associate director of campaigns, Lindsay Rajt. “West Hollywood is setting another tremendous example for cities to follow.”
But unlike the past, the city council is running up against a local opposition. West Hollywood was never an exotic animal performance capital, a pet store mecca or a cat declawing heaven -- but it is a fashion destination.
Dozens of independent boutiques and high-end chains like Christian Louboutin, which sometimes uses fur on its shoes, are located in West Hollywood. Even the Fur Information Council of America, the largest fur industry group in North America, calls West Hollywood its home.
And while all retailers there say they will comply with the ban, they’re not doing so without a fight.
“(West Hollywood) has become a fashion capital, and for public relations, this does not look good,” said Darren Gold, chairman of the West Hollywood Design District, an association of fashion and design stores.
Gold says he’s worried people will begin shopping down the street at boutiques in Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles. And he says the ban could even turn off businesses that don’t sell fur.
“It’s showing that the city wants to control what people sell,” said Gold. “That’s not the most attractive place to open a business. It hurts our image.”
Gold and store owners say they aren’t even necessarily pro-fur as much as they are anti-fur ban. They say educating customers at stores that sell fur would allow individuals to make their own decisions about buying it.
“We know that the fur industry is notorious, but if (the city council) wants to educate the public, do it in an educational, professional way,” said Klein. “That would have been a great compromise.”
But to D’Amico and his allies, education isn’t enough. They believe the fur ban is one piece in an international movement for animal welfare. D’Amico said he hopes other cities follow West Hollywood’s example. But, at least as of now, West Hollywood is going the furless road alone.
When asked if he’d consider a leather ban or further restrictions on fur in the future, he said, “We’ll see.”
Al Jazeera and wire services