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March 2006
Designing A Cruelty-free World
The Satya Interview with Marc Bouwer

 

Photo courtesy of Marc Bouwer
Marc Bouwer’s faux fur fashion. Photo courtesy of Marc Bouwer

As a New Yorker whose fashion sense is informed by thrift stores, stoop sales, and the occasional message tee, I had no idea who Marc Bouwer was when we met at a cruelty-free fashion event in December. He was a nice, unassuming fellow in worn jeans who served as a judge for the HSUS “Cool vs. Cruel” competition to inspire young designers to create fur-free designs. As first prize, the best designer won a coveted internship at Marc Bouwer’s design studio. After doing a little homework, I learned that Marc Bouwer is a major designer, indeed. His elegant gowns are worn on red carpets by the likes of Halle Berry, Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron. Bouwer’s client list also includes some of the most ubiquitous celebrities in the world, like J. Lo, Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson.

Marc Bouwer is one of only a handful of major designers who is publicly and unabashedly committed to being fur-free. While many of his clients wear real fur, he is up front about the fact that he does not use animal skins in any of his clothing. As a fashion powerhouse, Bouwer is in a unique position and very well may have played a deciding role in Mariah Carey’s recent decision to shun fur.

In addition to educating his clients, Bouwer is doing his part to have a positive impact on the fashion world. As he puts it, “I want to help as much as I can with any of the organizations who want to help protect animals.” He hasn’t used fur or leather in his designs in well over a decade. In 2002, Marc presented a completely animal product-free collection, which was sponsored by PETA.

One of the most effective tactics that brought fur back into fashion with a vengeance is the strategy to entice young designers into using fur in their collections. Saga furs, the joint marketing group for the Scandinavian fur industry, flew designers to Scandinavia on junkets to educate them about the different animal pelts available, giving them free furs, and assisting them in integrating fur into their designs. Marc Bouwer is actively engaging with young designers in a different manner. In addition to his participation in the “Cool vs. Cruel” design competition, Marc is a guest lecturer at FIT and Parson’s, the city’s premiere design schools. This semester, he is challenging students to create a collection “without any animal products in it at all: no cashmere, fur, wool,” as he describes it.

A native of South Africa, Marc has rooted himself in a thriving center of the fashion world: New York City. In the midst of preparations for fashion week and red carpet events, Marc Bouwer took a moment to talk with Catherine Clyne about cruelty-free fashion and the fight against fur.

What first made you aware of the cruelty involved in fur?
I think any intelligent person, when you think about it, realizes there’s death involved with this type of fashion. And you read about it and just become aware of how savage this industry is. I don’t like that there’s death involved in [fur] because it’s such a frivolous thing.

When I was a young designer, Saga [the Scandinavian fur industry group] gave me a whole bunch of fur to use in one of my collections. And I thought, ‘Oh, how beautiful, how fabulous! White fox—more, more, more!’ But then as I became more aware of exactly what goes on; and as you mature as an individual and become more of a caring person about your environment and the lives of helpless individuals and animals, I think any decent, caring individual is not going to want to be a part of that.

How have you incorporated your awareness of fur and cruelty into your designs?
I haven’t used fur in my collections for over 16 years. What I’m trying to do is show people that there is an alternative. The technology has advanced so incredibly that you’re able to get the look and feel of real fur. And also leather—I haven’t used leather in my collection for probably almost as long. With leather, even more so than fur, the technological alternative is so apparent that you can’t even make an argument about it—the look and feel is there. It’s more durable, it’s less expensive—well, not always. It is a bit of a problem because animal skin and fur are treated in such a throw-away manner in this industry that sometimes using rabbit fur is cheaper than using faux fur. This is something that we have to work on. Of course, there is high quality and poor quality fur, as well as high quality and poor quality faux fur. So it’s just a choice.

A few weeks ago you said to me that if we can’t get people to care about fur animals, it’s sort of a ‘losing battle.’ What do you think are ways we can get people to care, both with the fashion-wearing public and designers?
I think just constantly making them aware of the cruelty involved and how unnecessary it is by showing them the alternatives provided by technology and making them much more accessible than they are. Just a continuous bombardment with information. It’s a slow process. A hundred years ago people also thought that black people shouldn’t have the rights of white people. And 30 years ago people thought that smoking was okay for you. It’s all a matter of becoming a more advanced society and more caring individuals.

Am I wrong? Is fur still a really big deal in fashion? It seemed to go out of fashion for awhile and now it’s back—with a vengeance.
I know! I just got back from an appointment uptown. The weather was so nice, I decided I’d walk down Fifth Avenue. The amount of furs that I saw on people and the amount of fur trim—whether on men’s jackets or baubles hanging from hats, to full-on fur coats—and myself as an expert in this field, I can tell what is fake and what’s not, and the amount of real fur out there is grotesquely shocking.

Why don’t you think many of your fellow designers ‘get it’ anymore? What happened?
I think number one, there is the financial aspect to it. You know, I could have gotten millions of dollars in fur licensing by now. I could be able to live a much better lifestyle than I am living right now if I had taken these offers. But I sleep in peace at night knowing that I’m not part of that. So that makes me feel like I’m a somewhat better person than others, because I don’t indulge in that kind of cruelty for such a frivolous end.

Then there’s also the ‘Well I don’t care about anything’ attitude with a lot of people who are in fashion. They are all about themselves, and all about the decoration of themselves and the fabulousness of that world, and it’s all about acquisition, it’s about indulgence, and it’s about [sighs] just acquiring more—more decoration and labels and whatever. A big problem with the industry also is that a lot of people who buy this fashion think of it as a status symbol. It’s just wrong and just shows how uneducated and how uncaring people can be. To think that wearing more fur is a status symbol, particularly in the music industry, I think they’re the worst!

[Laughter.] Yes, we all love Jennifer Lopez…

Mary J. Blige, Lil’ Kim. You know we got Mariah [Carey] to get rid of all her fur—she’s totally against it and wearing only faux fur now. I’ve had long conversations about this with Mariah and she’s so in our, how can I put it, our court now, which is nice.

What do you feel are the most effective things animal activists can do to change the use of fur in the fashion industry?
Public awareness. Education. And doing things like they did [with] J. Crew. I think protesting without violence of course, because that’s exactly what we’re trying to fight—the violence against animals. But strong, vocal protests are always good, and pictures and information that’s handed out to people. I mean, what else can one do?

Are you vegetarian?
You know, I am trying to become a vegetarian. I don’t eat any red meat anymore—I cannot go near [it]. Though every now and then I have some chicken, unfortunately. But having been brought up that way, it’s a battle. I think if vegetarian food was more accessible—not for myself but for everybody—people would find it easier to become vegetarian. But every time I eat chicken, I always think about that I’m eating flesh. I know it’s a slow process, but I think by the end of this year I will have completely cut it out.

What’s your opinion of using things that look so much like fur that people might get the wrong idea?
Well, that’s a whole other problem. Until people stop killing animals for fur… You know, maybe [laughs] we just shouldn’t even be showing fur. With the technology today the fur looks so real. So the one argument is, ‘Don’t wear real fur because you can wear exactly the same thing without any death involved.’ But then the problem is that you are then propagating the idea of fur by wearing it. And a lot of people can’t tell what is real and what is not real.

The reason why I use faux fur in my collections is that so many of my clients wear fur. So I’m trying to educate them to get away from the real fur so at least they know they’re not buying the real thing but they can get the look of it. And a lot of them have come along that way.

But it’s a problem. I don’t know what the answer is. But at least if you can buy something that is cruelty-free, you can feel better about yourself.

To learn more about Marc Bouwer’s cruelty-free designs and see a list of his impressive clients, visit http://marcbouwer.com.


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