A ‘Tree Hugger’ Recycles Fur

By Ann Brocklehurst
Originally published 8 November 1994, International Herald Tribune

The racks of old fur coats in the designer Mariouche Gagne’s workshop have been rescued from the basements and attics where they have been confined for years. Although still reviled by many as ecologically incorrect relics from another era, the newly cleaned and treated coats are about to be rehabilitated and recycled.

Gagne will turn the beaver, astrakhan, Chinese mink, opossum, fox and other pelts into her line of prizewinning fur clothing and accessories. She mixes the furs with leather, suede and re-used wool to turn out jackets, vests, backpacks, mittens, hats and scarves. Her designs also feature caribou- antler buttons inlaid with birds, fish and bears and sculpted specially for Gagne by Inuits in the Canadian north.

The aim is to make the old furs not only fashionable again, but environmentally acceptable as well. “I’m what you might call a tree hugger,” said Gagne, 23, who after finishing design studies in Milan returned to Montreal to set up Harricana North Pole Canada earlier this year. “I wanted to start a company that would not pollute more and would create jobs.”

Young designers such as Gagne are something of a godsend for the Canadian and international fur industries, which have in recent years been hurt not only by the animal rights movement but by global recession, an oversupply of fur and warmer weather. But thanks to the efforts of new, young designers, fur designs have become more sporty, relaxed and lighter weight. Pelts are being dyed new colors, and the emphasis is on sheered fur with its velvetlike pile. Now as sales start to climb, the industry is vigorously promoting its new designers and portraying fur as an environmentally sound product.

For Gagne, winning second prize in the Fur Council of Canada’s 1993 design contest has generated much potential business. She was invited to Denmark for a short apprenticeship at the Saga international fur design center and was selected as a finalist in Japan’s Gifu international fashion contest earlier this year.

Despite the value of the hand-carved antler buttons, many sculpted by the Inuit artist Peter Morgan, Gagne’s prices remain competitive. Bags and backpacks are priced at about 200 Canadian dollars ($148); coats 1,000 dollars, and jackets and vests, 500 dollars.

When Angela Bucaro, another Fur Council of Canada prizewinner, displayed her lightweight reversible ponchos, jackets and vests at the North American Fur and Fashion Exhibition in Montreal in the spring, many furriers could not even identify the pelts. “I’m doing fur in a way which is a little younger and untraditional,” said Bucaro, 34.

Bucaro, who has clothing sales of more than 1 million dollars in North America and Europe, had no trouble selling her fur pieces to her regular retailers.

Even though she does not have the ecological bent of Gagne, she has also had to give serious thought to the issue of working with fur. “I’ve had people very close to me say ‘Angela, don’t do fur. Why are you doing that?'” Bucaro said. “But, no, I didn’t have any qualms. We all eat chicken and fish. They may not be as pretty as a seal. We all wear leather. Where do you draw the line?”

FUR manufacturers know that a better image will help them strengthen the current fragile recovery in their traditional markets after years, sometimes decades, of falling sales.

The industry’s allies in the fight are unlikely bedfellows – the aboriginal trappers who still make a living from the fur trade and some of the top names in high fashion. In a promotional video for the Fur Council of Canada, both sides speak out. The trappers defend their use of a “renewable resource,” while Edward Menicheschi, associate publisher for Vogue Europe, declares: “We are pro-choice for women and pro-fur.”

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