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To: johnlw who wrote (168)1/27/2004 10:17:33 AM
From: Jon Koplik of 3380
 
WSJ -- Rabbit Redux: A Once-Lowly Fur Finds New Luster.

January 27, 2004

Rabbit Redux: A Once-Lowly Fur Finds New Luster

Women Cozy Up to Vests, Ponchos With Casual Feel; Role of the Proud 'Rex'

By SALLY BEATTY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Roberta Amon, a fur lover who divides her time between New York City and Switzerland, has a mink and a sable in her collection of fur coats. But Ms. Amon has a confession to make to her Park Avenue friends: She has fallen in love with rabbit.

"They expect me to be in sable," says Ms. Amon, who recently bought two rabbit coats. "But when they touch it, they go wild."

Long the poor country cousin of chic mink, the lowly rabbit is suddenly growing more fashionable. This season, London designer Alexander McQueen chose rabbit to construct his best-selling $2,000 bomber jacket covered with metallic sequins. Dress designer Diane von Furstenberg used rabbit to make a snowy white $1,750 cropped jacket.

Retailers are cottoning on to rabbit, too. In Manhattan, Bergdorf Goodman is showcasing rabbit wraps, coats and hats on its main floor next to the fine jewelry and status handbag department. At Bloomingdale's, a $198 pale pink rabbit poncho from BCBG Max Azria has become a hot item. BCBG says one East Coast department store recently sold 240 of the ponchos in a week.

Fueled by a growing demand for affordable luxury, and big leaps in rabbit fur quality, rabbit is even catching on among women who can afford sable, mink or chinchilla. Denise LeFrak Calicchio, a New York socialite who last year bought two rabbit tops by Sherry Cassin -- one in pink and another in blue -- says her rabbit furs are more "fun" to wear than her mink and sable coats while still feeling luxurious. "Everything doesn't have to be the most expensive to feel good," she says.

Much of rabbit's new higher status is due to a special breed of rabbit known as the "Rex," whose fur is denser and silkier than regular rabbit fur. The Rex's growing popularity, especially among designers not normally known for working with fur, is helping democratize the once elite fur market. Now, instead of spending $20,000 and up on a floor-length mink status symbol, fur fans are buying a rabbit vest, shawl or poncho for just $150 to $2,500.

"It's not about being snobby," says designer Adrienne Landau, who works with rabbit fur. "Today in fashion it's about having fun with something, wearing it with jeans. It's not about 'I want a serious mink coat' any more." A black sheared rabbit jacket can be worn with an evening dress or with jeans, says Ms. Landau.

It has been a long journey back from fashion oblivion for the rabbit. For decades, rabbit pelts were considered declasse -- cheap, scraggly and prone to shedding. Fur fans scorned rabbit, confining its audience to teenagers or those who couldn't afford anything better. "Traditional furriers always pooh-poohed rabbit as something the maids wore," says Ms. Cassin, the designer.

Nearly driven out of business by the early 1990s by antifur activists, the fur industry has rebounded. A new generation of women who don't remember the heated animal-rights battles of the '70s and '80s is embracing fur. "The whole morality issue about furs seems to have gone away," says David Wolfe, creative director of Doneger Group, a fashion forecasting firm.

Lisa Franzetta, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, disputes that view, saying the antifur movement is as strong as ever. "A lot of people who have always considered it wrong to wear fur have moved on to rejecting all animal skins, including leather," she said.

Nevertheless, in 2002, fur sales leapt 11%, to $1.7 billion, according to the Fur Information Council of America. And furriers expected a similar increase in 2003. While the council doesn't break out rabbit sales, anecdotal evidence also suggests a bunny boom. Dean Brenner, co-owner of New York's Delta Trading Corp., says demand for rabbit has doubled or tripled every year for the past four years.

Rabbit's transition from poor relation to star performer got a big boost from the Rex. According to the National Rex Rabbit Club, the breed was the product of a recessive gene first spotted in France in 1919 by a parish priest. Unlike garden-variety rabbits, the Rex has no prominent "guard hair" -- the rougher top coat that characterizes traditional rabbit fur. The result is a silky, dense fur that furriers say most resembles chinchilla or sheered mink.

Rex rabbits were imported into the U.S. in the 1920s, where their luxurious fur quickly made them popular at livestock shows, says Rex rabbit judge Cathy Szychulda. But after the antifur movement began in the 1960s, fur fell out of fashion and Rex rabbit breeders retreated to backyard sheds, where they raised small batches to show in demanding Rex rabbit competitions. "Ten years ago, you couldn't give them away," says Tom James, a Rex rabbit breeder in American Fork, Utah.

The rigorous show culture created steady improvements in Rex rabbit quality, including even more lustrous coats and much larger rabbits, whose pelts measure as long as 25 inches -- or nearly three times the length of a traditional rabbit.

By the mid-1990s, U.S.-bred Rex rabbits became coveted for their champion bloodlines, attracting commercial rabbit farmers from as far away as China and Argentina.

Ms. Cassin says she saw her first Rex rabbit more than four years ago. At the time, she was a newcomer to the fur industry and had never owned a fur coat. She says traditional luxury furs left her cold. They were too ostentatious, she says. "Nothing seemed young." But the Rex reminded her of sheered mink, without the big price or the old-lady image.

Rabbit got another lift when color became the big news in fashion two years ago. Rabbit's more affordable price has encouraged experimentation, either with color or shadings that mimic other furs, or even other textures. "It allows us to do more progressive things, without worrying that we might ruin an expensive skin" if an experiment goes awry, says Marc Berman, a fur "dresser" and dyer. At the request of one finicky customer, he once dyed a Rex rabbit the color of a crust on a loaf of French bread.

Dennis Basso, who sells coats made of mink, sable and chinchilla for $40,000 and up at his Madison Avenue salon, says he wouldn't dream of using rabbit. "It's like Harry Winston selling turquoise," he says.

But Sharon Zambrelli, a New York consultant to the beauty business, says she no longer wears her mink coat, preferring her rabbit poncho, which feels "hipper." For Ms. Zambrelli, mink has become a precious item saved for special occasions that never seem to come up. "It's like people who have silver and never use it," she says.

Write to Sally Beatty at sally.beatty@wsj.com

Updated January 27, 2004 12:59 a.m.

Copyright © 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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