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The Marketing Challenge Behind Schiaparelli’s Fur Faux Pas

The brand’s hyperrealistic (but fake) animal heads sparked outrage this week, highlighting the increasingly delicate balance brands must strike between provocative marketing and shifting consumer values.
(Left to right) Front row at Schiaparelli's Couture show in Paris: Kylie Jenner, Marisa Berenson, Doja Cat, Diane Kruger and Rossy de Palma.
Front row at Schiaparelli's Couture show in Paris (left to right:) Kylie Jenner, Marisa Berenson, Doja Cat, Diane Kruger and Rossy de Palma. (Schiaparelli)

Schiaparelli’s latest couture collection, shown Monday, took inspiration from Dante Alighieri’s vision of Hell — but three show-stealing looks featuring hyper-realistic lion, snow leopard and she-wolf heads sparked a particularly fiery response online.

Though fur-free and hand-crafted from materials including foam, resin, wool and silk, the designs were widely criticised as tastelessly glamourising big-game hunting, objectionable for its links to wealth inequality and the legacy of colonialism, as well as the killing of endangered animals for sport.

Not everyone took offence — animal rights activist group PETA praised the faux-fur adornments for their craftsmanship and ingenuity — but the designs were clearly calculated to provoke a reaction during a Paris couture week noisy with competitors vying for the attention of editors, influencers and fashion fans following the action online.

From the start, designer Daniel Roseberry’s Schiaparelli reboot has aimed to spark conversation in a fashion market where attention is a key currency for brands, and this week the drama started before the show, with Kylie Jenner posing for photos then sitting front row with a lion head affixed to her chest. (Schiaparelli declined to comment.)

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At the same time, fashion brands are under increased pressure to reflect shifting consumer values on topics from climate change to animal welfare to social justice. And the outraged response to Schiaparelli’s stunt speaks to the delicate path brands must navigate between shock-and-awe marketing tactics and upholding those values.

Nailing that balance is tricky, with social media pushing brands to chase clicky content that keeps them in the conversation, while the bounds of acceptability are reframed by heightened ethical, social and environmental concerns.

Get it wrong and the backlash can be swift and unforgiving. (Balenciaga’s campaign featuring children holding S&M-inspired teddy bears is a particularly disastrous example of a brand whose provocative approach to marketing crossed a cultural line.)

“Customers basically want brands to not only sustain [moral and social rules] in some form or another, but be almost guardians of those rules,” said Kate Nightingale, a consumer psychologist and founder of the consultancy Humanising Brands.

Fur has become a particular flashpoint.

It’s a highly visceral issue for many, propelled into social consciousness by decades of impactful and targeted campaigns from animal rights advocates and the rise of social media. Growing concerns about wellness and climate change in recent years have made the topic more mainstream, fuelling a rise in veganism.

For many major fashion labels, ditching fur has become low-hanging fruit to score public relations points while cutting products that drive a very small portion of revenue (most recently, British luxury department store Harvey Nichols committed to ditch the material on Thursday).

But, increasingly, the bar of acceptability is rising.

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Schiaparelli wasn’t the only brand to be caught in a furry drama this week: Gucci pulled a range of rabbit felt hats after commentators called out a jarring disconnect between imagery of cute bunnies in its Lunar New Year campaign and the use of a material that relies on their exploitation.

The criticism was particularly loaded because the luxury Italian label famously dismissed fur as outdated in 2017, a flamboyant commitment to ban the material ahead of a much broader shift across the industry. Rabbit felt — which Gucci said is made from the hair of animals killed as part of the rabbit meat trade — fit with the letter of the company’s fur-free policy, but for some, felt out of step with its intent.

The brand said it discontinued products containing the material “to avoid any possible misunderstanding for our clients.”

Similarly, Schiaparelli accessorising a dress with a full-scale effigy of a lion’s head left a lot of commentators uneasy at a time when average global wildlife populations have declined 69 percent since 1970, according to the WWF.

Faux fur is widely accepted as a “tactile and visual appreciation of what we see in nature, but distanced from the kind of gratuitous violence of killing animals specifically for fashion,” said Emma Hakansson, founder of Collective Fashion Justice and author of How Veganism Can Save Us. “What [Schiaparelli] did with mounting heads, whether real or not, I think that’s an homage to that violence.”

The big question for brands is how the bounds of acceptability will shift next.

There is evidence that negative perceptions of other animal fibres are catching up with fur. An academic study of tweets from 2011 to 2020 published by Hanyang University in Seoul found that “the evaluation of most animal materials has changed negatively over time,” while attitudes towards fur stayed largely consistent.

That could spell trouble for materials like leather, which is far more strategically and financially important for fashion brands than fur, particularly as biobased alternatives grow in sophistication and scale. Scandi-cool contemporary brand Ganni, for example, committed to phase out leather after concluding the material’s carbon footprint was too high, though finding viable plant-based alternatives has not been without its challenges.

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More broadly speaking, consumers — jaded by greenwashing — want to see brands show a more rounded, joined-up understanding of the issues they care about.

“Consumers are just becoming increasingly savvy, and they’re demanding more from their brands,” said Shakaila Forbes-Bell, fashion psychologist and author of Big Dress Energy. Shoppers are more willing to buy from companies that provide substantial information about what makes them an ethical choice, while outrageous marketing stunts that test moral boundaries are falling out of favour, she added: “It’s not enough to just get likes and clicks.”

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