Written by William Neuman and Jeffery C. Mays
As Corey Johnson, speaker of the New York City Council, urged his colleagues Wednesday to ban the sale of fur in the city, he argued that it was the “moral thing to do.”
But the proposed ban, backed by animal welfare advocates, has met an unexpected challenge from a diverse set of opponents, including black pastors and Hasidic leaders. They say a prohibition would fly in the face of centuries of religious and cultural tradition.
Black ministers have staged protests, saying that for many African-Americans, wearing furs is a treasured hallmark of achievement. Hasidic rabbis point to the many men who wear fur hats on the Sabbath. And fur shop owners and garment manufacturers have raised alarms over the potential loss of jobs and an attack on an industry with a deep history in New York.
With the council holding a hearing on the proposal Wednesday, the deep dissension was evident outside City Hall. Protesters yelled, “Put people first,” and counterprotesters responded, “How many animals have to die?”
Each side had celebrity power: The anti-fur movement was represented by Tim Gunn, the “Project Runway” style guru; the pro-fur crowd had Safaree Samuels, a rapper and television personality, who was wearing a lynx coat that he said he had bought for the event.
The bill being considered by the council would ban the sale of fur garments and accessories, but it would allow the sale of used fur garments and new apparel using fur from older garments. Violators would be subject to fines of $500 to $1,500, and any money made from selling banned fur would be subject to forfeiture. The bill would not ban wearing fur.
Los Angeles is the largest city in the country to have banned the sale of fur; other cities include San Francisco and West Hollywood, California. But New York City is the largest fur retail market in the United States, according to FurNYC, a trade group representing 130 fur retailers in the city. The 150 fur businesses in the city create 1,100 jobs and produce $400 million in revenue per year, according to the group.
Maria Reich, 43, chief executive of Reich Furs, a Manhattan-based manufacturer of fur coats, said a ban on fur sales would have a drastic effect on the 20 or so people she directly employs and an additional 30 contractors she uses to create her pieces.
“The morale is down. They are scared,” Reich said of her employees. “These are people who have a craft and have been working in this industry for 30 or 40 years. They don’t know what they will do next, and they have families to support.”
Reich Furs is on West 30th Street, in what is known by those who frequent the area as the Fur District. The company was started in the 1940s by the grandfather of Reich’s deceased husband. The business is in its fourth generation of family ownership.
“There’s a political agenda. If this ban happens, the leather industry will be attacked; the meat industry will be attacked,” Reich said. “There’s a slippery slope. Are politicians going to tell us what to do, what to wear and what to eat? It’s a little bigger than fur.”
Dan Mathews, a senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an advocacy group, said the city’s fur-making tradition should not impede a ban.
“Once in a while, we just take a look around and decide that certain practices should not be part of our modern society,” he said, “and electrocuting and skinning animals alive for a luxury product is something that just turns people’s stomach, and that’s why it’s going by the wayside.”
The bill was introduced by Johnson, the council speaker, and an enthusiastic animal lover who, in 2017, co-sponsored a bill that led to the ban of circuses using wild and exotic animals in the city. At the hearing Wednesday, he called the fur industry brutal and pointed to the cruel treatment of animals raised or killed for their pelts.
Johnson played a video showing animals living in cages and then being electrocuted or having their necks broken. “The evidence of cruelty in the fur industry is overwhelming,” he said.
Local furriers should “diversify” and embrace innovations in the fashion and garment industry that can take the place of fur. “There is no such thing as ‘ethical’ fur, or ‘ecological’ fur, or ‘excellent welfare’ fur,” Johnson said.
But it was unclear how much support the bill has in the City Council or when Johnson might seek to bring the measure up for a vote. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that he supported “the underlying idea” of a ban, but added that he was concerned about the effect on workers in the fur industry.
“I think if something happens here there has to be some sense of how to phase it in, in a way that really does try and protect some jobs,” de Blasio said in March.
Councilman Chaim Deutsch of Brooklyn said that he opposed the ban for several reasons, including that many Hasidic Jewish men wear hats made of fur, known as shtreimels or spodiks.
“If we ban fur and then you have people that are still out there wearing it, considering the fact that hate crime in New York City is on the rise, people will be targeted on the streets, saying, ‘Why are you wearing this if there’s a fur ban?’ ” Deutsch said.
In its current form, the bill includes an exemption for fur items worn as a “matter of religious custom,” but Deutsch was nonetheless wary.
“Today they’re going to ban fur, tomorrow our pants are going to start falling down because they’re going to ban leather, we’re not going to have belts,” he said. “We’re not going to have shoes. Once you start with one thing, where does it end? What is next? We can’t eat chicken? We can’t eat meat?”
For Mobilizing Preachers and Communities, a group of mostly black pastors who have come out against the ban, the opposition is more secularly based.
“In our culture, fur is a sign of status, achievement, that we’ve made it against all odds,” said the Rev. Johnnie Green Jr., pastor of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem, who leads the group of pastors opposing the ban. “Show up to any black church on a Sunday in the winter, and you will see a heap of mink coats.
“To ban the sale of fur in New York City, but allow it to be sold in Westchester, is culturally insensitive,” he added, referring to the suburbs north of the city.
Green owns a mink coat that hits below the waist and says he likes to wear it when he travels and on special occasions. “I wear it because I like the way it looks,” he said. “I like what it represents. I like the style.”
The pastor dismissed the argument against animal cruelty. “I’m more concerned about saving black lives,” he said. “When the activists are more concerned about saving black lives than black minks, let me know.”
Samuels, the rapper, is known for his affinity for furs. “My stylist let me know about it, and I was like, a fur ban in New York City? How could they do that in one of the fashion capitals, if not the fashion capital, of the world?” he said.
Asked for the price of his new coat, he turned to his stylist. “How much was this one, Messiah?”
“Fifty five,” came the reply.
“Fifty-five thousand?” he asked.
“Furs are expensive,” Samuels concluded. “It’s an expensive habit.”