Talking About Animals With Tim Gunn

The semi-annual trade show known as New York fashion week started yesterday, and after doing the rounds of shows, I managed get into a party at the Stella McCartney store. It was sponsored by PETA, and Tim Gunn, Olivia Munn, and Taraji P. Henson were the guests of honor. I walked in, collected a glass of red, ate a vegan snack that was actually very tasty, and ran into a friend. She was carrying a Granta tote bag. The drag queen Lady Bunny was deejaying in the back. I found all of this very reassuring.

Then the music went down, and Olivia Munn got up to talk. The Daily Show correspondent crafted her speech as an appeal to those celebrities who feel unfairly treated by the news media, and who, she said, feel that if reporters could only "know them, and could see that they have feelings, too," then those reporters would not write hurtful things about their personal lives. "Animals have feelings, too," she said, to the guests who crowded between racks of $1100 faux-wrap dresses and $1895 contrast-lapel tuxedo jackets to hear her. "And it hurts more than some tabloid story" to be made into a coat.

"Beleaguered celebrities are exactly like animals who get killed for their pelts," said my friend.

Tim Gunn spoke and showed a video he'd narrated for PETA's website, which featured clandestinely shot footage of foxes, minks, rabbits, snakes, and cows being slaughtered for their hides. When Gunn was dean of the fashion school at Parsons, he invited PETA to give presentations on campus. "I wanted my students to be making responsible choices," he said. "Socially responsible choices and environmentally responsible choices." Especially, he said, given the fashion industry has had generations in which to produce advertising and editorial imagery in order to brand products made from fur, exotic skins, and leather as the very definition of luxury. "I believe in freedom of choice," he explained. "I just want people to be able to make informed choices."

As Gunn was talking, a blonde swaddled in an enormous wool cloak spoke up suddenly. "Excuse me!" she shouted. She had a neck tattoo and enormous brass earrings swung from her gauged earlobes. "You're here for a cause, not a drink, so please shut the fuck up. I'm sorry." Gunn nodded at her and — how else to say this? — carried on.

Taraji P. Henson, whose impressive contribution to PETA's long-running Rather Go Naked ad campaign the crowd had notionally assembled to fête, said that she had changed her mind about fur after coming across a PETA documentary while channel surfing. "I felt for the animals," she said, "but it also made me feel for the humans that clock in and do that work every day. What does it do, psychologically, to go to work day in, day out, and rip the flesh and fur off a living creature?"

"This is not the 16th Century!" she continued. "We don't live in tents. We don't even eat the animals we kill for fur!" Civilization has advanced. "We have central heat, for God's sake." The crowd laughed.

It's a pretty maddening business, trying to make consumer choices that are both ethical and informed. Especially, it would seem, if one were to try to meet that challenge and live up to PETA's kind of ideological purity. As an organization, after all, PETA is against not just against such pretty universally reviled practices as killing chinchillas and rare snakes for their skins, it argues that humans ought to go without wool, because "any kind of wool means suffering for animals." (Mulesing featured prominently in the video Gunn narrated.) Never mind that a sheep is about the most efficient and environmentally benign known means of turning grass into warm, soft, durable, biodegradable fibers such as keep a human body warm and dry, and synthetic alternatives like bamboo and tencel still score relatively poorly on all those measures. Bamboo requires so much processing to produce cellulose fibers suitable for milling into fabric that it is actually, chemically speaking, rayon. (I come from the world's second-biggest wool producing country, albeit one where mulesing is almost unknown; I'm probably biased.) We can all basically agree that raising and feeding an animal to maturity, just to kill it for its fur and discard the carcass is, at the very least, a tremendously inefficient means of clothing a human being. And tanneries are hardly eco-friendly. But with the textile industry increasingly moving to countries with few to no environmental standards — thanks to a global trade treaty that lapsed in the early part of last decade — how do we know our friendly crueltry-free vegan leather sweatshop isn't poisoning the water table of whatever third-world country it's relocated to and exposing all the workers it pays $3/day to carcinogens?

I asked Tim Gunn about how to balance ethical qualms about using products like leather, and environmental qualms about the production of synthetic alternatives. "That's a very good question," he said, and not in that off-hand way that people sometimes do. In that moment, I truly believed that I had asked Tim Gunn the Best Question Ever. It made me feel very special. "There are a lot of concerns about the kinds of chemicals that go into the making of these materials. That was one of the first things I wanted to know about, actually." He started talking about textile industry safety standards. "These chemicals have to be handled very carefully, with protective suits and masks and appropriate ventilation and things. But it's also the case that we need greater industry support to develop these technologies." He paused. "If there were greater demand, say, for PVC or other alternatives over leather, we would develop safer and better ways of manufacturing them. The demand has to rise for the products to improve."

I milled around for a few minutes, talking to some people I knew. There was a middle-aged man in a pair of very impressive patchwork jeans, and a dude who looked like Ernest Hemingway — white beard, turtleneck and all. I was suddenly very conscious of the leather laptop bag on my shoulder. Then I realized Gunn was wearing leather shoes. A friend of mine wanted a cigarette, so we went outside and talked about Cambodia and Mexico and magazines. Three people we knew passed us on 14th street. (Fashion week is in some ways like a seven-day-long high school reunion.) Someone mentioned going "to Indochine" for "Vladimir's thing," but I was tired. Two publicists for the event came outside to smoke; they'd been working since 5 a.m.

Lady Bunny opened wide the store's plate-glass doors and exited, her enormous blonde coiffure emerging before her body. "Someone stole my style!" she said, pointing at the mannequins in Stella McCartney's window, each of which wore an outfit that cost several thousand dollars, topped with a huge rose blossom-covered ball for a head. The resemblance shared by the silhouettes was in fact uncanny. Someone offered to take her picture through the glass if she wanted to strike a pose in the window display with her doppelgangers, but Lady Bunny declined. "I did that already, honey," she said. "Earlier, when my hair wasn't messed up." (Her hair was in no way "messed up" to my eye, but then drag queens have aesthetic standards of such incredibly fetishistic precision, I fear to contradict her.) And then she waved goodbye.