When most of us think about our time at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York, images of blistered feet, physical exhaustion and near emotional breakdowns run through our heads. And when we stop to think that we do all of this in homage to our love for fashion, we are both impressed and kind of embarrassed (only kind of).
But when Jena Hunt and Rachel Holzer think of Fashion Week, they see an opportunity to spread awareness about an issue very near and dear to their hearts: Cruelty Free Fashion.
After a personal run-in with animal rights activists at Fashion Week, I began a conversation with Jena Hunt, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA) Fashion Campaigner and her Assistant Rachel to learn more about what they do and how they spread awareness as representatives for PETA.
Tell me about yourself; how and why you got involved with PETA.
JENA: I was raised vegetarian (my mother is a dietitian) and always loved animals, but still wore plenty of leather and never thought much about fur. While in college I happened across a PETA exposé on the skins industries, and was horrified. As a lover of fashion and animals, I wanted to help show other people what I had just discovered. The best way to attract attention to these crimes and the alternatives is often through cleverness; and no one does that better than PETA.
RACHEL: Ever since I was a child I have had a strong empathy for animals and sensitivity to the injustices that they endure at the hands of humans. I became involved with PETA largely due to their reputation for fearlessly sticking up for animals’ rights. It was important to me to be a part of an organization that had no qualms about going to all kinds of lengths to defend those who cannot defend themselves. With PETA I found a group of people who share the same passion and goals. [I] am happy to be a part of such a wonderful organization.
What are your duties?
J: As PETA’s Fashion Campaigner, I [have] traveled around the county leading demonstrations and representing the cause to the media. The demonstrations can be very colorful, so I’ve done everything from dress as a Grim Reaper to “haunt” Donna Karen, who would then [go on to] stop using fur in her collections, to go nearly buff in public for PETA’s I’d Rather Go naked Than Wear Fur campaign. I’ve also had the opportunity to relay these often ignored issues to people by doing interviews with radio stations, all of the major TV news networks, and newspapers.
R: My duties typically depend on the type of tour that I am on. They can be anything from me sitting in a 70 gallon tank filled with Hawaiian Punch (in middle America) representing scalded chickens on our McDonald’s McCruelty Tour, to handing out leaflets and educating the public. I am always up for anything. Most recently, I attended New York Fashion Week [where I] handed out literature, DVD’s and spoke with the public at different shows and events.
What is the biggest misconception about PETA?
J: The biggest misconception about people involved in animal rights in general is that we’re making tough sacrifices to live a cruelty-free lifestyle; really, it’s as easy as (egg-free) pie. When I went vegan, for example, not only did I lose weight and get clear skin, a whole new world of dining excitement opened up to me: now, when I’m traveling, whether to New York or Kansas City, MO, I always discover great vegetarian restaurants and new dishes. It’s satisfying knowing I’m not contributing to suffering when I sit down to eat, or shop.
What’s something that surprised you?
R: There is no denying that PETA has a reputation for being a bit of a “rough” organization. When I first started to work for PETA, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the staff; how I would receive them and how they would receive me. I was pleasantly surprised to discover an extremely professional staff not only in demeanor but also in appearances as well. They were welcoming, supportive, helpful and very informative – contrary to popular belief.
What is the biggest misconception about fur and skins in fashion?
J: Many people still don’t know the full, yucky story behind the skins industries: buying or wearing fur is, without a doubt, contributing to and promoting unspeakable suffering, no matter what. Some furriers try to hide behind a lie that fur is “green,” but it’s about as un-eco-friendly as it gets. It takes fifteen-times more energy to produce a real fur coat than a fake one, and the chemicals used to keep the flesh from rotting are highly toxic and carcinogenic.
R: [One of] the biggest misconceptions about skins such as leather is that it is simply a slaughterhouse by-product which isn’t the case. When dairy cows’ production declines, their skin is made into leather and the hides of their offspring – calves raised for veal – are made into high-priced calfskin. In addition, Leather may be made from cows, pigs, goats and sheep or exotic animals like alligators, ostriches, and kangaroos; even dogs and cats, who are slaughtered for their meat and skins in China, which then exports the skins around the world. Since leather is normally not labeled, you never really know where (or whom) it came from.
In regards to fur, the biggest misconception is that animals on fur farms, also known as fur ranches, are treated humanely. Fur farming is really nothing more than institutionalized torture. PETA’s investigations at fur farms have found that some animals are killed by anal electrocution, meaning that an electrically charged steel rod is inserted into their rectums, literally frying their insides.
(for more information, please visit cowsarecool.com and furisdead.com)
Stella McCartney is widely known for her stance on cruelty-free fashion, but who are some other designers that may not be well-known?
J: Ben Cho is one of the hippest young designers who doesn’t use any animals skins whatsoever. My two new favorite labels are MATT & NAT, who make amazing vegan purses from recycled bottles – it somehow looks like the finest material, I got so many compliments on mine at NYFW – and the shoemaker Olsen Haus, who has the most adorable skin-free shoes. Fashion photographers were snapping photos of my shoes all week!
R: A few of my personal favorites are Linda Loudermilk, OlsenHaus, Vaute Coat and MATT & NAT handbags.
In what ways can consumers practice cruelty-free fashion?
R: The best way to practice cruelty-free fashion is to avoid clothing and accessories made from animal skins, furs, wool and by-products. With the amount of synthetics on the market today there really is no excuse not to make compassionate choices when shopping. It is also important to avoid cosmetics that have been tested on animals or that contain animal ingredients.
J: Avoiding products that are tested on tortured animals is easy, too: beauty companies like Kiss My Face and Beauty Without Cruelty are becoming very popular and easy to find. I carry a little pocket guide of cruelty-free products and companies with me when I shop- get one for free here.
How can anyone interested get involved with PETA?
R: Anyone interested in becoming a part of PETA can visit www.peta.org and click on the “Action Center” link where you can join PETA’s Action Team in order to help make a difference for animals!
J: There are many ways to help animals, and the first step is to cut fur out of our lives. Fashion lovers everywhere should write to designers they’d like to see go fur-free, and help fashion rejoin the 21st century.
1. Jena during Fashion Week, wearing Bebe and cruelty-free OlsenHaus shoes.
2. Jena outside the tents
3. Rachel Holzer
All photos courtesy of Jena Hunt and Rachel Holzer