Jenni Avins made the rounds at New York Fashion Week wearing a red fox-fur vest. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The real story is that the fashion writer, who contributes to New York, Marie Claire, and Vanity Fair, trapped, skinned, and sewed the garment herself, a graphic experience she recounts in the latest issue of Vice. Like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg before her—he who ignited an ethics firestorm when he declared he only ate meat he killed himself—Avins plumbs a gray area on the periphery of fur’s controversial return to the runway. Whatever your politics on the issue, she poses a compelling hypothetical: Is fur more humane if it’s “free-range” and wild-caught? What if you do the hunting and killing yourself?
TAKING THE BAIT
Since LexisNexis had little to offer, Avins did the only thing she could: go hunting. Turns out, turning dead animal skin into haute couture wasn’t as difficult as she imagined. “It’s a macabre but doable task,” she writes, “given some expert assistance.”
Avins skinned her fox using an industrial-strength metal hanger with two silver hooks suspended by chains.
A series of phonecalls led Avins to the wilds of Pennsylvania, where she met Larry, a “country collector” with “John Denver glasses” who buys and skins carcasses, and Barry, a veterinarian technician who moonlights as a trapper. (Last names have been withheld to protect the guilty.) There, scattering mini-marshmallows, a grape-jelly-like bait, and the contents of a vial labeled “Raccoon #1,” Avis set her first spring-loaded trap—”designed to hold an animal’s paw until it’s ‘dispatched’ (i.e., shot and killed) the following morning”—along a muddy riverbank.
The traps stayed empty the next day, so Larry handed Avins a freshly thawed fox from the icebox. Together with Larry’s partner, Eric, who had just returned from his morning shift as a sergeant at the Lebanon County Prison, Avins proceeded to skin the animal using an industrial-strength metal hanger with two silver hooks suspended by chains on each corner.
IN THIS SKIN
The process is stomach-churning, to say the least. “I felt the hook push past the bones and saw it come out on the other side,” she says.” Eric slowly turned the fox, now hanging by its hind legs, a blue plastic bucket on the floor beneath its nose. Next, Eric handed me a small, plastic-handled paring knife. With the tip of the blade, I traced up the backs of the fox’s shins and then around the bottoms of its ankles. I worked my fingers into the seam of sliced flesh, pulling the fur from shiny muscle until the swath was completely separated and hanging just below its tail. Then I worked my fingers into a tiny space between the muscle and the still-connected skin and yanked it as hard as I could, peeling the fox to the base of its tail, exposing the tailbone.”
“Something inside me wanted to clutch it to my chest, like a teddy bear or a baby,” Avins says.
Forty minutes later, Avins found herself holding the entire skin, inside out, in her arms, feeling completely bewildered. Pulling off the fur, she felt an “unfamiliar mixture of gratitude and remorse,” she says. “Something inside me wanted to clutch it to my chest, like a teddy bear or a baby…To my horror, I was starting to cry.”
After Larry and Eric sold her three more fox pelts, Avins had enough to make her vest. Total cost? $150, which she describes as a “total steal.” From there, Avins took her hides to a dresser named Marc in New Jersey, who plunged them into “frothing tubs of soap, chemicals, and salt” to process the skin into leather.
Back in Manhattan, Avins conducted the final leg of her journey with the help of Dimitris, who helped her piece together the furs. “With a gold-handled blade, Dimitris sliced off their pale inner edges and sewed the skins together, creating a mutant, two-headed fox pelt with a double-wide back,” she says. “‘See?’ he said. ‘Like plastic surgery.’ Then he unceremoniously swiped across the tops of their necks. Like that, my foxes were fabric.” Maria, a seamstress known as a finisher, inserted a butterscotch-flecked gray flannel lining that “resembled the underlayer of fox fur.”
If you were hoping for any monumental epiphany or crashing waves of insight, you’d be disappointed. There is little catharsis to be had in her dénouement, which occurs when Avins brings her finished vest to a monogram shop on 30th St. to have her name embroidered. “Really, I should have requested a few more: Maria, Dimitris, Marc, Barry, Eric, and Larry,” she concludes. “Plus four little red foxes who are keeping me very, very warm this winter. And I love every last one of them for it.”