Righteous Kill: How Nutria Fur Is Becoming a Runway Regular

Last January, on an unusually cool night in New Orleans, the Marigny Theatre hosted Righteous Fur Fashion Show: A Nutria-palooza! Stationed at the entrance to the sold-out multimedia event was Boudreaux D. Nutria, the plush, oversize mascot of the New Orleans Zephyrs minor league baseball team. Inside, a film with puppets, North Pole Nutrias, played on a loop. Local models in nutria fashions walked the runway to music from a fur-bikini–clad cellist and the Mystic Herd of Nutria drum corps, a newly reunited Mardi Gras krewe. Ragged and enthusiastically DIY, it felt as if The Clan of the Cave Bear had been relocated to a bordello. The line outside stretched down the block.

Nutria is an invasive species of swamp rodent whose numbers in the marshes and waterways of Louisiana and other Southern states are estimated in the millions. A ubiquitous presence, they are also a calamitous one—since they were first introduced to the U.S., nutria have destroyed vast swaths of coastal wetlands. It’s surprising, then, that they are also beloved by many. “Some people talk about their cuddly pet nutria, and others are like, ‘I remember when I went out with my daddy and bashed some nutria in the head,’” says Cree McCree, who established Righteous Fur, a nonprofit collective, in 2009. (Their slogan is “Save Our Wetlands, Wear More Nutria.”) For Nutria-palooza!, she distributed two nutria pelts apiece to 15 designers, each of whom was tasked with creating an original outfit using the fur. One of the show’s standout pieces was a hood that transforms into a collar and also a stole, sheared in a checkerboard pattern meant to invoke nutria’s “checkered past.” Says McCree, “They’ve been around so long that they’ve become part of the landscape. It’s kind of like how the oil economy has become part of the local culture.”

Righteous Fur was founded in response to one of the most alarming environmental and ecological problems facing the coastal South. When President Barack Obama outlined his “battle plan” several weeks after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and crude began spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, he compared the spill to “an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months or even years.” Obama might as well have been talking about nutria.

Before federal and local authorities stepped in to curtail the devastation in the late ’90s, nutria were eating their way through roughly 100,000 acres of marsh each year, accelerating the already rapid erosion of one of the most fragile ecosystems in North America. Even now, “Coastal Louisiana is disappearing to the tune of 25 square miles a year,” says Michael Massimi, invasive species coordinator for the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP). “So much attention went to Katrina and now the oil spill, but the big story here is really this slow, absolute catastrophe that’s been unfolding for the past 50 years.”

Righteous Fur hopes to use fashion to fight the problem by restoring nutria’s historic reputation as a luxury commodity. It’s a reasonable ambition when one considers the silver screen icons—Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren—who cloaked themselves in the Louisiana export. Story has it that New York Times street-fashion photographer Bill Cunningham was once so taken by a sumptuous nutria coat that he failed to notice its owner was Greta Garbo. In its natural state, nutria fur is longer and rougher than your average Park Avenue prize kill, with hoary tips and unpredictable streaks of black. Shorn, it achieves a velvety nut-brown color and is soft to the touch, not unlike beaver fur. “Like the nutria itself, the fur is very adaptable. It can be rugged but it can also be elegant,” says McCree. Swamp dwellers of Malthusian proportion, nutria have an everyman quality that their spindly Northern cousins—sable, ermine—fail to muster.

This unpretentiousness, popular during leaner times, hasn’t escaped the notice of a few mainstream designers, like Oscar de la Renta, Gilles Mendel, and Billy Reid, who’ve all used the fur in recent collections. Mendel braided nutria with other, more established furs, while de la Renta used it to detail coats. Reid, a Southern Louisiana native, CFDA winner, and GQ’s pick for best new menswear designer this year, trimmed gloves and puffed collars with nutria for his Fall 2010 collection. “It’s tough for fur to look really masculine, but nutria certainly has that kind of richness to it,” Reid says. “I call it badass fur because it looks so doggone tough.”

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Nutria were first brought to the United States from Argentina in the 1930s for fur farming. It wasn’t long before they escaped into the wild, where it was thought alligators would police their numbers, but the swamps proved too hospitable an environment for mating. At anywhere from 9 to 20 pounds, nutria look like small beavers—or, as most people see them, large rats. They have bald tails, rounded haunches, and the kind of beady-eyed, bewhiskered faces that recall overstuffed Tammany Hall politicians. Nutria also come equipped with a pair of long, russet-colored front teeth, which they use to eat the basal portions of marsh plants, the waterlogged, fibrous bits near the roots. “A plant might regrow after some animals nibble on it,” says Massimi, “but nutria tend to kill plants outright.”

Geologically speaking, virtually everything south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is brand-new land. If you pan out from there on Google Earth, the Mississippi Delta, where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico in a dendritic fracture of canals, looks like Chantilly lace. It’s a highly fragile ecological area, made all the more vulnerable by the river’s now-infamous levees, which prevent new topsoil from reaching—and rebuilding—the marshland.

Rapacious herbivores, nutria feast on the plants whose root systems keep the swamps from reverting to open water. When the first aerial surveys were conducted to assess the extent of the nutria “eat outs” in the early ’90s, the destruction was far worse than anyone predicted. “We found that some of the damage was really dramatic,” says Edmond Mouton, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

The state had to act. Its first scheme, implemented in the late ’90s, was an ill-conceived campaign to encourage locals to harvest nutria for food. “That’s like saying, ‘I’ll give you $2 million if you eat this,’” quips Massimi about the meat, which apparently takes on the flavor of whatever it’s been stewing in, swamp water included. (“Nutria tastes like bad chicken,” says a boy in a short, big-hearted documentary by filmmaker Ted Gesing called Nutria.) When that approach foundered, the Coastwide Nutria Control Program (CNCP) was founded in January 2002.

The CNCP, explains Mouton, was crafted to artificially re-create the once-booming market for nutria fur. In the mid-’70s, when international demand peaked, trappers were earning as much as $9 a pelt. Unintentionally, those trappers also helped curb the proliferation of nutria. In the ’80s, however, the global market for fur suddenly and precipitously evaporated—due in no small part to the success of the anti-fur movement. Says Mouton, “The prices fell so the harvest fell, and in that time, from the late ’80s to the early ’90s, we started to see negative impact in wetlands.”

While the CNCP couldn’t hope to revitalize global interest in nutria fur, it did decide to pay a per-tail premium to trappers who signed on with their program, a blind eye turned to real market demand. “[Trappers] were originally paid $4 and then $5 to supplement a good price for fur,” explains Mouton. Sure enough, the yearly harvest increased, and, in the eight years since the program was implemented, nutria populations have steadily decreased. Nearly a half million nutria were culled in the 2009-2010 season alone. Far from eliminating the problem entirely—nutria still consume approximately 23,000 acres of wetlands a year—the CNCP has been successful in restoring it to more manageable contours. “Any animal left unchecked will destroy coastal wetlands,” Mouton says, “which are responsible for so many other species—everything else that lives out there.”

image Jonathan Traviesa

But for Cree McCree, one troublesome fact remains: “If these nutria have to die, they should not die in vain.” It’s a notion that challenges some of the most basic ideas about animal rights—can slaughtering an animal be considered an ethical imperative? Even as they destroy a habitat that’s home to thousands of other species, should nutria be left alone? Can wearing fur ever be anything more than the sartorial sanctioning of animal cruelty? For McCree, the answer to these questions is clear. Nutria tallies are determined by tail count, and trappers, who have no use for the remaining carcasses, tend to throw them back into the swamp to decompose. Nearly 90% of nutria carcasses are left to rot. What eventually became Righteous Fur began as a few design prototypes McCree commissioned (with the help of a grant from BTNEP) from a local designer—she concentrated on crafting nutria teeth jewelry—for 2009’s La Fête d’Ecologie, a yearly celebration in Thibodaux, Louisiana. These eco-conscious ivories and fur fashions are, according to McCree, part of one “giant recycling project.”

Like Billy Reid—who’s designing a line of T-shirts emblazoned with the Righteous Fur logo, a smiling nutria that looks equal parts Lord Voldemort and Benedictine monk—McCree sources her fur from a trapper associated with Mouton’s CNCP, Tab Petrie, a second-generation furrier based in New Orleans. “We are very happy because we can put a lot of people to work,” says Petrie through a tangled Cajun accent about the economic upshot of the program. “My dad did this for 50, 60 years. We like the business.” Trappers deliver nutria carcasses to his factory, where the hides are submitted to a roller machine that squeezes excess meat from the skin and are then fitted over “nutria boards” to dry.

While not all designers source nutria fur from the South—“I’m sure Oscar de la Renta isn’t getting his pelts down here; he may be getting some in Canada,” speculates McCree, correctly—Righteous Fur will continue to promote fur harvested through the CNCP exclusively. “Whether you consider it guilt-free is a matter of personal conscience,” says McCree, “But so long as they’re being killed, why not honor the animal?” And while Righteous Fur aims to turn a profit in the near future, their business model encompasses its own eventual collapse. Antithetical to the project would by the reinstatement of fur farms should demand for nutria suddenly outpace what’s available through the CNCP. “I’d rather see Righteous Fur go out of business,” says Massimi, highlighting an inherent paradox—creating a market for something Righteous Fur hopes to eliminate. But this is unlikely. Says McCree, “More than any other creature in the bayou—including the people down there—nutria will live to munch again.”

Later this fall, McCree is bringing Nutria-palooza!, her folksy antidote to the corseted seriousness of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, to New York. Righteous Fur has mostly avoided run-ins with anti-fur activist groups like PETA, but McCree is expecting to clash with them then. After the show, there will be a live auction. John Calhoun and the Invasive Species will perform. A fifth of the proceeds will go to wetlands restoration; the remainder will go to the designers, who are, as always, encouraged to mix and match materials. “The only taboo is other furs,” Righteous Fur’s call to designers reads. “Nutria is the star!”

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