Ostrich Feathers Might Be In, But Just How Ethical Are They?

Cardi B is (no surprise) taking Fashion Month by storm. The “Bodak Yellow” rapper started the spring/summer 2019 show season in New York City — sitting front row at Tom Ford and Jeremy Scott, and making headlines when she allegedly threw her shoe at Nicki Minaj at the Harper's Bazaar Icons party. And she dropped in on Milan to attend the Dolce & Gabbana show and performance at Domenico Dolce's 60th birthday. But it was in Paris, the spiritual home of luxury fashion, that Cardi B took things to an entirely new level.
On Wednesday, Cardi B attended the Mugler show already wearing a custom new season look from designer Casey Cadwallader’s debut collection for the house. The day before, she emerged — during daylight hours — in a dramatic floor-length gown, slashed up to the hip and down to the navel, with a custom matching hat from the Gitana collection by Michael Costello. It’s like a rap world sequel to Celine Dion’s totally extra Paris couture moment last year.
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But it was the purple suit and matching hair situation she debuted on Tuesday night, for a performance at the Etam presentation, that flew around the internet. Cut low in front and worn with cascading diamond earrings, the suit was wrapped in a dramatic spray of dyed purple ostrich feathers. The creation of young British designer Christian Cowan (who is based in New York), the suit is an early preview of the controversial trend for feathers that looks set to run through party season.
With fur thankfully trending towards catwalk extinction — no designers using fur at London Fashion Week this season, and bans are in place at Gucci, Versace (and its new owner Michael Kors), Burberry, Armani, Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, and Tom Ford — animal rights are on a high they haven’t seen since the ’90s supers proclaimed they’d rather go naked than wear fur. But the ethics of using feathers in fashion are a little more complicated, and far less well-known.
The ostrich feather trade used to be considered one of the more ethical examples of animal products used in fashion. In a report earlier this year, Fashionista managed to dig up an 1888 article from a magazine for nature-lovers, which explains that ostrich feathers “are taken without suffering to the bird, and form an important article of trade,” and that “these, [as] with…feathers of all birds killed for useful purposes, may satisfy the natural desire to make our dress as pretty and artistic as possible.” The method of removing feathers without killing the ostrich is still around today.
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“We cut [ostrich feathers] like you cut your nails,” Saag Jonker, a South African ostrich farmer, explains in the Fashionista report. “When they reach a certain stage of being ripe then it’s like a fruit when it ripens then after a certain time and then it falls off the trees.” Saag’s partner Hazel Jonker, a member of the Greens party in SA, likens the process to “wool, and sheep shorn for wool”: “The feathers are harvested, the birds grow new feathers again.” The Jonkers add that they abide by South Africa’s animal rights laws, and industry regulations. But that isn’t the whole picture.
At least 70% of all the world’s ostriches live in South Africa, according to the National Department of Agriculture. The largest birds on earth, they are farmed for their meat, feathers and distinctive, pock-marked (from being plucked) skin, with 90% of these ‘products’ being exported out of the country. And not all farms are like the Jonkers’. A PETA US investigation in 2015 found that baby ostriches were removed at birth (in the wild, they stay for up to three years with their parents, who co-parent), repeatedly plucked alive, and slaughtered (in front of each other) at one year old. In the wild they can live to 40, and are considered to be very intelligent. In a PETA video, workers at the farms can be heard saying they supply to luxury brands including Prada and Hermès, carnival costume designers, feather boa and feather duster stockists, and more.
While small operators trading in moulted feathers only do exist, they can’t generate anywhere near as much ‘product’ as industrialized farms. And anyway, ostriches don’t moult. “Finding and collecting feathers that have fallen from birds in nature sounds nice – but it isn’t a viable business model to supply designers with the volume of feathers they demand,” PETA’s Yvonne Taylor told the Guardian. “Peta has found that whenever parts of animals are used in the fashion industry, corners are cut and abuse is commonplace,” she explains, noting that because all feathers look the same, “there’s simply no fail-safe way to ensure that ducks, geese, chickens, ostriches and emus haven’t suffered for feather items.”
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