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With faux fur looking so real these days, you can't tell who's...

Faking it

Faux Arctic fox hat ($45), scarf ($49), and gloves ($19) from Fabulous Furs.
Faux Arctic fox hat ($45), scarf ($49), and gloves ($19) from Fabulous Furs.

Canadian customs agents recently stopped a courier delivering an American-made fur coat to Sweden’s Queen Silvia. But what customs thought was a $20,000 white mink was actually a $499 petroleum based fake.

‘‘They thought it was real,’’ Donna Salyers, owner and founder of the Kentucky-based Fabulous Furs, said of the coat she sold. Indeed, the confusion is not surprising given how much fake fur looks like the real thing these days. It wasn’t long ago that women wearing faux could be mistaken for a Care Bear. But especially in the last year, retailers and manufacturers say, it’s nearly impossible for some shoppers and antifur foot soldiers to tell a real fox from faux because the synthetic versions feel genuine now.

‘‘That was the missing thing— the touch,’’ Salyers said over the phone. Even at the Gap, which has had a longstanding no-fur policy, the fake mink capelets the store was selling over the holidays were practically indistinguishable from a pelt, so much so that customers may have needed to double-check the label if the price tag didn’t convince them first. The guessing game is more difficult when it comes to fur trim on gloves, sweaters, coats, and bags.

‘‘That’s when it almost looks more real,’’ said Gap spokeswoman Katie Molinari. And therein lies the dilemma. With the senses so easily tricked, a woman wearing real fur may feel emboldened to flat-out lie if someone say, at a cocktail party in Cambridge, asks her if her coat used to belong to a beaver. And a woman wearing a fake mink shrug to the opera may feel sly enough to fib and say it was her grandmother’s. Likewise, the girl who thought she was buying a sweater trimmed in fake fox might actually end up wearing cheap bunny around the collar.

And a woman who refuses to wear animal skins for political reasons but still likes the look of fur may be accused of the very act she tried to avoid. Just ask Martha Stewart. When Stewart walked out of the federal courthouse — and in front of a bank of cameras — with a furry accessory knotted cozily around her neck, her fashion statement set off two reactions: The first was from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which promptly named her one of the world’s worstdressed celebrities of 2004. The second was from furriers who raced to emulate what they believed was Stewart’s dyed chinchilla scarf. Both were misguided. Stewart was wearing a fake.

‘‘That was faux fur,’’ Stewart later told Barbara Walters. ‘‘My daughter doesn’t allow me to wear fur, Barbara. We don’t wear fur. Maligned, maligned, maligned. Soft and cuddly, that’s all it was.’’ PETA apologized. Sort of. And revised its worst-dressed list. (Diana Ross assumed Stewart’s top rank.)

In the meantime, PETA and many shoppers are still having trouble distinguishing between organic pelts and those that came off a Chinese loom. (Actually, some of the best imitations are being churned out by Japanese factories, designers say.)

PETA spokeswoman Brandi Valladolid admits that when she approaches a stranger who appears to be wearing real fur, she has to dig into the garment to determine its authenticity.

‘‘I’ll stop [people on the street] and they’ll say it’s fake. But when you pull back the fur you can see it’s attached to skin. I think a lot of them are not fibbing. They say, ‘This is just a cheap parka,’ or ‘I got it at some cheap store,’ and they don’t think it could possibly be real.’’

Valladolid said the animal rights group is pleased more women are at least trying to wear fakes, but the growth in faux’s popularity does have a drawback: If the look of fur is deemed fashionable, then more people might want to wear the real thing.

Still, she added, ‘‘the fact that there are synthetics out there that are so much like the real thing and have the exact same quality as real fur, just as warm and just as beautiful, makes it completely unacceptable that anyone who wants that look would choose the real thing.’’

Salyers, of Fabulous Furs, concurs that fakes are as warm as the genuine article. She says both have the same ‘‘R-value,’’ which is a measure of heat retention. ‘‘It’s the insulation created by air pockets,’’ she says. ‘‘Just like when you have storm windows. You have two layers of glass. It’s very logical that the longer the hair the more air is trapped and heated by your body heat. If you want a really warm coat you get a longer hair. And if it’s short hair, whether it’s animal or fake, it won’t be as warm.’’

Once, women would only buy a fake if they could not afford the real thing. Now they buy fakes for political reasons, because they keep the body warm, and because they’re popular. Which leads us to the next issue: With faux fur flooding the market, it is further diminishing the glam of the real thing. On a recent shopping trip to Marshalls, there was a legitimate mink evening bag on the mark-down rack. No one wanted it. Not even for the bargain price of $50.