West Hollywood's New Fur Ban Could Be a Model for the Nation. But Opponents Are Still Trying to Strike It Down

Ellen Lavinthal was the driving force behind West Hollywood's fur ban.
Ellen Lavinthal was the driving force behind West Hollywood's fur ban.

More stories from our 2012 Fashion Issue on dressing ethically: *West Hollywood's New Fur Ban *Does L.A. Still Have Sweatshops? *Yael Aflalo's Reformation Makes Vintage Cool *Santa Monica's Main Street, a Green Fashion Hub *Three L.A. Designers Who Do Eco-Fashion Right

 Ellen Lavinthal, a sassy brunette whose long-standing credo is to always give voice to her truth, is something of a misfit. She lives in a well-appointed 1925 Tuscan mansion in Beverly Hills with her successful husband, her daughter and numerous rescued cats and dogs. But she grew up with a father who ran guns for the Israeli underground and later moved the family every few years as a top executive for the charitable organization United Way.

"Wilmington, Delaware," she says with a sigh on a recent afternoon at her fur-free home. "I got there when I was in the fifth grade and the kids called me 'Jew Pickle.' That was my nickname. I started crying and went home."

Lavinthal and her husband mix and mingle in exclusive Beverly Hills social circles, but she got suspended for a month from the posh SoHo House in West Hollywood after handing a fur-clad woman at the club a graphic brochure about the pain and suffering inflicted on animals to make fur jackets and hats.

"It was Sunday brunch," she recalls. "I've done this many times before, but this was the time I got in trouble."

Lavinthal, who is in her 40s, has dedicated more than 20 years of her life to the humane treatment of animals, but, as her past implies, it's a question of fit. Some of her fellow activists can't help but question whether she's truly one of them, with her huge, elegant home north of Sunset Boulevard in the 90210.

"They look at me and how I live, and they don't think that I could possibly know what it feels like [to be an activist]," Lavinthal says. "But I really put in more hours than most of them because this is my dedicated job."

When misfits have a passion and a mission, they have an uncanny way of making things happen. That's especially true of Lavinthal. In November 2011, West Hollywood politicians passed a ban to stop the selling of fur apparel — the first ban of its kind in the United States and possibly the world. Lavinthal was a driving force behind it — and she doesn't want to stop with just one small city. She wants to end the sale of fur apparel across the nation — although experts don't see much of a chance of success.

"Animals are suffering right up to the minute they die — for a luxury product," Lavinthal explains. "That bothers me. ... Women think that fur makes them look rich and glamorous, but to me it makes them look selfish and uncaring, and a lot of people view it that way. You're a selfish person."

Many fashion retailers in West Hollywood disagree, although few will say that on the record, fearing that placard-waving animal-rights activists will march in front of their high-rent showrooms.

"It was so hard to get stores to speak up because of the [threat of] retaliation," says West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce president Genevieve Morrill. "Because they become a target for PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] and people in the anti-fur movement."

Paul Nicoletti, co-owner of Henry Beguelin, a high-end clothing store on Melrose Avenue, whose customers flock in for its stunning $2,000-$4,000 shearling jackets each fall, says, "What they've really accomplished is they've made business, which is already very difficult, even more difficult for those of us that signed leases before this ban was put into effect."

Nicoletti adds, "We don't do fox. We don't do exotic furs. We do shearling." Shearling, a lambskin or sheepskin pelt (think Ugg boots), is considered by some to be a separate category.

Patrick DiLascia, fashion designer and co-owner of PAR-LA, a hip urban clothing store for men, says, "I don't like people telling me what I can design or can't design. Whatever inspires me, I want to make. Every store has the right to carry fur. People can choose whether or not they want to buy it."

DiLascia is none too pleased with West Hollywood councilman John D'Amico, one of the main architects of the fur ban. He calls the politician's fashion sense "a little sloppy." The fashion designer also noticed that D'Amico walked into his store wearing leather shoes. "I don't know why you would be against fur and wear leather. It's hypocritical, right?"

In September 2013, the fur ban kicks in. Behind the scenes, however, the Fur Information Council of America (FICA), the politically connected lobbying arm of the fur apparel industry, which happens to be headquartered in West Hollywood, is developing a legal strategy to overturn the city's ordinance.


"At some point," says FICA attorney Larry Lasoff, "it will probably become a legal battle. There are a number of people itching to challenge it, and there are a number of solid arguments to challenge it."

In liberal West Hollywood, where the City Council approves headline-grabbers such as ending the declawing of cats and banning the sale of puppies and kittens in pet stores, the fur ban follows a long tradition of animal-friendly legislation.

Also true to West Hollywood's political culture, the ban began as a campaign promise made by then–City Council candidate D'Amico, a dark-horse challenger in March 2011, who needed ground troops to reach voters in a city of 34,650. Lavinthal and her animal-rights friends campaigned vigorously for D'Amico. When he got elected, the fur ban instantly became his priority.

"It has brought tons of thoughtful press, and it has shed light on an idea that's time has come," D'Amico explains. In response to DiLascia's charges of hypocrisy, he says, "I do own leather shoes and eat poultry and fish, and I am confident that not selling fur in West Hollywood is not just good public policy, it's good for our economy, too. It sets us apart in another new and exciting way. ... I am still very excited about how this changes the discussion and how this can potentially change people's behavior. Do I think I am hypocritical? I do not."

D'Amico wants West Hollywood to be a "model city" for fur bans. But fur apparel is extremely popular; in 2010, U.S. fur sales were $1.3 billion, and FICA executive director Keith Kaplan is highly skeptical of the councilman's big dream. "John D'Amico is naive at best if he thinks he can go anywhere along those lines," he says.

With those fighting words, Lavinthal and D'Amico are headed for a pull-no-punches showdown with the deep-pocketed fur industry.

Ellen Lavinthal never dreamed she'd be an animal-rights activist, although her father and her Jewish upbringing instilled a sense of giving back and helping the underdog as she traveled with her parents from one United Way post to another. "I was living in all these places and feeling like an underdog, too," she says.

Lavinthal studied law at USC and later married Dennis Lavinthal, who owns the successful music industry trade magazine Hits. Soon after taking the bar, she met Leeta Anderson, widow of actor Warner Anderson, who had roles in the cult classic TV show Peyton Place and critically acclaimed film The Caine Mutiny (1954).

Lavinthal was a volunteer at Leeta Anderson's nonprofit animal rescue, the Animal Alliance, where the aging Anderson needed someone to take over. "I never practiced law, and I never looked back," Lavinthal says.

Instead, she threw herself into the cause, trying to get animal-rights legislation passed in Sacramento and elsewhere. After more than two decades, she was deep within the animal-rights movement, and in January 2011, West Hollywood animal-rights and community activist Ed Buck came calling.

Buck had been approached by John D'Amico's campaign staffers, who wanted help from animal-rights activists to unseat any incumbent in 2011. The council job was virtually lifelong: In its 28-year history, only two council members had ever been voted out.

Buck, who regularly criticizes West Hollywood's political class, remembers, "I was looking for a reason for the animal-welfare community to get excited for D'Amico. I asked if he would support a fur ban. His campaign [advisers] said, 'No way,' but John embraced the idea."

After D'Amico gave the green light to such a ban, "my first call was to Ellen," Buck says. "I had worked with her before, and she had access to so many people in the animal-welfare movement."

Lavinthal immediately signed on to D'Amico's campaign. She and her animal-rights friends knocked on voters' doors, distributed fliers, called voters from phone banks and did anything else that was needed. Lavinthal organized a major fundraiser for D'Amico, and animal-rights activists donated generously to his campaign: nearly $7,700, a large sum for a West Hollywood race. In March 2011, D'Amico decisively unseated Lindsey Horvath, only the second incumbent to lose in West Hollywood history.

But he also surprised everyone by getting more votes than two of the most powerful people in West Hollywood, longtime incumbents Abbe Land and John Heilman, who both retained their seats.

"We got him a lot of votes," Lavinthal says. "Maybe he would have won anyway, but it wouldn't have been by the landslide that he won by. It was unheard of in West Hollywood."

D'Amico agrees. Two months later, in May 2011, D'Amico introduced legislation for the country's first fur ban. Lavinthal, Buck and animal-rights activists were ecstatic.

Over the past three decades, PETA and other animal-rights activists have mounted a highly publicized anti-fur effort. From throwing red paint on people wearing fur jackets to PETA-sponsored media campaigns that feature celebrities and cuddly animals, activists have sought to humiliate and to tug on heartstrings in order to change public opinion about fur. The only problem is, fur has not gone away.


Fur apparel has become increasingly popular —  from 1991 to 2005 U.S. fur sales jumped from $1 billion to $1.82 billion, according to FICA, before dipping a bit in the last few years. Legendary editor Anna Wintour, who has featured fur in the pages of the trendsetting magazine Vogue, is largely acknowledged to be a reason for that increase. With the West Hollywood fur ban, animal-rights activists were given a ray of hope that things might be changing in their favor.

Fashion retailers and the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, though, were incredulous about the ban. "We didn't think it was going to come about constitutionally," says Morrill.

But as things moved forward, Morrill and others could see that council members Land, Heilman, John Duran and Jeff Prang were leaning toward the ban. West Hollywood politicians, after all, in 1989 passed a resolution that proudly declared the ultra-liberal city a "cruelty-free zone" for animals.

"It was like the train left the station and no one could stop it even if they wanted to," says Darren Gold, owner of the boutique Alpha and chairman of the Avenues, a West Hollywood business improvement district that represents the interests of local shops, galleries and designers. "They never stopped and asked, 'Is this the best thing for the city?' That's where they got into a lot of trouble. They were backed into a corner in a lot of different ways."

Morrill says, "There was no stopping the campaign promise that was made."

Gold felt council members were concerned about not looking liberal enough. Over drinks at the trendy eatery Cecconi's, Gold asked D'Amico if a middle ground could be found. "He basically said, 'I made a [campaign] promise, I'm going to keep that promise, and there's nothing you can do about it.' It's honorable in one way but troubling in another way."

Later, Gold says, the councilman described retailers who oppose the fur ban as "greedy" and "money-hungry." The boutique owner, who never sold fur, was shocked. "He refused to see the larger issue," Gold says. "It's not about making money. It's about survival" in a struggling economy.

Between May and November 2011, a highly contentious battle played out. Bad blood still lingers. Lavinthal "carries a Prada bag, which a baby cow died for," Morrill says. "The hypocrisy is so thick!"

Lavinthal snaps back, "That's actually slander. I make a point of not wearing those things. I do wear Stella McCartney with faux leather."

In November 2011, council members Duran, Prang and D'Amico gave final approval to the city fur ban. Land switched a previous vote from yes to an abstention, and Heilman, who declined to comment for this story, also changed his mind and voted no.

Starting in September 2013, retailers can no longer sell clothing made of fur: Jackets, gloves and hats are banned. Clothing with fur trim also is prohibited, such as shoes made with shearling, like Uggs. Throw rugs, pillows and blankets are still legal, however.

At least one top business has already left the city, and some speculate that several more have as well, partly because of the ban and partly because West Hollywood City Hall is telling them how to run their businesses.

Goldsmith & Klein — a couture gown and ready-to-wear design house popular with celebrities — left its storefront, saying the fur ban was the final straw. "West Hollywood used to be really ratty" years ago, co-owner David Klein says. "It was businesses and fashion that saved that fucking town!"

West Hollywood staffers were directed to do an economic-impact study, which will be completed in September or October. D'Amico says he did his own "research" months ago by walking around West Hollywood and visiting stores. "Very few retailers sold fur," says the councilman, who said his findings could be relied upon but are not available in written form.

Except for D'Amico's walk-around, Morrill says, there was "no vetting of the business community by the city."

FICA's Kaplan concurs, noting, "I was treated with a bit of arrogance."

Design house owner Klein adds, "It was almost underhanded and sneaky. They didn't let the businesses know ahead of time that this is what they were concocting."

Gold notes that, aside from his meetings with D'Amico, "The process never brought [businesses] into the picture. We just ended up fighting it."

Lavinthal, who was working closely with D'Amico and attended City Council meetings, counters, "Darren Gold said a lot of things and it was very hard for me not to want to punch him in the face. Some people were lying."


Things seemed to sour further between the business community and City Hall when, a few weeks ago, D'Amico suggested that the city pull its annual funding for the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce (to which it gives $30,000) and the Avenues business improvement district ($70,000).

Morrill, who was surprised by D'Amico's threat, says, "It seemed a little retaliatory."

Gold notes, "Because it was directed at the Avenues and the Chamber, and we both fought the fur ban, there seemed to be a connection. It seemed very personal."

D'Amico dropped the issue that same night. "It was the budget discussions. It had nothing to do with the fur ban." He adds, "I'm always uncomfortable when government pays for a group that lobbies us."

Longtime good-government expert Bob Stern chuckles at D'Amico's logic. "Groups that get funding from government go back and lobby government all the time. I'm sure AIDS organizations do that, the United Way and many others. Groups lobby, and there's nothing wrong with that."

As for D'Amico and Lavinthal's grand plan of West Hollywood becoming a "model city" for other fur bans across the nation, not yet. L.A. Weekly called and emailed politicians in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Berkeley and Beverly Hills. None wanted to comment.

An aide for Berkeley city councilman Maxwell Anderson flatly tells the Weekly, "What you do down there doesn't affect us up here."

FICA's Kaplan isn't surprised by the wariness of other cities, which don't want to get in the middle of a heated controversy between the billion-dollar fur industry and animal-rights activists. "It's a big red flag for a lot of cities," he says. "There's an awareness about this, and it has a capital T on it. It's T for trouble."

PETA, one of the best-known animal-rights groups in the world, is not approaching politicians seeking fur-ban legislation. Ashley Byrne, manager of campaigns at PETA, says, "Our plan is to continue to expose the truth about fur directly to consumers."

Rutgers School of Law professor Gary Francione, a longtime animal-rights activist and vegan, says the general lack of interest in a ban is probably just as well. The West Hollywood fur ban "doesn't even apply to all fur products," he says, "so what in the hell are they talking about here? It's symbolic in the most cynical sense. It's symbolic in its meaninglessness."

Lavinthal says that's simply defeatist thinking. "So let's not do anything? It's shocking someone would say that." She adds, "Most laws are incremental."

But Francione describes the fur ban as only more "theater" from the animal-rights movement, which has failed over the years to generate an intelligent, national discussion about the proper use of animals.

"For 30 years," says the professor, "I've been hearing people talk about the end of fur, but fur hasn't gone away."

In the meantime, lawyers from both sides are readying for a court battle. FICA lawyer Larry Lasoff says the fur ban may illegally impede interstate commerce, as well as clash with existing federal law that regulates the fur industry. "You can't have a federal regime being undermined by a local regime," he says.

West Hollywood City Attorney Mike Jenkins says he's done his homework on those issues — and doesn't expect to lose. "The federal law leaves open areas for local regulation," he says.

Ellen Lavinthal sits on an overstuffed red chair in the living room of her Beverly Hills home, surrounded by two cats and a dog. She holds up a magazine article she wrote about her activism, which was accompanied with a photograph of actress and recording artist Jennifer Lopez wearing a fur coat.

"You'd look beautiful, J.Lo., without the fur," Lavinthal says to Lopez's image. "You'd look gorgeous. Do you really need that?"

Lavinthal continues her soliloquy: "That could be 100 animals. Are you really worth 100 animals? What kind of narcissistic person do you have to be to think that you are worth 100 animals? Just for glamour. You can't say it's for warmth — we know there are alternatives. It's just for fashion."

At the end of the recent Beverly Hills Times Magazine article, headlined "Are Animal Activists Crazy?," Lavinthal quotes Gandhi:

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

Whatever people may think about her, she has every intention of continuing to stand up for the humane treatment of animals. "A fur ban is needed everywhere," she says, "but we started in West Hollywood."

Additional research by Reilly T. Bates

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at

More stories from our 2012 Fashion Issue on dressing ethically: *West Hollywood's New Fur Ban *Does L.A. Still Have Sweatshops? *Yael Aflalo's Reformation Makes Vintage Cool *Santa Monica's Main Street, a Green Fashion Hub *Three L.A. Designers Who Do Eco-Fashion Right

Ellen Lavinthal was the driving force behind West Hollywood's fur ban.

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