From vermin to vogue

Can the swamp rodent nutria give us guilt-free fur?

A model sports a coat with a nutria collar.

Photo: Dan & Corina Lecca,

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The nutria, orange-toothed scourge of the Louisiana bayou, seems to be overcoming its image problem -- in the fashion world, anyway.

Coarse, muskratlike nutria fur was used as trim in 2010 collections by high-end designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs and Billy Reid. It's also starting to pop up in items made by crafters on the DIY website Etsy.

Nutria fur is cheaper than beaver or mink, and weighs less. But those selling points have been pushed before, and fashionistas still found nutria to be a lower class of luxury.

The winning marketing strategy these days? Calling it guilt-free fur.

The nutria was originally imported to bayou country from Argentina in the 1920s and took to its new surroundings a little too well. Trouble is, the fast-multiplying nutria needs to eat about a fourth of its 15-pound body weight daily, and chewing through that much vegetation is hell on an ecosystem. In 2002, Louisiana began a bounty program, paying hunters and trappers $5 a tail.

Designers who want to use fur but fear backlash from PETA and other animal-rights groups can opt for nutria because the animals are being killed anyway. This way, at least part of them is being put to use (efforts to get humans to embrace the critter's meat have been less successful).

That's part of the idea behind Righteous Fur, a line launched last year by Cree McCree, a New Orleans-based designer who also writes for the Minneapolis trendspotting company Iconoculture. McCree, who staged a "Nutri-palooza" show in New York, specializes in whimsical styles, including nutria leg warmers.

"It's all about re-using, not wasting," she said.

In Duluth, the tanning and custom fur and leather goods company USA Foxx & Furs has processed pelts for Righteous Fur. Owner Wayne Nurmi says that his customers still need persuading that it's a good-quality fur.

"Most people could not tell the difference, but if you tell them it's a nutria garment they won't like it, but if you say it's beaver, they will," he said.

Nurmi doesn't put much stock in the idea that wearing nutria translates to a clearer conscience.

"If beavers are chopping down all your trees or coyotes killing your calves, that's guilt-free fur, too," he said.

While Minnesota hasn't gone nutty for nutria yet, it could catch on soon.

Ribnick Furs doesn't carry nutria coats but owner Bill Ribnick expects to start getting requests.

Sandi Holien uses nutria trim in some of the handbags she makes for her Eden Prairie business, Leather Renditions by Sandi. As for nutria being seen as a varmint, "mink are basically rodents, too," she said.

Meanwhile, the stalwart nutria has been spotted as far north as New Jersey and Oregon.

"They haven't made it up this far yet," Nurmi said. "And maybe they won't in our lifetime. But I'll bet they will."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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