The Fur Information Council of America, of which I am executive director, is based in West Hollywood. The first city council in America to ban the sale of fur is, likewise, in West Hollywood. If you ask me how that came about, I guess I’d have to say, in family language, “It happens.” Or maybe I stole some councilman’s parking spot. I don’t know. Anyhow, it’s really about more than the fur.
Of all the cities in the world, two can lay claim to my heart: Chicago, where I was born and raised, and West Hollywood. In 1977, I came out to L.A. to attend UCLA. Within a year, I’d discovered West Hollywood. At that time, it was a neighborhood, not an independent city, but it still had an identity all its own.
My friends and I loved it. Our “ground zero” was Odyssey, an 18-and-over dance club that was the best of its kind in the city. It was the height of the disco craze, and we had the hair, the moves, and–yes–the spandex. Great music, beautiful people, and celebrities were everywhere. It was heady stuff for a kid from Illinois. After discoing through the night, we’d have breakfast at Greenwich Village, a coffee shop on Santa Monica Boulevard.
The feeling of freedom and creativity in West Hollywood was palpable and exciting. We felt we had a secret, and each new friend we shared it with seemed to feel the same energy. For some of us, it was the city’s emergence as a center of gay culture. For others, it was just the spirit of non-conformity and bohemianism. By the end of my sophomore year, several of us had moved into the area. I took a job at Morton’s, a newly opened restaurant on Robertson and Melrose.
During that time, an idea began to germinate among my group of friends. We wanted to establish West Hollywood as an independent city–as a place where the spirit of creativity and the principles of freedom of choice could thrive. Over the next several years, even after I moved to Chicago for business school, I joined my friends in brainstorming, canvassing, and going door-to-door to promote the cause. By 1984, our efforts paid off: West Hollywood became its own incorporated city.
In 1986, I moved back to Los Angeles for an advertising job and immediately purchased a condominium in the heart of West Hollywood. Over the next few years, as the AIDS crisis grew, I threw myself into volunteer work that brought me even closer to my city, working on committees, chairing fundraisers, and canvassing for donations. The circumstances were tragic, but they brought us all together as a community.
In late 1993, I started my own business in public relations and marketing consulting. In launching my company, I’d partnered with a friend who, because of health issues, was easing out of the business. One of his clients was the fur industry. And now the question was whether I wanted to inherit this account.
Frankly, I wasn’t sure. I’d never worked with the fur industry before. I had neither family nor work experience in the business. The closest I’d ever come to mink was when my mother would don a coat for a winter Saturday out. But I did know that if I was going to represent the industry, I had to know the truth firsthand. So I met with retailers and manufacturers. I visited several farms. I even went out on the trap lines with trappers. Now, I know some people feel that it’s not okay to kill or use an animal for any reason, and I respect their opinion. But my own feelings are that it’s okay, provided that it’s sustainable and that the animals are treated humanely. What I found–which was nothing like the anti-fur horror stories I’d come across–satisfied me on those fronts.
And so it came to pass that the Fur Information Council of America became the first client of The Kaplan Group, a marketing and public relations agency based in West Hollywood. I knew it’d be a tough gig, and, sure enough, before long, I started getting we-know-where-you-are phone messages, razor blades in the mail, and dead rats delivered in FedEx packages. This definitely made getting FedEx packages less appealing. Then again, I’d never thought my gig was going to be a picnic. I was the fur guy.
As the years went by, my company was doing well, but West Hollywood was starting to change–first slowly, but then faster. The shared spirit of non-conformity that made the place freewheeling and libertarian-left was beginning to take on a spirit of forced conformity that was making the place restrictive. I didn’t like that. I believe extremism on any side has no place in our world today. Our council started to ban stuff–more and more stuff. It enacted a ban on certain kinds of plastic food wrapping. It banned the municipal use of the term “pet owner,” requiring us to call ourselves “guardians.” It banned outdoor smoking at restaurants. It banned food like foie gras. It seemed to ban whatever it wanted, with no real consideration of how anyone else might feel or of what we might be losing in the process.
At the same time, it came up with ridiculous stuff like setting October 29th as “Go-Go Dancer Appreciation Day,” as if ordering the rest of us to pay tribute. Certainly, sexual diversity was one of the issues that set West Hollywood apart, but all of it was born of West Hollywood’s broad tolerance for differing lifestyle decisions, not just for lifestyle decisions that personally please or amuse city council members. And campiness is a lot more fun when it’s not governmentally mandated.
Early this year, West Hollywood’s city council decided to put my lifestyle in its crosshairs, too. That is to say, it started to entertain the idea of a ban on the sale of fur apparel. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Again, I’m the fur guy. But I was surprised. I guess I still held out hope that our city council hadn’t totally lost its way.
I’ve seen a lot of legislative battles and local initiatives over fur, of course, but none were personal. This one was. It wasn’t about fur. Heck, fur is doing fine. It’s in fashion, and it’s selling better than ever. No, this was a fight about the spirit of my hometown. I fought hard for this city’s independence. This was meant to be a place where people could make their own choices, a place where meddlers and moralizers would find no quarter.
When I recently met with Jeffrey Prang, our mayor pro tempore, he told me, “50 percent of the world will be vegan in 10 years. Get on the bandwagon.” See, I thought West Hollywood was the sort of place where if you want to be vegan, that’s fine, and no one’s going to force a ribeye on you. But why do you have to take my ribeye away from me? I don’t want a tofu stir-fry.
Of course, if the ban does go through, it’d probably be good for my bottom line. When times are tough for fur is when my services are most needed. But I hope I’m not the only business in town that our council wants to keep. And I hope my city finds a way to remain the place that made me love it 35 years ago, when West Hollywood was about freedom of choice, disco was king, and fur fights were still far in the future.
Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Fur Information Council of America, is a proud West Hollywood resident who hopes to stay that way.
*Photo courtesy of Clay Larsen.