Feature

As Peta retires ‘I’d Rather Go Naked’, its creator looks back on 30 years of sexy activism

Animal rights organization Peta is pulling the plug on its ‘I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur’ after nearly three decades of beaming semi-naked celebrities onto billboards. The campaign’s creator, Dan Mathews, speaks to The Drum about its 30-year run and retirement.

“‘I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur’ really started in the streets,” says Peta’s senior vice-president of campaigns, Dan Matthews. He would know – he started it.

In 1992, Matthews was a 28-year-old activist making a name for himself by devising media-grabbing stunts. He had flown from the US to Japan with a friend in order to rally a protest over an international fur fair in Tokyo, but was met with a culture that frowned upon public demonstration.

So, he altered course and embarked on a “crazy idea” instead.

“We would say we were a stripper couple from America who had flown to Japan to do our act as a protest,” he remembers. “We kicked things off with a banner in Japanese that read, 'We'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur’, and the Japanese [animal rights] group thought we were nuts. They asked us not to do it.

“But then there were these teenage volunteers who thought it was brilliant. And they helped us do it: they painted the banners, they sent faxes to the media, and we hit the streets. It became a global sensation.”

The original line had emerged years earlier. A new wave rock group printed ‘We’d Rather Go-Go Naked Than Wear Fur’ on a banner that they held in front of their naked bodies; posters of the image were sold at their reunion concerts and proceeds donated to Peta.

They in turn had been inspired by Floridian activist Holly Jensen, who had staged her own one-woman protest holding a poster of the phrase in a flesh-colored leotard in 1988.

But it was Japan that elevated the campaign into public consciousness. Soon after, Matthews was in a studio with New York fashion photographer Steven Klein and the supermodel Christy Turlington.

“I remember showing Christy some of the photos of the naked protest in Tokyo and said, ‘It's going to be like this but in a studio, just make the leap and we'll see what happens,’” says Matthews. “I just remember her laughing and saying, ‘Well, I'm happy to help, let's see if this works.’

“It was just her sitting face down with her arms up, all done in a bare studio. It was very, very simple. We had no idea what the perception was going to be.”

The creative idea chimed perfectly with zeitgeist. The cult of the supermodel was growing, sex was selling, advertising was on a high and the seeds of sustainable fashion were taking root as new money infiltrated the 1990s.

At the time, Matthews says, charities were “known for either doing stuffy dinners, or angry protests”. ‘I’d Rather Go Naked’ proved there was a third way of raising awareness, and that way was stylish, sexy and cool.

The campaign evolved with the times. Peta started recruiting actors, artists and feminist thinkers once the supermodel hype had reduced to a simmer, while male models were brought on board in 1995 so – Matthews jokes – Peta could show it was an “equal opportunity exploiter”.

Gillian Anderson was one of the last high-profile figures to front the campaign, rising naked above Penn Station with permed hair and cat ears in 2018. At the time, Peta noted that a huge number of major fashion companies, including Armani, Hugo Boss, Gucci, Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren had already given up using fur in their designs.

Now, in 2020, the majority of fashion houses and high street stores have abolished the material. Even Queen Elizabeth has stopped wearing it. So Peta is declaring the campaign a success and publicizing its achievement by sunsetting the catchphrase after 30 years.

“There will be no comeback for fur,” says Matthew. “Now there have been a few generations that have grown up with Peta in the foreground, and a solid generation that has grown up with Stella McCartney showing how you can wear all the high fashion you want without killing any animals, the other designers and the other powers that be in the fashion world have realized that if they keep doing fur, they will lose an emotional connection to their consumers.”

Peta will continue to protest against the pockets of the fur trade that still operate, particularly coatmakers such as Canada Goose that have been accused of killing coyotes for their jackets.

It will, however, shift its fashion focus onto “more pressing issues”; namely, the impacts the leather and wool industries have on the wellbeing of animals. And this time around, Peta will have the ear – and not the vitriol – of organizations such as the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).

“It’s funny – we’re actually working with the CFDA and a number of designers to create a vegan fashion show in September for New York Fashion Week,” says Matthews. “The very powers that be that used to have us arrested for disrupting fashion shows only a decade ago are now working with us to spotlight vegan fashion.

“The world is definitely changing.”

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