- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2000

A hamster war of epic proportions has been raging in London, and yesterday the hamsters won.

Several thousand of the wee furred ones won't be made into jackets after all, and a swank royal tailor now looks like a rat.

For months, Gieves and Hawkes famous since 1785 for impeccable suits and men's furnishings planned to debut a new sartorial line designed to attract the young and trendy.

Among other things, the company came up with the idea of a hamster coat, billed as "a return to decadence" and a "showpiece" by designers.

Indeed. Each coat uses 100 tiny hamster pelts, costs $4,800 and is part of a collection that includes a "shocking red" pony skin jacket, a fox fur stole with matching mittens and a full-length chinchilla and cashmere coat.

This is a far cry from the usual Gieves and Hawkes pinstriped fare, sold from an oak-paneled shop that has long been a bastion of tradition and decorum.

Gieves and Hawkes has also been on appointment to the royal family for many years, serving as "outfitters" to Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles and Prince Andrew. The younger prince's former swain Aurelia Cecil, in fact, crafted the glitzy advertising campaign behind the new hamster collection.

Things were going swimmingly until animal rights activists heard over the weekend that thousands of hamsters would soon meet their destiny, and it didn't include afternoons spinning around on an exercise wheel.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the UK branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other groups went on the warpath for the little rodents, who were billed as "the favourite household pet in Britain" by the Sunday Mirror.

"A great many people who keep hamsters as pets will no doubt be very upset at the thought of them being slaughtered," said an RSPCA spokeswoman.

"The designers obviously lack any sort of originality so they have to seek controversy by using hamster fur," said Yvonne Taylor of London-based Animal Aid.

The royal tailors went on immediate damage-control alert, hoping to quell the rumor that pets were becoming garments.

"We are not talking about domestic hamsters," said Mark Henderson of Gieves and Hawkes. "They are farmed. It is no different from wearing leather goods or eating meat. I don't see why fur should be singled out."

Those were fighting words. The hamster hubbub escalated. By Sunday, public protests were being organized, and British television aired editorials about the situation.

"Sick and beyond belief," said one earnest reporter. "It seems no animal is safe, even if it's a tiny hamster."

There has not been such a fuzzy controversy since last summer, when scores of well-heeled and well-known New York socialites and actresses were served with papers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Officials from the agency were investigating the ladies' very expensive shahtooshes delicate but illegal shawls made from the fur of an endangered Tibetan antelope. In London, police are still investigating shahtoosh sales in an ongoing project called Operation Charm.

As of yesterday, the hamsters emerged victorious.

Gieves and Hawkes made a public announcement that they had dropped the hamster jackets from the new collection, which debuts next month. The company also reminded people that one, and only one, of the jackets had ever been made.

Which means, presumably, that no member of the royal family will stroll across the moors wrapped in hamster any time soon.

Buckingham Palace, meanwhile, is staying out of it all.

"What Gieves and Hawkes stock in their shop is a matter for them," a spokesman said yesterday.

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