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October 21, 2017
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Model wears a Pheasant collar from Jess Eaton's "Roadkill Couture" collection at Brighton Fashion Week. Source: brightonfashionweek.com.
Jess Eaton Roadkill Couture Runway
Photography by Kenny McCracken.

The use of animal fur for the sake of fashion has been an issue scrutinised for decades. Animal rights organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has led the fight to eliminate real fur from being used in clothing, both on and off the catwalk, deeming the use of animal skins unethical and citing the inhumane methods of obtaining such materials as its main argument.

However, British designer Jess Eaton claims to have come up with a solution; her Roadkill Couture line, showcasing a range of intricate fashion designs capturing the beauty and fragility of nature, features body parts from dead animals found on the roadside.

Eaton tells The Genteel, "[The animals] died of natural causes, there was never any cruelty. I literally just pick up animals that have already died, or have been eaten - have been killed for something other than fashion." 

Eaton, who began her career as a celebrity make-up artist in the early '90s, debuted her Roadkill Couture collection at Brighton Fashion Week 2011. The collection was an immediate success, with the show ending in tumultuous applause and a standing ovation. One look at Eaton's creations and it's not hard to see why. Her stunning collections are comprised of hats made of horse ears, headpieces formed from outstretched birds wings and even a cape made from four black feral cats; these are undoubtedly unique wardrobe additions.

It's no wonder the press quickly took to the line, with Love Magazine's F/W 2012 edition shooting fashion royalty Kate Moss wearing one of Eaton's designs from the first Roadkill Couture collection. Eaton is set to feature again at this year's Brighton Fashion Week in The Zeitgeist Show, and the Roadkill Couture Bridal Range will be showcased at the annual White Gallery London fashion event in May of this year.

But it's not only the beauty of the garments that is getting attention. The design process behind the collection is even more fascinating, or perhaps gruesome, than what is produced. The Brighton-based designer claims her bespoke fashion line is created from only ethically sourced materials. All of Eaton's materials are found on the side of the road after being hit by drivers, bought from butchers, or donated from friends, family or pest control agencies. Eaton collects the deceased bodies and skins, plucks and tans the animals; "none of it gets wasted," she explains. The leather, fur or feathers are moulded into couture, while "the meat is eaten, the skeleton is reassembled [in the shop, and] the skulls and feet are use in art. The only bit that doesn't get used is the guts, the insides." 

The leather, fur or feathers are moulded into couture, while "the meat is eaten, the skeleton is reassembled [in the shop, and] the skulls and feet are use in art.

Eaton remains adamant that no animals are harmed for the purpose of her work, and therefore using the furs and feathers for her fashion collection is done in an ethical way. The result is a collection of undeniably stunning garments, but can her use of animal carcasses really be considered ethical?

It is fearlessness of death which Eaton intends to address within Roadkill Couture and her follow up line Roadkill Couture II, both of which she deems to be conceptual art pieces rather than fashion lines. For her, the clothing is more than fashion, "It's about making exquisite garments that also give you food for thought, that challenge society's perception of animals and the way we handle [them]."

And she certainly seems to have inspired debate. Writing for The Guardian's Green Living Blog in 2011, environmental journalist Sarah Lewis-Hammond disputes Eaton's "celebratory" intentions, arguing the experience of wearing a dead animal is "little more than a sartorial up-yours to creatures we humans claim dominion over."

However, this is perhaps an example of the "hypocrisy" that Eaton tells The Genteel she has experienced in response to her line, and wants to address. "People get outraged when I put a wing on a hat and make a big fuss about it but everyone will go to KFC and eat a bucket of barbeque wings and not think anything about it [...] every person is guilty in some way of using animals and all I'm doing is taking it that one step further and utilising every part of the animal so it doesn't get discarded. We've turned into a disgusting throw away self-serving society, and I think it's nice to take our natural resources and use them."

Eaton claims the collection was a natural progression from her 2010 Trashion Show which saw her mould unwanted everyday items such as crisp packets and toilet brushes into couture. Roadkill Couture is a follow-up of Trashion's recycling theme. Eaton argues, "The materials are there and they get discarded every day, that's the whole point. Think about how many millions of chickens get eaten every day in Britain, and every one of them has plumage and heads and feet and they just get chucked away."

Jess Eaton Roadkill Runway Clive Flint
Photography by Clive Flint.

She has a point. Given the unquestionable demand for bespoke fur and feathered fashion items, surely this is one of the more ethical way to obtain such materials?

But not everyone is convinced. In a statement to The Genteel, PETA raises further issues against Eaton's approach. "By its own admission, Roadkill Couture also uses pelts of animals killed and consumed for food. This means that anyone who purchases one of their fur garments will likely be draped in the skins of animals who spent their lives confined to filthy, severely crowded sheds, where they are denied the opportunity to do anything that comes naturally to them, such as raising a family, running and playing."  

It is also arguable that Eaton is generating interest in the fur trade, unintentionally encouraging further production of unethical fur products. The spokesperson for PETA goes on, "Perpetuating the myth that fur can be produced 'ethically' only acts to support this gruesome trade globally."

But as The Vegetarian Society's spokesperson, Liz O'Neil, told The Guardian, even amongst vegetarians, the answer is not quite clear: "Some vegetarians will believe you're showing the animal disrespect and encouraging the culture of use of animal flesh which will lead to the abuse of living animals. Others will think you're being responsible and valuing what the animal has left behind."

The public is torn. Eaton's creations are incredible works of art; however, the boundary is blurred on what can be deemed ethical when using animals in fashion. Groups such as PETA are condemning the practice, while Love Magazine is draping Roadkill Couture over Kate Moss. And if consumer response is anything to go by, the customers are siding with Love: almost every item in the online collection has sold out, with more bespoke pieces being commissioned. Although are buyers really being drawn in due to the intended morality behind the line, or simply just for its beauty?

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