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Pet Fancy

New York Diarist

It can't be easy to be a model at Pet Fashion Week, whether you strut the runway on two legs or on four. The highlight of the two-year-old festival of canine couture, held in August in Manhattan, provides a surreal blend of Zoolander and Westminster. Amazonian models sport their fiercest fashionista stares--but alongside them, tugging at jeweled leashes, are befuddled pups in tartan skirts and crushed-velvet trains. Unlike their human counterparts, these doggie supermodels don't feel much compulsion to vamp, preen, or even, in one case, return to the dressing room upon reaching the end of the catwalk. It could be worse. Petware designers tell stories of, um, accidents brought on by the pulsing music and popping flashbulbs.

Still, if the pet fashion industry hasn't quite reached the Donatella Versace level, it's getting close. The scene has its own stars, like designer Björn Gärdsby, who jokes that his Manfred of Sweden line of Sergeant Pepperinfluenced dog jackets features leather so soft that it feels "like butter, or a woman, whatever your preference is." With his shaggy hair and his horn-rimmed glasses, Gärdsby could easily pass for Austin Powers--that is, if the international man of mystery traveled with a well-appointed Yorkshire Terrier. Dog stylist Sathit Suratphiphit represents another level of canine aristocracy ("Five Thailand Champions with HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha's Trophies," his card reads). Suratphiphit's Bangkok-based team elaborately coiffed a series of small white dogs, combing their fur into bows and feathers and dyeing it orange, green, and purple before sending them down the runway with human models done up like Buddhist temple statues.

The number of customers who would dye Fido is probably even smaller than the number who would commission him a bespoke jacket--in other words, statistically insignificant. But that's not the point. The whole spectacle, duly reported in the press during the slow-news month of August, drills home the message that a dog's bathing and grooming is a professional's job--not something that a responsible owner ought to do in the backyard with a hose and maybe some Johnson & Johnson. Once you've sold that idea, how hard can it be to move a product like the 250-milliliter, $22 bottle of Isle of Dogs Evening Primrose Oil Shampoo? In the trend described in Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske's 2003 business best-seller Trading Up: The New American Luxury, every last consumer category seems to have added some superluxe product line in the hopes of attracting discerning spenders. It was only a matter of time before Sub-Zero fridges, L'Occitane en Provence body lotions, and Belvedere vodka were joined by objects of desire aimed at consumers wealthy and puppy-crazed enough to buy in.

The way we treat pets has always offered a mirror to society. Modern pet-keeping was a product of the Victorian era, whose creepy racial science lives on in our lingering fascination with breed and purity. Today, the excesses and stratifications of contemporary consumerism are on display, as was made clear a few days after Pet Fashion Week when hotelier Leona Helmsley died, bequeathing $12 million to her beloved Maltese, Trouble. Nor is Trouble the only consumer keeping the pet industry afloat: Sales have made a gravity-defying leap to $41 billion this year, up from $17 billion in 1994, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers' Association. Now that big-box pet-supply stores have become household names--the San Diego Padres, for instance, play their home games at petco Park--higher-rent purveyors inevitably look to distinguish themselves from the masses.

You don't have to walk far from the runways of Pet Fashion Week to find examples of this boom in high-end petcare. A Chelsea facility called the Dog Run includes a swimming pool and offers half-hour swim sessions for $45, $55 with massage. The service side of the pet industry is sufficiently well-developed that owners need not even schlep their animals down to the pool--several competing pet car services will gladly do it for them. Pet Chauffeur, one of the best- known, charges $30 for a ride of less than 40 blocks; for another $36 an hour, they'll wait around to take the pup home after his swim.

One piece of fashion that would surely never be on display at Pet Fashion Week, whose organizers fund canine charities and include shelter dogs in their runway show, is an Atlanta Falcons jersey. The runway show took place just as the team's quarterback, Michael Vick, was preparing to plead guilty on dogfighting charges. The plea means there won't be exhaustive new public testimony about the dogfighting underworld his case briefly brought to light. This is a pity, as the testimony would likely have under- lined the odd juxtaposition between growing numbers of Americans who think nothing of dropping $55 on a Shih Tzu Shiatsu session and an apparently sizeable number of others who gather to watch the animals fight to the death.

After his indictment, Vick's small crew of defenders grasped for a cultural justification--dogfighting, it was said, was more common, and less disdained, among poor, Southern, African Americans. But that argument loses power when you consider that Vick was a multi- millionaire NFL star. Similarly, the notion that modern petmania is restricted to New York's elites was undercut by the fact that the folks I met queuing up to chat with Gärdsby included buyers from a pet boutique in Alabama, far from the latte belt. Even the Isle of Dogs team, pushing a pet shampoo more expensive than any human shampoo I've ever used, comes from Milwaukee.

Still, these stories reflect some of society's thornier divisions, with a stratospheric rich enjoying ever-greater splendors, an underclass that stays out of view until some scandal breaks, and a vast big-box-shopping middle. Luckily for those of us who deplore Vick's favored form of entertainment, there's little likelihood that the class war between four-legged haves and have-nots will ever become an actual dogfight. But, if it does, we'll at least be able to tell the upper-crust dogs by their uniforms and Evening Primrosescented fur.

MICHAEL CURRIE SCHAFFERis working on a book about the pet industry.

By Michael Currie Schaffer