MOSCOW — WHAT'S the one essential and eternally stylish piece of a Muscovite's wardrobe that will effortlessly take him or her from the balcony of the Bolshoi Theater to a muddy bus stop on a brisk January night?
It's animal fur. Worn on collars, cuffs, earflapped hats, and full-length coats, natural fur is de rigueur winter wear in Russia's capital city.
``It's not so much that they're fashionable,'' says Tatyana Gavrichenko of Furs of Russia, a small boutique in the trendy GUM department store. ``It's just that in this kind of cold you can't go out in a cloth coat.''
In parts of the West, fur wearers are often scorned by animal-rights activists.
But in Russia, where even czarist crowns were trimmed with fur, few people cast anything but an envious glance at fur-bedecked men and women waiting in bread lines or riding the subway.
But one woman is trying to change the buying habits of Russian consumers: Vera Maksimova, head of the Russian Society for the Protection of Animals. It is the only animal-rights agency remaining in Russia.
RSPA is trying innovative ways to convince people that ``you don't have to skin the animal to use its fur,'' as Ms. Maksimova puts it.
For example, she persuaded some fur farms to brush their animals' coats and collect the hairs that fell out. After six months, she had gathered eight sacks' worth of fur that could be used to make a piece of clothing.
From a metal locker, Maksimova's assistant produces the results of their experiment: RSPA members have spun and knitted red-, silver-, and polar-fox hair into a suitcaseful of women's gloves, hats, long coats, and sweaters.
Maksimova dreams that her animal-rights organization - whose main job today is offering needy pensioners food and veterinary care for their pets - will someday double as a fashion house, marketing a line of winter clothing under the label ``A World Without Cruelty.''
Her collection was shown at Moscow's House of Journalists in October, but Maksimova fears that some people missed the point: One designer protested when she refused his request to show furs alongside RSPA's fur alternatives.
Russia is a ``major market for fur, and speaking about it is quite revolutionary,'' says Ingrid Newkirk, chairwoman of the Washington-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
She says she expects that with the advent in Russia of warm synthetic fabrics, fur will lose its monopoly.
Ordinary Russian buyers, however, are hard to convert to fur substitutes. Warm synthetics are rare and expensive, and costly artificial fur doesn't do the job, says Vera Protkova, a customer browsing in GUM's Klodt-Leeds imported fur boutique.
``We don't have synthetics that are as beautiful or nearly as warm,'' she complains.
Such products may be ethically acceptable, but these products are unlikely to be economically viable for producers and processors of fur who are struggling to stay afloat in a dismal economy.
One Moscow plant, ``Russian Fur,'' for example, used to process 350,000 lambskins each month. Today, it puts out only 50,000 a month, according to the Moscow daily ``Sevodnya.'' And many Russian fur producers are turning away from fox and mink to concentrate on less expensive pelts such as lambskin and nutria, a water-dwelling rodent.
Some collective fur farms, which have become the sole source of pelts since parliament banned animal trapping last month, have simply gone bankrupt, hit by high food costs for the animals.
Nevertheless, the boutique Furs of Russia does a steady business, thanks to cold weather, which ensures a permanent clientele, even in hard times.
``Not everyone has the money in their pocket for a full-length mink, but an average family can afford to buy Mom a fur,'' says sales clerk Natasha Berezina.
She says that although full-length mink coats worth around $3,000 are the most coveted items, coats fashioned from black- and silver-fox furs, which cost about $1,200, are the hottest sellers.
``If we had worked without interruption since 1865, perhaps no one would be wearing natural fur now,'' Maksimova says.
And as Russian fashion tastes take a Westward turn, the synthetics that many Americans rely on, such as Polar Fleece and Capilene, may help her cause.