The Stuart Weitzman ballet flats from Neiman Marcus sported sweet faux fur pom-poms. The Alice and Olivia coat was trimmed with a dark faux fur collar.
The problem was that the faux fur was, in fact, real fur.
That's right: it was faux faux fur.
In a forehead-slapping development, Neiman Marcus and two other retailers, DrJays.com and Eminent, on Tuesday settled federal claims that they had marketed real fur as fake fur. The supposedly fake stuff was actually rabbit, raccoon and, possibly, dyed mink.
Animal protection groups applauded the settlement, reached with the Federal Trade Commission, saying many retailers have been selling real fur disguised as fake fur.
On the face of it, the real-for-fake switch might not seem to make business sense. But because many people are no longer buying real fur, manufacturers and retailers are scrambling to meet growing demand for faux fur. As a result, some products are being mislabeled.
"The lines between real and fake have gotten really blurry," said Dan Mathews, a senior vice president with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "In this global marketplace, there are fur farms in China that raise dogs for clothing that is labeled as fake fur here in the U.S. because that's what the market best responds to."
Others chalk up the incorrect labeling to sloppy product descriptions.
Hymie Betesh, the founder and chief executive of DrJays.com, says his company sells about 50,000 styles of products each year on its Web site.
"There were a handful of instances where a word may have been omitted in our product descriptions, and others where the word 'fur' was used to describe the style of a product, not intending to describe fabric content," Mr. Betesh said in an e-mail.
Eminent, doing business as Revolve Clothing, according to the F.T.C., did not respond to an e-mail requesting a comment.
Under the F.T.C. settlement, which is preliminary and carries no financial penalties, the retailers will be subject to significant fines if they mislabel fur again in the next 20 years.
Mislabeling real fur—inexpensive rabbit as luxurious mink, say—is an old game. But mislabeling real fur as fake fur is relatively new. The three retailers were accused of violating a fur law that was enacted in the 1950s and, at the time, was meant to prevent people from marketing furs like rabbit under its English name, Coney, or selling muskrat as Hudson Seal.
The F.T.C. investigation was prompted by a petition filed last fall by the Humane Society of the United States.
Each year since 2006, when the Humane Society received an anonymous communication that a retailer was going to be advertising an animal fur product as fake fur in a printed circular, the group has conducted investigations. It scours Web sites and stores for mislabeled products. Suspected real-fur items are sent to a lab for testing.
Last fall, the group found fur where it was not supposed to be in a handful of products sold at 11 retailers, including the three in settlement announced Tuesday, as well as Dillard's and Barneys New York, according to a complaint filed by the organization.
"We continue to find animal fur sold as faux fur every single season," said Pierre Grzybowski, the research and enforcement manager of the Fur-Free campaign for the Humane Society.
Neiman Marcus is a frequent target of the group. In 2007, for instance, the Humane Society found a children's Andrew Marc jacket whose label said it was 100 percent polyester.
Testing, however, identified fur from a raccoon dog, a member of the Canid family, which includes dogs, wolves, foxes and coyotes.
A later investigation by the F.T.C. resulted in no action.
In 2008, when the Humane Society discovered raccoon dog fur misidentified as fake fur on several coats sold at Neiman Marcus and other national retailers, it sued the retailers. In 2010, Neiman Marcus paid a $25,000 judgment after a District of Columbia court found that the retailer had violated consumer protection laws.
That same year, a $1,895 St. John coat that was advertised as raccoon fur on the Neiman Marcus Web site tested as being raccoon dog.
In an e-mailed statement, a spokeswoman for Neiman Marcus said the company maintained a robust program to comply with all laws and regulations. And under the F.T.C. agreement, Neiman Marcus "has committed to identify correctly and promote accurately the fur and faux fur products offered in our catalogs and on our Web sites," the statement said.
-By Julie Creswell of The New York Times