By  on June 6, 2008

MONTREAL — After back-to-back unseasonably warm winters, fur designers and retailers are dealing with the anemic economy and tightened consumer spending.

If those challenges weren't enough, strong demand for mink in Russia and China has spiked prices 20 percent. Mink accounts for about 75 percent of all fur sales, setting the benchmark for all prices, said Erik Neergaard, sales director for Kopenhagen Fur in Denmark, the world's largest auction house for mink pelts.

These were among the issues industry executives discussed at the 26th annual North American Fur & Fashion Exhibition in Montreal at Place Bonaventure April 29 to May 2.

Canadian fur exports were $381 million last year, compared with $451 million in 2006, a drop of about 15 percent, largely because of the declining value of the U.S. dollar, which is the currency in which most fur transactions are conducted. Last winter's warm weather and increased competition from China also affected fur exports.

"This season started strongly, but economic fears kicked in," said Alan Herscovici, executive vice president of the Fur Council of Canada, which organizes NAFFEM. "And certain areas around New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia didn't get the snow that other parts of the country got, which slowed sales a bit."

As a result, several retailers are carrying higher inventory than normal and shopped the show for novelty items to entice customers who are bringing in their furs for storage.

Several new collections premiered at the show, including Bill Blass for Natural Furs, Dominic Bellissimo for Gimpex, Mazzi Made in Italy for Jean Crisan and Stern Rockwell for Tanatar America.

"I love the Bill Blass team, and this represents a big growth area for us through trunk shows and through Saks," said Christina Nacos of Natural Furs here, who spends most of her time running Natural's New York showroom. "The growth in this industry is through labels, and to me, the story of Bill Blass for next season is color like purple, jade and olive."

The Bill Blass collection of 25 fur pieces consists of silver fox, lamb and mink combinations and micro sheared mink, which Nacos described as "very much a city line."Dominic Bellissimo designed a line ranging from reversible technical stretch rainwear to leather jackets, as well as white shearling, white fox and baby lamb and suede jackets for Toronto-based Gimpex.

"Shearling has not been that strong in the last five years and so I want to take Gimpex from a shearling house to an outerwear house," Bellissimo said. "But I want to build the collection before taking it to Milan."

The Italian-made Mazzi line for Jean Crisan premiered a collection of luxury fur-trimmed garments using silver and blue fox exclusively from SAGA Furs of Finland. The collection includes short peplum silhouettes with sequined embellishments and gold moiré silk coats with gathered tiered borders.

"Mazzi is well established in Italy and has a huge following in Russia and we have exclusive distribution for North America," said Steve Zuckerman of Jean Crisan, based in Montreal. "But the line is not for mass distribution. It's more focused on ski resorts and holiday wear."

New York-based designer Rockwell used NAFFEM for a soft launch of his new line created for Tanatar of Istanbul.

"It's an ideal venue to get a reaction, and so far, so good," said Rockwell, who has worked for Tiffany & Co., Dior and Cartier. "Tanatar is more conservative, while my line is for a younger crowd. I'm using different skins together, like suede and shearling, embossed tone-on-tone and reversible hoodies with the Rockwell name on the back made from stone sparkles."

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