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A Novel Approach

NEW YORK -- Ann Gray's stand-up comedy routine takes a few jabs at the fur industry, even though that's how her husband, Eddie Graf of Ben Kahn Furs, earns his keep.<P>In some ways,their dichotomy reflects the fur industry's tempo today -- business...

NEW YORK — Ann Gray’s stand-up comedy routine takes a few jabs at the fur industry, even though that’s how her husband, Eddie Graf of Ben Kahn Furs, earns his keep.

This story first appeared in the May 28, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

In some ways,their dichotomy reflects the fur industry’s tempo today — business has its challenges, but there’s room for lightheartedness. That is perhaps most evident from a style standpoint, where more playful items like a pink Mongolian lamb poncho, reversible patchwork coat and a mink hooded coat with sable trim were spotted on the Fur Information Council of America’s runway Tuesday night. Newcomer Cynthia Rowley showed off her “I Love Lucy” flair with mink coats featuring ribbon details, and Chaiken’s Jeffrey Mahshie served up a mink rugby shirt for Saga Furs of Scandinavia.

Even the show’s lineup — neighborhood names to define groups — underscored the push for young customers, with the Lower East Side getting as much play as the Upper East Side. Instead of gabbing about reaching more avant-garde shoppers, furriers showed some looks that might actually woo them.

“The industry had gotten so stagnant. Practically everything that was made was special-event pieces. How many times can you wear those in one year?” asked Charles Ross, project manager for Saga Furs. “A few years ago, they tried a few more unusual pieces, and now they’re doing a lot more based on the commercial success.”

That kind of pizazz helped lure more eclectic crowds to a few shows: Guests at Helen Yarmuk’s show at the Russian Consulate sipped chilled vodka; Jocelyn Wildenstein chatted up the flame-haired Patricia Field, and Ben Vereen talked up his summer plans to return to the stage opposite Judd Hirsch in “I’m Not Rappaport.” No word yet on whether the “Sex and the City” crew will don a few furs next season, but Field acknowledged the show’s fashion power.

“When you see a woman in a situation, there’s more to identify with than a flat photo or a model on a runway,” Field said.

While Yuri Ushakov, Ambassador of the Russian Federation, was en route to Moscow for a visit from President Bush and the First Lady, his wife, Svetlana Ushakova, hightailed it here, since, as she put it, “the embassy and general counsel stand behind Helen.” Ushakova added that she had no doubts that the “two great nations would come together.”

Russia’s frigid, six-month winters afford many women the luxury of owning several fur coats, including ones that are passed down from one generation to the next. “It’s like acquiring a painting or nice piece of art,” she said.

Yarmuk’s show was a piece of work in itself. Before the runway presentation, a man dressed in an overcoat, bow tie and sunglasses played the accordion. But when the power failed in the middle of the show and guests were left waiting in the dark, he reappeared for an impromptu performance.

Magicians and more pop-star-style singers actually walked the runway, including a bare-chested man in a long emerald-colored fur who seemed to have escaped from “Star Search.” Some still managed to focus on the furs, like Ksenia Wolkow, a dead ringer for model Paulina Porizkova, who rose from her seat to get a better look at a golden Russian sable kimono coat. Wolkow, a Russian TV personality who is often mistaken for the model, said a Chanel saleswoman recently asked her how she liked the bag Porizkova’s husband had bought a few weeks ago.

Earlier in the day, Neil Sedaka, Star Jones, Denise Rich, Marjorie Gubelmann, Lorraine Bracco, Kathy Hilton and her husband, Ricky, and Vereen were in The Pierre’s packed house for Liza Minnelli’s runway turn at Dennis Basso’s show. Afterward, Gubelmann said she was there as a friendly gesture, but noted the fur-trimmed styles would suit her and her friends. Hilton had her eye on “two or three must-haves,” like a broadtail cape with lace, and wanted to be sure her husband saw them, too. “I thought I would like to get a coat this fall, so I brought him along,” she said.

Her famously overexposed daughters, Paris and Nicky, who had modeled in Basso’s shows in years past, were not there. But they would like the looks of the designer’s fashion-forward pieces, Hilton said.

Basso also earned kudos from Jeffrey Lehman, president of Edwards-Lowell, a Beverly Hills boutique. “Dennis did a great job with all the white furs and coats with fringe,” Lehman said. “His furs looked fresh. We always have to try new furs and new techniques so we appear to be current.”

Thanks partially to all the fur seen in rap videos, more women in their 20s and 30s are frequenting Lehman’s store. “Young people think it’s cool to wear fur, and that’s great for us,” he said.

At a breakfast presentation in her showroom Tuesday, Sherry Cassin, one of many who prefers not to be called a furrier, was pushing fashion, as in fur vests in shearling, goatskin and “Rex rabbit,” what she calls “the Rolls-Royce of rabbits” that are genetically modified.

In the adjoining showroom, Anne Dee Goldin also steered visitors to hipper styles like embroidered cossacks and a coral shearling poncho. The designer’s father, Fred, who worked in the family’s 93-year-old business for more than six decades, captured the industry’s changing of the guard: “In my day, we made coats. Today, it’s fashion and featherweight. This daughter of mine has bypassed me as a designer. We used to make furs for Yves Saint Laurent, but they were never produced in the shapes and weights they are today.”

Graf of Ben Kahn Furs offered the most sobering view: “We’re coming off a difficult time due to the recession, 9/11, and a warm winter,” he said. “It’s a little frustrating because fur is in fashion again. But we’re hoping to get some normal weather and start to do some business.”