MONTREAL — While many North Americans suffered through a cold and prolonged winter, it was a windfall for fur retailers, according to many attending the North American Fur & Fashion Exhibition in Montreal this weekend.

"Most retailers we spoke to had a good selling season because it was a long and cold winter throughout most of North America, with the traditional fur store outperforming the ready-to-wear sector," said Alan Herscovici, executive vice president of the Fur Council of Canada, NAFFEM’s organizer.

Roughly 60 percent of the 200 exhibitors at Place Bonaventure were from Canada, 30 percent hailed from the U.S. and the balance was mostly from Europe. Traffic at the four-day show, which wrapped up Sunday, was on par with last year’s 4,000 attendees, according to Herscovici.

Key trends at the show included vintage glamour looks, skin-tone colors, fur and fabric combinations and influences from a mix of ethnic origins and geometric patchworks. Fur accessories were also prevalent.

"We had a very strong year, which ended with low inventories, and we’re buying all types of furs at the show," said Richard Schwartz of Mano Schwartz, a Baltimore store.

Cold weather helped boost sales by 30 percent at Tsontos Furs on Long Island, N.Y., according to owner Bill Green. Traditional full-length mink coats were particularly strong. Green was looking for designer and novelty pieces and to get a pulse on next season’s trends. He noted he was busy with the store’s service and storage business, a sign of a healthy season.

"If the economy had been stronger, our sales would have been even higher," he said.

Keith Rosenstock of the Canadian Fur Co. in Pittsburgh also saw his sales jump 30 percent this year after moving into a larger freestanding store in a better location. His sales were boosted by the popularity of the brand Christ’s shearlings and planned to order 150 pieces at the show.

"Those furriers that have come to grips with the fact that the casual lifestyle is today’s reality are doing well," Rosenstock said. "The lightweight jackets offer a second sale opportunity to those customers that already have a traditional fur coat."He has set up three selling areas in his store, one for traditional furs, one for casual looks and another for sporty furs. Rosenstock was also shopping the show for Jean Crisan and Dominic Bellissimo.

Sales were also up for David Kriegsman of Kriegsman Furs, Greensboro, N.C., where full-length mink coats and knitted furs from Paula Lishman were in demand. He was prowling the show for that label, as well as Zuki Furs and other Canadian and Italian vendors.

Chris O’Brien of O’Brien & Sons in Chicago blamed his decreased annual sales and open-to-buy on the weak economy. He shopped for shearlings and Jean Crisan’s sheared and regular beaver.

North of the border, Furs by Leonard in Toronto saw a slight decline in sales. Owner Greg Leonard attributed that to the lackluster stock market.

For fall, he sought out reversible lightweight beaver coats from Furko by Theo and fashion-forward pieces from Zuki and Dominic Bellissimo.

"We’re still coming off a reasonably strong season," Leonard said. "I’m optimistic for next year because I believe there’s still a fair amount of pent-up demand for something new and different."

Lazare’s Furs in Windsor, Ontario, fared well due partially to the cold winter, said owner Paul Twigg, who is also president of the Retail Fur Council of Canada. Most of his clients live across the river in Detroit, which gives him a large customer base. Long-haired mink coats, sheared mink styles with long-haired trim along with high-fashion shearlings were bestsellers. Twigg said he had already placed orders for next year and was attending NAFFEM for highlight pieces.

Show traffic was down a bit, possibly because of the SARS scare and a slower U.S. economy, said Irma Paytler, designer for Rosa Mori. "But the buyers that are here are serious. We were busy all day," she said.

Well-known Canadian designer Paula Lishman said the show appeared to be much calmer than in recent years.

"Usually it’s a very hectic setting up, but this year it wasn’t and that aura of calm has pervaded the entire show," Lishman said. "Buyers are saying they’ve never seen so much new product. I think manufacturers are doing an incredible job and I don’t think SARS is a concern."Herscovici noted he sent buyers and exhibitors memos from the the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention saying there were no SARS cases in Montreal. He only had a few cancellations from European countries.

Having had "an excellent winter" at his stores in New York City, White Plains, N.Y., and Paramus, N.J., Steven Corn of Steven Corn Furs said he planned to spend more at this year’s show.

"We’ve seen some new lines like semi-sheared mink from Alexis & Gianni, shearlings from Hennessey and a nice Italian collection of mink from Romagna Furs," Corn added.

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