NEW YORK — In her unexpected stroll down the runway at Fur Fashion 2003, Joan Rivers snapped, "The next time someone asks you why you’re wearing fur, you tell them it’s because these furs have gone places in death they never would have gone in life."

Granted, the comedian and red-carpet critic is not one for understatement, but she seemed to capture the buoyant attitude wrapping the fur industry these days. With solid sales this stormy winter, snow falling last week and plenty of fur on designer runways, furriers are feeling upbeat.

The variety of lightweight, relaxed jackets that dominated their annual fashion show last week at the Puck building flirted with the underlying merriment. Rivers, a former Blackgama model, wasn’t the only surprise performer at the show: Jennifer Holiday and Liz Callaway sang a few bars for the crowd of 300.

To try to be more in step with the fashion calendar, this year’s installment was held about six weeks earlier than in previous years. Several participants said they were energized by the number of sportswear and ready-to-wear designers who showed fur on their own runways, even though they don’t produce fur lines.

Cynthia Rowley, Royal Chie, David Goodman and Eric Gaskins were among the 20 designers in Fur Fashion. The North American Fur Association, America Legend and Saga Furs of Scandinavia were the event’s major sponsors. The show was organized by the Fur Information Council of America.

Alexis & Gianni Furs got on board as a participant "to show its line to stores and the media," said John Petras, president. The Westbury, N.Y.-based retailer is launching a wholesale division and expects it to generate nearly $1 million in sales.

After the show, Edwin Schulman, president of Alexandre Furs, which makes Oscar de la Renta’s fur collection, said, "I thought it was wonderful." His son, Larry, the company’s vice president, added, "It was an incredible representation of what’s being done in the industry, from clean, modern and classic to young, fun, interesting looks. The most important part is to show that New York is the place for fur fashion."Miss New York, Tiffany Walker, wearing a Tendler Furs mink stole, said, "When it was minus 35 degrees in upstate New York, fur really kept me warm."

Dressed in a hooded zip-front fur jacket, actress Ann Gray, who helps her husband Edward Grafof Ben Kahn Furs with trunk shows, and the firm’s designer, Mary Jane Marcasiano, said they were encouraged by the abundance of lightweight, versatile looks on the runway. Graf said the interest in fur among younger women continues to increase, noting how eight of 12 friends she planned to meet for lunch last week called to be sure she would have photos of the new line.

Anne Dee Goldin, president of Goldin Feldman, said she was encouraged by the industry’s more spirited look.

"It seemed to me like they really had it together," Goldin said. "It is very difficult to pull together a trade show as a fashion show. From an editorial standpoint, it was far better timing having the show in April."

In addition to staging its annual show a month early, FICA announced Fur Market Month 2003, a series of showroom events that will be held May 28 through June 20.

Later in the week, Giuliana Teso presented its collection at its four-month-old SoHo showroom. Marco Teso, who designs Byte, the company’s more casual line, said stores are responding to a mink parka with fine raccoon cuffs and collar, and an unlined goat suede jacket, among other things.

He said fit is "the most important thing" in his designs. "We prefer to do something that fits and women will feel very comfortable in."

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