Moving On Up

NEW YORK — Furriers have friends in high places.<br><br>As if selling luxury goods wasn’t already difficult enough in the city, fur retailers have decamped for the mountains to set up shop in some of the most stylish and lofty of places,...

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NEW YORK — Furriers have friends in high places.

This story first appeared in the April 1, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As if selling luxury goods wasn’t already difficult enough in the city, fur retailers have decamped for the mountains to set up shop in some of the most stylish and lofty of places, including Aspen and Vail, Colo.; Park City, Utah; Sun Valley, Idaho, and Jackson Hole, Wyo.

However, resort businesses face a series of challenges different from most city retailing. Cash flow can be tricky, since many customers are only in town for short periods of time. Also, deliveries can be delayed because of weather and securing long-term salespeople is no easy task.

Despite the nuances found in any niche market, however, most mountain town retailers only close for several weeks of the year, usually in April or May. While fur is no doubt a winter-weight material, new technologies in the way fur can be used — knitted or shirred, for example — means lighter-weight items worn in a casual way, such as a knitted poncho over jeans. The use of fur directly with denim has increased too, making for versatile pieces like fur-trimmed denim jackets worn on chilly nights common during the summer months in high climbs.

According to New York furrier Dennis Basso, people are more inclined to spend money when they’re on vacation — another reason for entering a resort retail market. The designer said he has made some of his most significant luxury purchases while vacationing and knows his clients do the same. However, he said his East Coast customers — many of whom have homes in Aspen — buy fur items from Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, as well as the Aspen store.

To ensure his customer finds something new each time she comes into the Aspen store, Basso designed a collection of lighter-weight coats and accessories for spring and summer. The sportswear features suede pants, skirts and blouses, along with a group of handbags and totes of linen and crocodile.

Though they’re a far cry from cold weather, if Basso were to open another location it would most likely be in Las Vegas or Beverly Hills — two destination spots Basso said makes sense for fur retailing. Basso has held trunk shows in the Palace Hotel in Gstaad, Switzerland, and cited St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy as other upscale European ski destinations where fur is popular. Currently, though, Basso’s sticking to the U.S.

New York furrier J. Mendel opened its second freestanding store in Aspen over the holidays with a splashy benefit party where customers could buy goat-fur coats bleached with silver fox trim for $9,000, mink ponchos for $8,000 and chinchilla coats for $55,000. In its first five days, the store had sales in excess of $250,000.

“Our decision to open a store in Aspen had much to do with our focus on servicing our client,” said designer Gilles Mendel. “The J. Mendel woman, whether she lives in New York or Los Angeles, is the woman who vacations in Aspen. Furthermore, we have always created a tone of après-ski chic, and Aspen in America — like St. Moritz in Europe — is a logical home for a brand with this look.”

Mill Valley Sheepskin & Leather Co. has been selling shearlings, leather coats and full-length furs to customers in Jackson Hole, Wyo., for 30 years. Operations manager C.J. James said Yellowstone National Park and its four million annual visitors help keep the company in shape. Plus, the popularity of furs in that town has increased over the past several years.

Mill Valley makes its own shearling and leather coats out of its factory in Mill Valley, Calif., and buys the full-length furs in Montreal.

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