Having long relied on more conservative shoppers, furriers are welcoming younger customers in their 20s and 30s who tend to be more adventurous with their fur purchases than their elders.

Instead of relying on tried-and-true styles that used to work from one generation to the next, sportswear and ready-to-wear designers are giving the $1.53 billion fur industry a fresh charge. Well aware of how their customers are looking for versatile pieces instead of special-occasion styles, they are changing their mix accordingly.

"Fur is now a fashion-driven product, whereas in the past, it was only linked with status," said Thomas Steifel Kirstensen, director of international communications for SAGA Furs of Scandinavia, a group that promotes fur design. "Now it’s multilingual — it’s about glamour, hip-hop and prestige."

That’s come in part with interest from such high-profile, young-hearted partygoers as Serena Williams, who have taken to wearing fur to glam up their images. Rappers like Eve, who turned up for the Phat Farm fashion show in a J. Mendel white mink, have also helped jazz up what was once something reserved for opening night at the opera and other more sedate black-tie affairs.

Designers have also been embracing the category in a major way and that type of unprecedented endorsement has electrified interest among shoppers, especially those who take their cues from fashion magazines. Carmen Marc Valvo, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Versace, Gucci and Jean Paul Gaultier all sent fur coats and fur-trimmed items down their fall runways, even though they do not have licensed fur collections.

"The fur industry has to look outside the traditional fur market to sell its product. There are only 1,200 independent fur retailers," said Steve Gold, marketing director for SAGA. "Small specialty stores are a strong new territory. Up until now, furriers may have not pursued that area. There are all different price points now. Buying fur can be not anything more than buying a designer wool coat."

Mink and fox are the biggest sellers, with Persian lamb, rabbit, sable, chinchilla and coyote also popular, Gold said. With rabbit coats starting at a few hundred dollars and a Russian lynx coat selling for upward of $75,000, the price range seems to accommodate a greater range of budgets.With more designers showing fur on the runway, retailers are buying fur coats to round off sportswear and ready-to-wear collections, instead of placing them in fur salons. The media’s coverage of fashion shows and trends is helping the cause, as well. In turn, shoppers are more inclined to use editorial and ads to shop for furs, said Nick Pologeorgis, president of Pologeorgis Furs, which makes the Michael Kors, Zandra Rhodes and Chado Ralph Rucci fur collections, as well as private label.

"Our customer has definitely gotten younger and she wants to wear fur more times a year [than the traditional customer.]," Pologeorgis said. "She’s more inclined to wear short coats in different colors."

The company is attracting more women in the 30- to 45-year-old age bracket, compared to 35 to 50, as was the case a few years ago. The youthful spirit is evident in the uptick in sales of waist-length mink jackets. Pologeorgis’ annual sales are running about 5 to 10 percent ahead of last year, he said. Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and other stores are doing a better job of merchandising than they have in the past, he noted.

"They have great buyers who have a modern eye, instead of buying what they’ve been buying for years and years," he said. "Their risk of showing some new things is paying off."

In addition to sportswear looks, Pologeorgis expects sales of capes, shrugs and other evening pieces in mink, sable or fox to increase this fall. The latter gained momentum this winter, due partially to a backlash to casual dressing.

"People like to get dressed up when they go to special occasions," he said. "They want to look glamorous and fur makes women look beautiful."

Brett Schulman, president of Alixandre Furs, the maker of Oscar de la Renta furs, said: "If people are buying a new coat, they want something unusual. Fur doesn’t change that much, but we’re doing more embellishment and handwork."

Those finishing touches also help to jack up the price of a coat, with prices peaking around $30,000. Schulman estimated that 40 percent of de la Renta’s collection has handpainting, beading or embroidery. It works particularly well on broadtail, sheared mink and sable.This winter’s chilly temperatures also gave Alixandre Furs’ sales a lift.

Schulman said, "Many women realized they need to be warm and they need a fur coat."

Dennis Basso said he’s noticed a wake-up call among Generation-X, a group that furriers have not pursued aggressively in years past.

Generation-Xers are coming into their own and "girls who weren’t interested in furs, jewels and clothes have become interested in those things but are interpreting them in their own way," Basso said.

Women between 25 and 35 are responding to "very fun…cropped jackets" and Basso is among the labels trying to get onboard with that portion of the market. Financially, times might be tight, but fashion-forward shoppers are still indulging in investment pieces like Manolo Blahniks and fur coats.

Reached in Milan looking for new techniques late last month, Basso said more legwork is needed to appeal to those more stylish customers.

"In creating a more contemporary look, you really need to be on top of it," he explained. "You can’t just make someone a magnificent sable coat. That’s why I’m here looking for something new for that customer."

The average age of a fur customer is now in the mid-30s compared with 48 in 1995, according to Kirstensen of SAGA. In sync with the rest of the fashion industry, they are drifting toward more quality furs like minks and fine workmanship.

Many customers are opting for lightweight, reversible styles with special details such as short-haired mink that can be plucked as thin as knitwear. Mink pashminas could be next winter’s big thing, he said.

"The top end of the business is about design and quality, not price resistance. The difference is consumers want to know what they are buying. Fur has been rather absent from the general shopping venue for a few years and it might be difficult for them to distinguish the different fur types. Fashion has more questions and curiosity about fur and we welcome that."

Furriers need to be outgoing about explaining the various new styles and price points. In the last three years, the number of stores carrying fur coats has tripled to 1,200, with more department stores and fashion-forward specialty stores giving fur salons some real competition.With Versace, Gucci and Gaultier showing fur in their men’s wear shows in Milan, the category should only gain more fans, he said. In addition, fur has made its way into interior design in throws, blankets and cushions, he added. Driven part by Americans’ continued desire to be homebodies and their longing for all things luxurious, fur home furnishings should continue to attract buyers, he added.

Anne Dee Goldin, president of Goldin Feldman, which produces her signature line, said: "The lines are blurring between outerwear, sportswear and accessories. Fur is so pervasive in all classifications. It’s so much more expansive than what I thought the fur business could be. It’s so totally accepted as a part of a woman’s wardrobe and lifestyle."

When she joined her father’s business fresh out of college in 1980, "it was all about wearing that one fur coat and you could wear it over and over," she said.

Over the years, that must-have item shifted from a raccoon coat, to a ranch mink coat with puffed sleeves, to a Perry Ellis-inspired coat with a back belt and so on.

"Now, it’s really a lifestyle. Women want something to wear when they’re a soccer mom or going out to dinner or to a black-tie affair," Goldin said. "It’s like having just the right bag for everything. It’s the new must-have item."

All this attention should also bode well for the storage and repair business, which has faltered in recent winters due largely to unseasonably warm weather, she added.

"Last year, it was too hot and they hadn’t worn their fur coats, so they didn’t bother storing it," she said. "Now, they have something they haven’t worn in years."

Most importantly, memories of this winter’s heavy snowfall and frigid temperatures should help speed up the buying cycle for fur, she said. Instead of bringing in fur in October, more stores will be likely to put it on their sales floors in August, as was the case years ago.

Goldin added that stores should be more inclined to hold off on marking down sale merchandise in January, as has become the norm.

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