The Merchant Class

NEW YORK — All it takes to grasp the radical change in the way fur is merchandised in specialty stores across the nation is to listen to Marissa Hartington describe how customers at her Naples, Fla., boutique are buying John Galliano pants and a...

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NEW YORK — All it takes to grasp the radical change in the way fur is merchandised in specialty stores across the nation is to listen to Marissa Hartington describe how customers at her Naples, Fla., boutique are buying John Galliano pants and a Valentino cashmere turtleneck right along with a mink poncho from the Cassin collection.

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

Gone are the days when fur was restricted to vaulted salons within department stores and specialty retailers that focus on the mink coat trade. Fur today turns up in accessories departments on gloves, hats and bags, in outerwear departments as trim and linings and on designer sportswear floors thanks to the revolutionary treatment of fur in high-end runway collections over the past three years.

While the traditional fur industry still has its woes, the old-line fur retailers have welcomed this trend as a means of invigorating and reinventing the look of their departments, as well, rather than viewing the new options of fur that are widely available to customers as encroaching on their territory.

“We’re mixing everything in our store today, because that’s the way people dress these days,” said Hartington, whose 10,000-square-foot store Marissa Collections carries well-known brands and a lot of small French, Italian and American designer lines. “It was always the way people have dressed in Europe, but Americans are now really catching up with the trend.”

Among the merchandising techniques Hartington has employed is to mix designers together, which has resulted in customers taking items from the different collections to create outfits that match their lifestyles. From a recent Rena Lange trunk show, Marissa Collections sold several $2,500 zip-front cashmere sweater jackets with a black curly persian lamb front — “sporty and chic looking,” Hartington said — but young customers bought Yves Saint Laurent black pants to go along with it while the older generation paired the sweater with loose tweed trousers.

Another hand-embroidered vest from Rena Lange that is trimmed in black fox was sold with navy jeans and black cashmere turtlenecks to some customers (“very chic”), and gray flannel or cashmere pants to their mothers (“very sophisticated”). Marissa Collections is also hosting a J. Mendel trunk show in the coming weeks and has bought into the designer’s fur and ready-to-wear collections for fall stock, she said.

“Valentino is also doing trims on jackets, which are selling the same way,” Hartington said. “It seems like the trend of merchandising is to mix all of our sweaters and jackets with trims in with Galliano and Valentino. The Prada fall runway collection was also fabulous. One of the beautiful new trends is an off-the shoulder coat with three-quarter sleeves, a Fifties look, so women can wear long gloves. Prada had an amazing coat done in charcoal gray persian lamb.”

Fur vendors point to specialty stores like Marissa Collections, Hirshleifer’s in Manhasset, N.Y., and Susan of Burlingame near San Francisco that are becoming some of their strongest clients for modern fur products, particularly coming from companies that position themselves as luxury rtw designers, as opposed to “furriers.”

“The presentation for fur in fashion stores has got to be mixed in with the apparel,” said Sherry Cassin, whose Cassin collection is based in the traditional Fur District south of 34th Street off Seventh Avenue. Companies like Cassin, Ben Kahn, Goldin-Feldman, David Goodman and Trilogy led the charge in the Nineties by coming up with new concepts for fur coats that helped change the way the medium is marketed and merchandised. Cassin, for instance, was among the first fur vendors to sell at the Fashion Coterie, traditionally a sportswear trade show, and at the California markets.

“Fur shouldn’t be pushed out in one area,” Cassin said. “To be modern, fur needs to be mixed in with the sportswear so the customer can see how it can be mixed into their wardrobe on a daily basis, not just for a Saturday night out. We consider our shearling poncho to be every soccer mom’s new SUV jacket. We’re not trying to make something that’s so precious as a new diamond ring that just comes out for special events. To us, fur is a textile.”

Part of these changes, of course, was driven by necessity. The traditional fur retail market has been drastically altered by consolidation at retail, as some of the most famous fur stores in America began to close, like Revillon on Fifth Avenue, or changed hands. Evans, which was the nation’s largest fur retailer for much of the past two decades with salons at Bloomingdale’s and Marshall Field’s, filed for bankruptcy in the late Nineties, and its assets were eventually sold to Birger Christensen, which already managed fur salons at Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Holt Renfrew.

Some small fur stores have adapted and thrived by bringing in new products and some sportswear, while others have continued to grow with an influx of designer names that have licensed fur collections. That leaves Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, which also features a J. Mendel boutique, as the only large retailers to operate their fur departments independently.

“We have certainly seen in past three fall seasons, and particularly in this last one, a strong trend in fur and fur accessories,” said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman. “Fur is being shown in more innovative ways than it has in the past. Where fur had been traditionally thought of as something strictly for uptown ladies, now it is being shown in a much, much younger way, whether in the case of sheared or shaved mink, or mink cut to look like corduroy.

“Certainly, Gilles Mendel (of J. Mendel) has set a standard for innovative design in fur and it’s definitely become a statement for the past few seasons from an accessories standpoint. Prada helped launch that a few years ago with the fur collar and ribbon tie that really showed people how to use fur as an accessory item in a variety of ways.”

Among the fall highlights, Burke pointed to Alexander McQueen’s rabbit coat with metallic bordering, fur lining and trims from Valentino, bright furs from Etro and Dolce & Gabbana, and Oscar de la Renta’s brocade coats with fur collars that evoked an element of St. Petersburg as potentially driving what sells in fur trends. From accessories, he cited Prada’s crocodile gloves.

Mendel highlighted several fall trends, as well, that are likely to drive sales: layering fur with more than one type of fur on another, such as a fox bolero over a broadtail trench; belting a a mink cape with a studded crocodile belt to make it more modern; new innovations such as fox coats that reverse to sweaters, quilted minks that reverse to raincoats or stretch fur; and some retro looks like pastel minks and leopard print coats.

So many designers from the ready-to-wear and sportswear markets have incorporated fur into their collections over the past few years that it becomes more difficult to gauge just which departments or stores are driving the most sales of fur, since some feel seeing fur as a designer trend has pushed more customers into traditional fur stores, while there are still sensitive issues within other stores as to whether adding fur to sportswear departments could take sales away from their fur salons.

To some degree, that’s a moot point, since as much as 80 percent of the fur that is shown in designer collections is contracted to the highly specified factories of the traditional furriers, said Bennett Model, president of Joseph Model Associates, a fur buying office that also consults on the market for clients of The Doneger Group retail buying office.

“What’s happening is that department stores are becoming more important in the fur business,” he said. “Designers are also taking a bigger position in furs. A lot of women who wouldn’t normally walk into a fur department will now because they’re seeing it in the designer collections where they never saw it before. That means you’re getting a lot of younger customers and impulse buyers who normally wouldn’t walk into a fur store.

“Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue have fur in every different part of the store now, and that’s the big evolution. It’s not just a basic mink coat business anymore. It’s also in ski areas where shops are carrying more fur and accessories, which has been a real push in the past few years.”

Jason Dittrich, manager of Hal Dittrich Furs in Detroit and Bloomfield Hills, Mich., said such changes are also reflecting on the patterns of traditional fur coat buyers, who are similarly looking for more sporty and casual coats.

“We’re tending to see people move away from black and dark colors, so we’ve been reducing our inventory of mahogany and the luna range for a while,” he said. “The majority of people are looking toward the brighter colors and specialty items, such as more capes and vests than we have in the past. Our customers in Michigan can be a little behind in the fashion times, but there’s definitely a trickle-down effect.”

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