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What’s My Line?

NEW YORK — Just as every fur has its own personality, every furrier is equally individualistic or idiosyncratic, as the case may be.<br><br>Fur designers are a bit pressed to show some flair, now that big names like Michael Kors, Ralph Rucci,...

NEW YORK — Just as every fur has its own personality, every furrier is equally individualistic or idiosyncratic, as the case may be.

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

Fur designers are a bit pressed to show some flair, now that big names like Michael Kors, Ralph Rucci, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan showed some fur in their runway shows. They also know shoppers are in tune with the changing face of fur and won’t be remotely tempted by old standbys.

But furriers know they will need more than charisma to sell some coats, come winter. True to form, their business practices are equally diverse.

The Showman

With his baritone voice and fondness for bravura, Dennis Basso has played a leading role in the fur industry for 20 years.

One of the few designers who has taken an on-with-the-show approach to this year’s decidedly toned down Fur Fashion Week, he plans to host his biggest show yet — a bash for 600 or so of his nearest and dearest at Harry Cipriani’s on May 28. Basso is still flipping through his Rolodex looking for a big name to close his show, as Liza Minnelli, Ivana Trump, and other have done in years past. Instead of staging the show during the day, he will hold the event at night so his clients can bring their husbands or boyfriends.

A ringleader of sorts for the industry, Basso doesn’t understand why more fashion shows aren’t scheduled.

“We’ve just had the coldest winter we can remember in at least five years,” he said. “Fur was all over the streets, designers used fur on their runways and magazines used fur in fashion spreads.”

Even the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals has lost some punch and supermodels who once swore off fur are now modeling it.

“No one wants to be dictated to, especially with everything that is going on in the world today,” Basso said. “People have higher priorities. Even Naomi is wearing fur — it just takes a little cold weather and some fashion to give everyone the push.”

Just as any eccentric has no qualms about extremes, Basso said anything over $25,000 like sable or chinchilla is “extremely strong” and anything under $10,000 like a reversible mink jacket is also healthy.

“Fur has almost become an impulse buy, like an article of clothing. Customers are not coming back to try on a coat several times before they buy it,” Basso said. “They are shopping for fur like anything else they would add to their wardrobe.”

The Artisans

A third-generation furrier who hails from a Rue Saint-Honoré shop in Paris, Gilles Mendel approaches the category like an aging artisan with a roaming eye, cherishing fur’s rich luxury but well aware of the more current stylishness desired by younger customers.

For example, a three-button velvet corduroy mink coat, a barguzine sable seven-eighths coat with suede panels and a turn-key closure, a tailored super-sheared mink coat and a stretch, bleached silver fox bolero jacket are bestsellers at his Madison Avenue store and boutique at Bergdorf Goodman. Customers have also been clamoring for a mink hobo handbag.

“Right now, I believe it is about products, such as fur, with intrinsic value. The shopper is looking for something more special, more unique,” he said. “It is less about press and more about the lasting value of an object. Fur is about both sick indulgence and incredible comfort.”

Given that, Mendel is making furs for every season — lightweight furs for spring that work with his made-to-order gowns and ready-to-wear collections and even featherweight fox shrugs and boleros for summer.

Adrienne Landau is another designer who takes an artistic approach to fur. A former painter and conceptual artist who at one time was credited with helping to start diaristic art, Landau has maintained her artistic sense. Just as she was not one to sit and sketch for hours, Landau prefers to think of fur as a concept, just as she did with art.

Fur-knit headbands are among the new accessories she’s added to her line. In terms of outerwear, the emphasis is on short jackets like boleros, as well as embroidered suede with rabbit fur linings, goat shearling, fox trim items and other styles. Landau said she gets inspiration from her travels. This year alone she has visited London, Barcelona, Shanghai, India, Bangkok and other locales in search of inspiration.

The Rookies

Appropriately, Mark Badgley and James Mischka drew inspiration from “Now Voyager” for their first journey into fur. Beaded or embroidered midlength coats in their BC International-produced collection took flight with stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Holt Renfrew. Fur fans also liked the shaved, short-hand plucked furs, Badgley said.

Summing up his rookie year, Badgley said, “There are no rules. Everyone wants something new. They just don’t want a typical fur coat from us. There are no boundaries. This has been a really fun project for us.”

The duo were impressed with how “couture-oriented” the fur business is.

“It’s not just you make a beautiful coat, you ship it and it’s good-bye. They get very involved with the customers and sometimes make custom pieces to fit them perfectly,” Badgley said.

Getting into the fur business has helped the designers pick up some new customers and to sell the cold weather outerwear in some unsuspecting places.

“There have been a lot of new faces for us,” Badgley said. “Women travel so much that we have had some of our biggest sales in Palm Beach and sunny Southern California. You never know where you will sell a fur coat these days.”

The Roommates

Anne Dee Goldin and Sherry Cassin share showroom space at 150 West 30th Street in Manhattan’s Fur District, but their personal styles are quite different.

A friend of Narciso Rodriguez, Goldin shares his fondness for sportswear. Her two-fold collection has novelty items like short fox jackets and fur vests aimed at boutiques, and a fur collection geared for more conventional fur stores. On both levels, she already expects next season to be a hit with shoppers. “There’s no question it will be a stronger year because people will want to be prepared. Women will be thinking about fur earlier because it was such a brutal winter.”

Cassin said she likes to think of herself as a “progressive merchant,” who isn’t above doing such grunt work as hauling fur skins to contractors or dashing out on a Friday night to pick up samples. Known for her vests, ponchos, cardigans and duster coats, Cassin expects this year’s unit sales to climb by 30 percent to 15,600, due partially to offering more high-end items like chinchilla and sable, and more opening price points like rabbits and sheepskin items.

What most might not know about her is, that after 32 years in this business, she works seven days a week and heads up her label’s production. Her new contemporary collection includes a group that is aimed at women between the ages of 15 and 30, but has yet to be named. To appeal to younger shoppers, alpaca sweaters, blouson jackets and every other item will be priced under $1,000.

The Italian Connection

Giuliana Teso, an Italian based family business, is going after the American market.

Instead of just selling items to specialty stores, the company is introducing more of its fur outerwear to better stores like Neiman Marcus this fall. American sales are expected to account for 30 percent of the total $21 million sales in outerwear, said Carlo Teso who runs the business, which is named after his mother, the line’s designer. His brother Marco is in charge of Byte, a trendy line that uses an image of the planet Pluto, to symbolize its interest in research, development, technology and telecommunications.

Unlike most furriers who coordinate their fashion shows with their competitors, Guilana Teso shows in Milan during the collections.

“We don’t consider furs to be a separate business. It’s part of our collection,” he said. “We show eight weeks before the collection [in the U.S.], so a lot of people come to see what we’re doing.”