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MILAN — It’s not your mother’s fur coat.

The classic fur styles of years past are fading fast from the market as the category gets an increasing dose of fashion on global catwalks, said operators at the fur trade fair MiFur, which took place this month here.

But while thriving sales of creative new styles have fueled recent European fur business, China’s surging new demand for pelts has pumped raw material prices so high that those old coats might start vanishing faster than ever.

“I used to tell people that a fur coat will last them 20 years, and I wasn’t bluffing,” said Elio Comparin, MiFur exhibitor and owner of Italian fur accessories specialist Elcom, “Now they don’t, not because the fur doesn’t last but because the styles don’t.”

“Furs are increasingly distributed through boutiques,” said Norberto Albertalli, president of MiFur.

“Today, showrooms that represent fashion clothing also sell furs. It’s not just the furriers anymore,” Albertalli explained after a runway show flaunting winter 2013 collections from nine Italian fur brands to mark the Italian Fur Association’s 65th anniversary.

Monobrand or multibrand fashion boutiques accounted for 47 to 50 percent of Italian fur sales in 2012, compared with 41 to 45 percent for furriers and just 5 percent in department stores, according to a Pambianco study for the Italian Fur Association.

Albertalli stressed that the new fur fashion market has amplified Italy’s competitive advantage, as Italian makers are known internationally for their workmanship and creative flair.

The vertically integrated Italian fur group Fureco appears emblematic.

Fureco operates along the entire supply chain, from selling pelts to designing and manufacturing its own fur lines, from working with top luxury designer labels to supplying them with finished garments.

Cesare Gavazzi is the third-generation owner of the family firm, whose proprietary fur brands are Fabio Gavazzi, Mavina and Xuodoux.

Gavazzi reported his most impressive growth came at the top of the supply chain — in sales of finished garments.

Speaking on the third day of the four-day fair, Gavazzi reported, “At this edition [of MiFur]we’ve seen 40 percent more [finished garments] sold compared to the last edition, and an 80 percent increase in the value of the pieces sold” while his pelt sales actually decreased.

Gavazzi said international luxury goods clients, especially in Russia and the U.S., are turning to sable as a new status symbol. Sable, he said, costs about 10 times as much as mink.

Italian designer Vinicio Pajaro, owner of a self-named fashion fur company, reported a similar experience.
“Last year went better than all the other years,” he said, with turnover rising 30 percent over 2011 while clients snapped up greater quantities and more precious garments.

“Half of my sales were with sable,” said Pajaro, adding that his furs “are aimed at the medium to high-level customer in Russia.”

He said Russian women have developed sophisticated tastes over the last 15 years — as well as a willingness to spend the money to replace furs frequently.

Out of global volume of $15 billion in furs in 2012, sales to Russia alone were worth $3 billion, according to the International Fur Trade Federation.

But Pajaro foresees trouble in 2013, because the cost of primary materials has shot through the roof since December, with Chinese buyers flooding recent major pelt auctions.

Pajaro said the cost of his materials has gone up 30 to 60 percent over last year, and he feared his customers might balk at new prices.

Kopenhagen Fur, a major international fur auction house, reported that more than half of the 800 buyers at its February auction were from China and Hong Kong and that prices had hit a record high.

IFTF chief executive officer Mark Oaten said that until recently, Chinese demand had been concentrated in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, but now the Chinese market is expanding inland to include its other massive urban centers.

“The good news for Europe is that the Chinese are buying European skins and are still looking at what’s happening on the catwalks of Paris and Milan,” said Oaten.

The bad news is that China produces its own garments, and operators serving non-Chinese markets are feeling squeezed.

“It’s almost impossible for us to deal with these prices,” admitted Herbert Würker, owner of the German wild pelt specialist Ofra and president of the German Fur Association.

Würker reported price increases of 75 to 100 percent since last year for the skins he buys.

Ofra’s stand displayed a lush riot of wild pelts, like minks from Canada, foxes from Finland and Swakara (astrakhan) from Namibia.

“It needs to be seen whether the prices will be accepted by consumers,” Würker fretted.

With fur’s increasing integration into the fast-paced fashion system and with demand growing not only from China and the former Soviet Union but also from other growing economies like Turkey and Dubai, Oaten said the great challenge for the fur sector is affordability, especially given its need to cultivate younger consumers with modest purchasing power.

Fur, after all, is a limited resource.

“It may not be as profitable…but the future lies in selling lots of accessories and trim, and finding creative ways to mix smaller amounts of fur with other materials,” Oaten said.

Laerke Koldskov, a 24-year-old Danish designer who won bronze at MiFur Remix design competition, agreed.

“Fur is very popular in Denmark, and it’s becoming more popular,” she said, adding that it is widely viewed there as an environmentally sustainable material because it is natural, enduring and reusable. However, “a lot of us don’t have the money to even buy fur trimming.”

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