By  on May 10, 2013

MONTREAL — After 31 years, the North American Fur and Fashions Exposition Montreal, held here April 28-30, is facing an uncertain future as a rival show that debuted two weeks earlier in Chicago kept many American buyers and exhibitors away.

NAFFEM featured fewer than 60 exhibitors, down from 100 a few years ago and 200 in 2000. By comparison, there were 54 exhibitors at the April 14 to 16 International Luxury Outerwear Expo in Chicago, including 13 from Canada.

“There’s no question that things are tough,” said Alan Herscovici, executive vice president of the Fur Council of Canada, which produces NAFFEM. “Next year, everything is up for discussion.’’

For the first time in years, there was no Sunday evening gala featuring an extravagant fashion show. “We can’t afford it,’’ Herscovici said. “We have to maintain the essential focus, which is the selling.”

Herscovici said the high Canadian dollar and Customs issues have made it expensive for American sellers to attend the show. And China is now the main fur manufacturer, as it is for apparel. Despite those difficulties, Canadian fur exports are increasing. For 2012, fur exports of pelts and garments were $706 million, up from $529 million in 2011 and $315 million in 2000, Herscovici said.

According to the London- based International Fur Trade Federation, global retail fur sales topped $15 billion in 2012, a 70 percent gain since 2000. In addition, prices for farmed mink have rebounded from a low of about $20 in 1992 to well more than $100 a pelt in recent international auction sales.

NAFFEM is on “life support,” according to Mitch Fazekas of Mitchie’s Matchings. He is one of the four organizers of the Chicago show, which was held at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill., near O’Hare Airport. The others are Alan Zuckerman, owner of Chosen Furs, Newbury Park, Calif.; Scott Bernstein, Rendezvous, N.Y., and Sheldon Rockler, of L.A. Rockler Fur Co., Minneapolis. “I felt there was no strictly outerwear show in North America and there is a need for a central location. A lot of buyers just aren’t coming [to NAFFEM] anymore,” said Fazekas, although he also had a booth at NAFFEM to exhibit his label’s fur accessories.

Another Montreal company, The Global Fur Group, exhibited in Chicago but wasn’t at NAFFEM. “It was a good commercial decision,” said company owner Alex Simatos. “There were buyers there that I hadn’t seen in seven or eight years and some who never came to Montreal.”

The same sentiment was expressed by Dean Kantakias of Dino Gaspari, another local firm with a booth in Chicago and at NAFFEM. “We saw customers there [in Chicago] we haven’t seen in ages. I’m disappointed in NAFFEM for not putting more effort into their show,” he said.

Another Canadian company, Alice Arthur, had a booth at both shows and was happy with the decision. “We had more U.S. buyers in Chicago. which is the market we’re going after,” said Lydie Vialette, a representative for Alice Arthur whose lightweight reversible leather and lamb shearling jackets and coats are designed in Canada and manufactured in Turkey.

But Mahvash Amid of Minneapolis, maker of Mahvash fur and silk flowers, has been showing at NAFFEM for the past six years and will continue to support the show. “I’ll never leave NAFFEM, because I feel loyal to them,” said Amid, who received “a nice thank-you note” from Michelle Obama after sending three of her creations to the First Lady.

As for fur sales themselves, both colder weather and the economy had an impact on buyers attending NAFFEM and Chicago. “The first three months of this season were better than the same period a year ago, but a year ago was not a good year,” said Keith Rosenstock, owner of Canadian Fur Co., Pittsburgh. “People weren’t spending, and I don’t know if it was because of the weather or the economy or both. And those that were spending were trading down. If they used to spend $6,000 on a coat, they spend $4,000 now. That’s the dilemma of this business. When skin prices go up, it becomes very challenging.”

Rosenstock said inventory levels were up about $10,000 over last year, but not significant enough to affect his open to buys at NAFFEM. The trend continues to be away from more traditional furs and toward three-quarter sheared reversals along with capes and ponchos with fur trim, he said.

Sales were up 10 percent compared with last season, due to colder weather, at A.J. Ugent Furs in Milwaukee, said owner Rodney Ugent. But he faced price resistance from the average customer, forcing him to clear inventory from mid-December onward. “My inventory levels are normal, but mink prices are too high and people are looking for alternatives.”

Sales at Island Furs, in Chicago, were down from a year ago due to an economy “that seems to be worse,” said co-owner Berry James. “It’s not so much price, but people are just not shopping as much. Inventory has been higher over the last few years. We’re just filling in [at NAFFEM] versus stocking.”

With higher prices, customers are buying mostly smaller items and fur accessories, forcing James to go with a smaller markup to encourage more buying, he said. “We were clearing by November instead of after Christmas.”

Meanwhile, it was a “good season” for Marcie Rea of Marcella Furs & Leather in Amarillo, Tex., who did most of her buying in Chicago. Her open to buys were smaller than usual, and she decided to dedicate part of her women’s budget to men’s coats. “Sales of new coats were down about 12 percent, but we made up for it in restyling. We were all set for a record season until December hit, along with warm weather, which is a critical month. January was exceptionally good and almost made up for December,” she said.

Andre Ferber of Jacques Ferber Furs closed his store in Ardmore, Pa., and opened one in Wayne, Pa., about seven miles further west in the Eagle Village shopping center. “We sold a lot of mink and sheared mink in bright colors,” he said. “Customers realized that prices were up, and so we priced accordingly. And prices are going up again.”

Ferber attended the Chicago show but not NAFFEM as he usually does, because U.S. vendors are upset with the cost of doing business in Montreal. That’s the main reason the Chicago show was launched, according to Zuckerman.

“NAFFEM has diminished over the last few years, and it’s very expensive for retailers and exhibitors,” he said, noting that a booth in Chicago costs less than half of one in Montreal.

Herscovici disputed that claim, adding the costs are comparable based on the square footage. And the two shows are different, he pointed out. “We’re more than just a trade show. The Chicago show is run by a private enterprise with no services to the industry. We’re run by the fur association, which has offered trend and fashion seminars over the years. A lot of U.S. buyers want us to continue, because they appreciate the services we provide, including photography to American retailers. The last thing we need is to split the industry into two.”

Zuckerman said of NAFFEM, “I wish them no ill will, but I don’t know where the show is going and we’re moving into a new era of marketing. We’re not looking at this [Chicago] as a business opportunity as much as how to revive a shrinking industry.”

As for his own selling season, Zuckerman said “it was the hardest year we’ve endured in 33 years in business due to the economy and the escalating prices of raw materials. It has taken a large group of buyers out of the game.”

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