Byline: Leonard McCants

MONTREAL — Independent fur retailers, with a few exceptions, are beginning to get behind the concept that fur can be a fashionable purchase.
Recognizing a significant turnaround in traffic at fur salons in department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus, which have championed designer labels and offbeat styles over the past few years, small retailers that specialize in fur are remerchandising along the same lines with fashion-driven styles, according to buyers attending the North American Fur & Fashion Exposition Montreal this month.
With years of recession, anti-fur protests and mild winters behind them, fur vendors and retailers said 1999 was one of their best years since the Eighties, having capped steady annual sales increases in the latter part of the decade.
Some retailers present during NAFFEM, the largest North American fur outerwear trade show, which closed May 6, said they had little remaining inventory in stores and were looking for fresh goods.
“It looks like the industry is in a prolonged expansionary mode,” said Leonard Gorski, president of Furs by Leonard Gorski, a manufacturer based in Montreal.
A booming U.S. economy, a return to luxury fabrics within designer collections, and a renewed interest in fur by fashion magazines are all cited as reasons for the increase in fur’s popularity.
It’s not just the traditional, full-length, black mink coat that has gotten customers into a frenzy. Shorter looks, novelty pieces and more casual coats are gaining headway with women looking to purchase a second fur coat, stores said.
“Casual lifestyles have had a profound affect on what people are buying,” said Fred Gelb, principal of Furs by Frederick Gelb. “The formal coat is not what customers are looking for. They want to buy something they can go shopping in.”
In an effort to increase fur offerings to customers shopping for casual looks, the Fur Council of Canada and the North American Fur Association introduced a display at NAFFEM called FurWorks, which showed stores how to merchandise designer furs. Designed by U.S. and Canadian furriers, the line presented lightweight pieces in three categories: Luxe, New Couture and Urban Chic, and will be available for fall selling.
Retailers also acknowledged that their challenge is trying to attract a new generation of customers which, they said, consider versatility to be an important reason to buy a coat.
“What we’re shopping for is a customer who wants to wear her coat to more than just dinner,” said Russell Rizzo, owner of Joseph Palanker & Sons in Buffalo, N.Y.
“We’re looking to gear more to a woman in her 30s who can wear a jacket to pick up her kids or wear it to the market,” he said.
Rizzo was searching for leather, fur-trimmed cashmere coats, shearling and capelets from resources such as Zuki Furs, Furs by Leonard Gorski and Tendler Furs, among others.
He is optimistic that this year will be “outstanding.”
“I’m here because I have no inventory left,” he said. “Last year we had the biggest year on record.”
In a further attempt to reach out to fashion-conscious customers, fur resources also used dyed furs, sometimes in bright, almost shocking hues.
“Things now are a lot more lively, and there’s a lot more play in color,” said Marcia Carr, a sales consultant with Dittrich Furs, with stores in Detroit and Bloom-field Hills, Mich.
“There’s a lot of youthful things here, too,” she said. “Plus, they’re putting fur everywhere from purses and accessories to trim on jeans. It’s brought fur into the real world.”
Carr said her buyers were looking for “stylish items” like lynx, mink and coyote. Some important vendors for them include Northern Apparel and Dero, in addition to Zuki.
Carr said she is noticing a gradual increase in young fur customers influenced by rappers such as Lil’ Kim and Sean (Puffy) Combs and singers like Mary J. Blige who all publicly wear fur — and lots of it.
“That’s a market that has a lot of money, and they want to buy,” she said. “It’s almost like money is no object, and they’re buying a lot of the stylish and more fashionable items.”
Vendors, too, are noticing an increase in these more fashionable young pieces. Short coats made of dyed fox in hot pink, canary yellow and baby blue are getting a lot of attention from retailers, said George Haralabatos, president of Mink Mart in New York.
“It’s amazing the response we get to coats like this,” Haralabatos said. “We found that the customer is accepting it.”
In addition to the fox fur jackets, he said, bestsellers at NAFFEM included a sheared mink coat with a Persian lamb collar and cuffs, a coat with a chinchilla-trimmed lapel, and chinchilla boleros, wraps and jackets.
“The first day here we booked more business than we did at the entire fair last year,” he said.
With its Trilogy line, New York-based Blum & Fink is also taking aim at a trendy customer concerned with getting more use out of a typical fur coat.
“With the warmer winters of late, people want product that is more serviceable, easier to wear and has a longer shelf-life, with the opportunity to wear it more seasons,” said Stanley Blum, president.
The line features knitted fur pieces done in mink, beaver, rabbit and fox, as well as accessories and smaller items. Best-selling looks included a rabbit zip-front jacket, a sand and beige knitted rabbit poncho, and a black and white striped rabbit vest.
Michael Mosler, designer of Toronto-based M.T. Beauty, said approaching the medium from a youthful perspective can also help reach customers in an older age range. Mosler said he often will throw on a fur jacket without a shirt to walk his dog in an effort to break away from the long mink coat stigma.
“My sister and I are not old enough to love the mink coat,” he said. “We make things for my sister and people in their 20s to wear, and older people will gravitate to this and look younger.”
Important pieces from M.T. Beauty include a sheared beaver and cotton knitted bolero with fox trim and a sheared beaver pullover with a fox collar and bell sleeves.
“This is our fourth showing,” he said. “For us, this is an opportunity to show our products and support the industry.”
But not everyone at NAFFEM is ready to disregard the signature fur customer: a woman who wants a simple and traditional full-length fur coat.
“People come to us for a more commercial product,” said Miriam Friedman, president of VIP Fashions of New York. “For our market, it’s still the traditional let-out mink that’s the bestseller.”
Chris O’Brien, owner of O’Brien & Sons Furs, a store in West Dundee, Ill., outside of Chicago, concurred, “That’s still an item that very quietly gets sold in large numbers.”
In addition, he said, he was searching for fisher, coyote, shearling, and sheared beaver and mink.
Not every retailer has a customer who desires a coat in wild colors, noted Jason Miller, vice president of Miller Furs in Chevy Chase, Md.
“There are a lot of things I like here, but not a lot of things I’d buy, especially for D.C.,” Miller said. “There’s a lot more of the experimental stuff — the underfur is dyed one color and the top is another. It’s great. You can tell people have thought about the process.
“But it may be a little bit forward-thinking for some of the markets. Being a conservative city, we’re dealing with people from the embassies or who want to wear it to the theater.”
Washington-area customers are asking for a lot of bolero jackets, Miller said, and he is looking at vendors like Elextra to fill orders.
Considering that, Miller’s conservative customers might want to stay clear of the avant-garde looks from Zuki Furs, one of the more rebellious resources at the exposition, with color-block sheared beaver dresses, floral print intarsia beaver and fox coats and a chartreuse knitted beaver sweater.
“We are the bad boys of the industry,” said Betty Balaila, executive director of the Montreal-based vendor. “Fur is not just taking pelts, putting them together and adding a collar and cuffs. We dye them, we groove them, we cut them into strips and knit them. We’re creating a fabric. We don’t really think of ourselves as making fur coats — we’re making fashion in fur.”
With the new North American license for Gianfranco Ferre furs and luxury coats, Furs by Leonard Groski has experienced a stronger season, Gorski said.
“Ferre overall in ready-to-wear has undergone a strong infusion of energy,” he said. “The synergy between the ready-to-wear and furs is very strong. The ready-to-wear and the couture have gotten a strong commitment from retailers, and this obviously helps the fur and the luxury outerwear business.”
Gorski also makes shearling outerwear under the Sinclair label and furs for a Milan designer named Vito Nacci.
Susan Kluger, principal of Kluger Furs Ltd., said she picked up some innovative new styles, pointing to marbleized sheared beaver, mink capes and cashmere. She said business last year at her Flossmoor, Ill.-based stores improved dramatically from the year before.
“I had a sizable sales increase,” she said.
As the winters of recent years remained mild, the fur and cloth outerwear businesses suffered. This past year, which saw a bitterly cold stretch in January and February, proved to be a boon for the industry as people rushed to buy coats.
“If it’s cold this winter,” Kluger added, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. You’ll see a fair where people will go crazy.”
Gelb would love to have another cold winter to augment last season.
“Last year, I had the best year I’ve had in a decade,” he said. “Business is excellent. Without question, it’s economy driven, but also there’s been a rebirth in the woman’s mind that fur should be a part of her wardrobe, and there’s a pent-up demand for fur.”
He said retailers are coming to him for his mink coats in full-length and hip-length styles. He also said innovative details like fur buttons and detachable hoods sold well.
“There’s a more sexy look to these furs, and fur is again being perceived as sexy,” he added.
In that regard, there are trends toward dying the pelts, knitting them and cutting coats into leaner silhouettes. Furriers are also furthering the rollout of fur home accessories such as knitted fur blankets, pillows, throws and bedspreads.
“We started this maybe two seasons ago,” said Gwen Nacos, president of Natural Furs. “The stores have bought them, and they have done well. I think it’s that desire for luxury. And what’s more luxurious than putting fur on your bed at the ski lodge as well as wearing it?”
Natural Furs, based in Montreal, additionally holds the license for Louis Feraud furs. That line’s best-selling coats included a green Persian lamb version that stops just above the knee, sheared beaver with a tie-dyed effect mixing greens, oranges and blues and a zebra-printed micro-sheared beaver look.
“Color is very important with us,” Nacos said. “We said why can’t you play with everything? Why can’t you get away from the the black and gray and get into color? We think this is a wonderful story.”