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MONTREAL — Still dealing with high inventories due to this past winter’s unusually mild temperatures, several buyers attending the 24th annual North American Fur and Fashion Exhibition here were only looking for fashion pieces and unusual items to top off what they already have.

Steep price increases for skins, especially mink, which has jumped 30 to 40 percent at auction due to strong demand from resources in Russia, Japan and China, forced some buyers to reconsider their purchases at this year’s show, held April 30- May 3.

“With mink prices going up so steeply, a lot of retailers are looking again at wild furs like beaver, fox, coyote and lynx,” said Alan Herscovici, executive vice president of the Fur Council of Canada. “And a lot of North American mink furriers, who were squeezed out because so much was made in Asia, are looking to get back into the game now that labor has become a less important component relative to the price of the fur.”

Despite higher mink prices, Herscovici acknowledged it is still the most popular fur, accounting for about 70 percent of all fur sales in North America.

While Canadian exports of fur garments to the U.S. last year declined to $60 million from $73.1 million in 2004, total fur exports to the U.S., including garments, raw and dressed furs, only dropped to $288.5 million from $290.5 million. Overall retail fur sales in the U.S. rose slightly last year to $1.81 billion from $1.8 billion in 2004.

Many Russian buyers — 50 in total — had money to spend. NAFFEM welcomed about 4,000 buyers in total. One buyer from Paredea Furs in Moscow said she spent over $10,000 alone on the first day of the fair.

In recognition of Russia’s growing interest in the fair, Sunday’s Orient Express-themed fashion show opened with a dance performance to a Russian folk song. To reflect how other international sectors are influencing fur sales, performances by Chinese, Japanese and Indian dancers followed.

Most of the 200-plus exhibitors appeared to be busy with customers showing their latest creations. Zuki International caught buyers’ attention during Sunday’s fashion show with a reversible arctic marble blue fox and mink appliqué with crystals coat from SAGA Furs. Zuki has an exclusive deal with the Finnish company to use the unusual fur in North America.

This story first appeared in the May 9, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Other novelty looks in the fashion show included Kazamias Bros.’ creme-colored, laser-cut sheared beaver coat trimmed with lynx, and Furko’s multistriped phantom beaver coat with mink trim and a diamond or chevron hologram skirt.

“Millions of dollars of inventory were not turned because of the warm weather, and open-to-buys are down,” said Furko’s Terry Vourantonis. “But retailers still need a fresh look in their inventory.”

For those who might shy away from carrying one of Furko’s hooded reversible beaver coats trimmed in fox and retailing between $4,000 and $6,000, Vourantonis offered a reversible beaver and leather jacket at a much lower price point. Other exhibitors are also offering more affordable options — Natural Furs is incorporating Persian lamb in its coats or combining mink with leather, and Dino Gaspari is mixing fur with cashmere.

First-time exhibitor Johnny Yiu of Toronto was targeting the lower end of the luxury market with his down-filled coats and jackets with fake-fur collars and cuffs under the Canadian Spirit label and coyote- or fox-trim coats under the Johnny Yiu name. Wholesale prices for Canadian Spirit range between $110 and $170, while his own label ranges between $320 and $420.

Local designer Andy Thê-Anh incorporated fur in his ready-to-wear collection for next fall with help from the Fur Council of Canada’s Design Network program, which encourages innovation and closer links between Canadian designers and the fur industry. His fur collection, which was featured in the fashion show, was manufactured by Musi Furs.

Furrier George Haralabatos of Mink Mart, New York, expected his business to be off by about 15 percent at NAFFEM, but to his surprise, it actually rose 25 percent.

“Business is particularly strong in the better merchandise such as sheared mink and Blackglama coats and sable jackets, which is an indication that women with money are back in the market.”

As an example, Haralabatos showed a sheared mink coat with sable trim that wholesales for $8,500 and was picked up by three customers. And at the lower end of the scale, he pointed to a swakara lamb coat that wholesales for $3,000.

“You have to do what is necessary to accommodate your customers,” he said.

Retailers were being a little more selective this year with their open-to-buys at the show. Paul Twigg, owner of Lazare Furs in Windsor, Ontario, said sales were “off a few percentage points,” due to warm weather and a weaker economy.

“The economy in southwestern Ontario and northeastern Michigan is not good and our open-to-buys are small. We’re looking for sheared pieces such as lynx and chinchilla to fill in our inventory.”

Like most retailers interviewed, Jim Rhomberg of Rhomberg Furriers in Dubuque and Davenport, Iowa, enjoyed a good season until a warm January hit and he was stuck with a lot of inventory.

“We come to Montreal specifically to see fashion not seen anywhere else. We’re buying more carefully and looking for more sheared beaver and shearlings.”

Conrad Holzman of Holzman Furs of Milwaukee had an “up-and-down season” and was stuck with a medium amount of inventory. He was at NAFFEM for filler items such as sheared beaver from Elat Fur Co.

Barry Albert of Alan Furs, Richmond, Va., was also stuck with medium inventory and said this year was bad compared with last season. His open-to-buys are down 25 percent, and he was shopping for highlights and fashion items along with sheared mink and beaver.

“I’m going to shorter pieces because prices of them have gone up less.”

The same scenario played out at McDaniel Furs in Springfield, Mo., where sales slid 15 percent this year over last, according to owner Jeff Latimer.

“Sales were brisk in November and December in anticipation of a winter that never came and things fell off in January and February. I’m glad I have inventory left as it means I don’t have to replenish as much at higher prices.”

Latimer was looking to fill in a few holes for select sizes and for some fashion pieces. He also needed to replenish long-haired and sheared mink and some beaver. “We still have traditional shearlings in the store, but we want to add some creative shearlings.”

As for the steep increase in mink, Layton said he is “not convinced consumers know what they should be paying for mink since they don’t buy it that often.”