A Furocious Future for Oregon?
Fabulous Furs Hit the Fashion Radar
by Lisa Baker
Audrey Hepburn did it.
So did Marlene Dietrich.
Famously, boldly: they wore fur.
But they’re dead, you say. And besides, that was when mink was in—a time when a fur
was something to aspire to.
Nobody, you say, wears fur anymore.
Tell that to the fur industry, which is wrapping itself in record annual sales of $1.8
billion, an increase of 7.5 percent over the previous year. Celebrities, who a few years
ago eschewed fur, are returning to the fold. Most famously—model Cindy Crawford,
who appears in the current Blackglama Mink “what becomes a legend” campaign
bundled in black, sleek fur.
Nothing faux there.
It represents a return to the table for furriers, an industry unrelentingly targeted by animal
rights activists who have resorted to arson, vandalism and physical threats to drive fur
from the fashion pages. Among the activists’ legal tools are celebrities who appear in
various news stories and ads declaring their aversion to fur. One of them was Cindy
Crawford, who activists say ten years ago posed for the infamous “I’d rather go naked
than wear fur” ads, wearing only a hat and a saucy look. Crawford says she never
intended to make a statement about fur, and that the anti-fur slogan was added to the
Nevertheless, the campaign appeared to be successful. Fur disappeared from runways and
thus from magazines and therefore from retailers’ windows. Women who’d finally
inherited furs stored them rather than wear them in public.
Suddenly, fur salons are teaming with customers again—even, retailers say, in Oregon.
Portland’s Schumacher Fur Co. reports a 32.6 percent increase in sales in the past year.
Nicholas Ungar Furs in Portland reports two very busy years in a row. And Mario’s,
downtown Portland, lists fur as one of its top fashion items for the year.
Wilson’s Leather, a national chain with an outlet store in Eugene, reports growing
customer interest in any items that contain fur or fur accents. Ditto Bon-Macy’s stores in
Salem, Roseburg, Coos Bay and Eugene.
Beverly Mills, vice president of women’s accessories for Bon-Macy’s, said all things fur
went like hotcakes in 2004, especially during the Christmas shopping season. “It was an
Women’s Wear Daily found that 74 percent of 200 high-end retail stores the magazine
surveyed currently carry fur. Seventy-nine percent of remaining stores plan to add fur to
their merchandise over the next 12 months.
Not that you’d recognize it right away—it’s not your mother’s mink coat. Fur is a
different animal these days.
It’s a knitted fur poncho, light as Splenda, swooningly soft. Formal with a dress or casual
with jeans, ponchos are coming off the racks as fast as retailers can stock them.
Or, it’s a velvet-sheen, full-length sheared fur that reverses to a microfiber raincoat with a
discreet fur collar. It’s daily grind rainwear and Friday night glamour, all in the same
How about a fur vest? Or something with a funky fringe? Fur cuffs, even.
And color. Red fur, purple fur. Streaked like a punkster’s hair, highlighted, or engraved
in fanciful furrows.
Furriers say the new styles are drawing a new clientele. Sheared black fur jackets with
leather on the reverse side are drawing men into the mix. And young adults, in particular,
are seeing fur as something hip that can be worn casually. In the past year, 55 percent of
the fur customer base was younger than 44, fur retailers say.
Bon-Macy’s Mills says shoppers are drawn to what they see in the fashion magazines,
and what they’re seeing is fur. Fur everywhere and in so many different forms. “We have
fur mufflers, gloves with fur trim, fur handbags. And the ponchos. Those were the really
versatile item, very forgiving—anyone can wear them,” she said.
Colors drew shoppers who aren’t stirred by traditional black. “People really responded to
color, the bright colors—fuschia, green, blue—it was something they didn’t already have
in their closet,” Mills said.
And then there’s the cost. Traditionally, fur was associated with accomplishment.
Financial accomplishment, or, possibly, a profitable marriage. Now, fur—especially
when woven with other fabrics—can be obtained for the pittance of $100 to $500. A fur
vest: $600. “It really is an affordable luxury,” Mills said.
Those wanting the look without the price can still buy faux fur, which passes muster to
the untrained eye but feels different to the touch.
Another development: New pelts. Raccoon and even nutria are sheared of the outer
“guard” fur layer to expose softer-than-mink undercoats that shimmer like velvet.
Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Fur Information Council of America, said it is
clothes designers that drive fashion and designers are inspired by new technology that
allows fur to be more versatile than ever. “One of the greatest growth areas is the knitted
furs, and it’s because they’re so adaptable. They’re so light, they can be worn 10 months
out of the year.”
Lightness means West Coast states, with their more temperate climates, can become
boom markets for fur products, he said. “In Los Angeles this year, the first shipment of
knitted ponchos sold out in three days.”
Gale Olsen pulls the jet-black collar around her throat, and then runs her hands down the
mink lapels. Her friends say it for her: “Wow.”
She looks up from the full-length coat, eyes shining, but she checks an all-out smile
before it bursts on the scene. Attempting detachment. “I don’t know…” she ventures.
“It’s a lifetime investment,” one friend urges.
“That’s true,” Olsen agrees, the smile breaking through restraint.
But she is torn, tinkering with the idea of trading in her mother’s mink—out of fashion
and several sizes too big—for one of the new furs. Maybe something reversible: Fabulous
when the occasion calls for it. Tastefully understated for flying under the fashion radar.
Perfect, but still not mom’s. “I don’t think I can do it. That coat has such memories
attached to it.”
She speculates a few minutes more and then slowly unwraps herself, handing the coat
back to the furrier. “Maybe I’ll have Mom’s restyled,” she says.
Olsen, from Southeast Portland, says fur is one of the few materials warm enough for
winter yet classy enough to wear to a formal occasion. “If you have something that’s
down-filled, it’s warm, but it has that stuffed look. It’s not for a dress evening.”
Her friend, Claire Harmon, is already sold on fur, having three at home so far. Today, she
tries on a velvety sheared fur in a deep black that contrasts with her short, blond coif. It,
too, is reversible. Two coats in one, but even on sale, this coat will mean trading in her
other three. It’s worth it, she decides. “I think it’s more practical than the ones I have,”
she said. “More Oregonian.”
Schumacher’s on a weekday morning, where Harmon and Olsen are shopping, is already
jumping with customers. A rare sale, begun before the holidays and so popular that it was held over, means long hours for the store’s employees, who provide personal attention to
Gregg Schumacher, the last member of the Schumacher family still hands-on in the store,
explains in detail the craft associated with each coat, each vest, each poncho, bringing to
each customer styles compatible with her figure. “Christmas went absolutely superb. We
were just swamped,” he says. “It’s been amazing…I’ve had to staff the place with
threefold the number of people to keep up.”
Oregonians, he says, are looking to wear furs that are elegant, but not ostentatious. “They
want a look that says, ‘I’m wearing fur, but I’m not wearing FUR,’” he says. And so, they
look at the reversibles and the sheered furs. He tells them fur fits Oregon because “rain
doesn’t hurt fur.” Further, he says, “It’s completely biodegradable. It’s the most natural
thing you can put on your back. That’s why the environmentalists love us.”
But the transaction, he says, doesn’t end with the sale. Customers come back each year to
have their furs professionally cleaned and stored in temperature-controlled vaults during
the summer so that heat and insects don’t ruin them. Over the years, they have their furs
altered to fit new styles, or refitted to conform to their changing figures. After all,
Schumacher says, a fur is forever.
And he should know, because he’s been in the business forever, or nearly so. Schumacher
Fur Co. is the oldest fur company in America, having been founded by Schumacher’s
great-grandfather in 1895 and passed down through the generations. Gregg Schumacher,
49, the fourth generation, started in the back shop, sweeping up. “My grandfather said to
me, ‘You want to be a furrier, you gotta start with the floors.’ And so I started on that,
working my tail off.”
Later, he learned shipping. Then came the apprenticeship in refashioning furs and
repairing them. But when he got old enough to be out on his own, he thought maybe he
could do something else. After earning a business degree and a psychology degree, he
thought about medicine for a career. “But I was already very good in the fur business and
it was like a passion of mine. It went with my heart to carry on the tradition of the
And so, Schumacher Co. endures, its showroom full of fancy furs and its back rooms
tending to the age-old craft of making and caring for customer treasures. Charlie Mullen,
a 24-year veteran of the company, hand-cleans fur coats whose owners have run into
trouble. Sometimes, serious trouble. “We had this one lady, well, a kid threw up on it,” he
says. The good news is that Mullen knows just how to handle it.
Other Schumacher professionals design custom garments, modernize old ones, and
It’s quiet work, but the shop has had its brushes with fame. Robert Goulet, for instance, is
a client. And the shop has outfitted at least one of the Trail Blazers in mink. “Obviously, those coats have to be custom-made because basketball players are so large,”
But the best days, Schumacher says, are not so much those times when the elite show up,
but instead those clients for whom a fur coat is a rare and special thing. “Women come in
here for a fur coat and walk out lit up,” Schumacher says. “There is something about fur
that makes them feel feminine, sexy. It does something to them, and there’s nothing like
BrainstormNW - Feb 2005