FUR COMMISSION USA COMMENTARY, MARCH 15, 2000
Unanimous Verdict : Fur Is Back!
By Simon Ward, Communications Director, FCUSA
EVERYONE AGREES, FUR IS BACK! From farmers and trappers to auction houses, designers, retailers and consumers, the renaissance of fur is being hailed. And it’s not just the industry talking the market up:
“The demand for fur is probably the strongest it’s been since … the stock market crashed” in 1987, says Eric Wilson, ready-to-wear editor at Women’s Wear Daily.(1)
“Everybody is buying a fur,” says Keith Tauber, general manager of New York’s Ritz Furs, to the New York Daily News. “This winter it was back to the ’80s. We are exhausted by the traffic.”(1)
“Credit the still-booming economy, the fickle fashion industry or just consumer weariness with being told what not to wear, but fur is hot again,” reports the Columbus Dispatch.(2)
After more than a decade of erratic demand, both at home and in export markets, fur is back on America’s catwalks, back on the covers of fashion magazines, and back on the streets.
And to round out the comeback, pelts are now pulling in sharply higher prices at auction, so farmers and trappers can get a fair return for their hard work.
“THE FASHION INDUSTRY, never a business that espouses moderation, has re-embraced fur with a vengeance,” reported Time Magazine.(6) Part of the reason has been the new flexibility with which fur can be used, making it more suitable for trims, accessories and lightweight casual wear.
WORLD OUTPUT OF MINK PELTS has dipped in recent years, but with the fashion industry’s renewed interest in fur, American farmers can expect busy times ahead.
Always susceptible to economic trends and the whims of the fashion world, America’s fur industryenjoyed its last purple patch in the mid-’80s. 1987 saw highs both for average pelt price,$43,(3) and domestic retail sales, at $1.8 billion.(4)
Then a series of factors plunged the industry into uncertainty.
In 1987, the stock market crashed, impacting both domestic and foreign fur markets, notably Japan with the bursting of its “bubble economy”. Consumers tightened their belts and sales of big-ticket items such as furs dropped.
In the early ’90s, the domestic market was hit by warm winters, a luxury tax, and the rise of the animal rights movement, which for strategic reasons targeted the small and vulnerable fur industry.
For the period 1989-93, pelt prices averaged just over $25, while retail sales in 1990 stood at $1 billion – 44% below 1987.
Gradually the US economy came back on track, and by the mid-’90s the fur industry was starting to benefit from the increase in disposable income, aided by a shift in consumer preference toward quality items.
Meanwhile the Asian export markets of China and South Korea were growing. In the mid-’90s, Korea in particular emerged as a power player on the auction scene, and was largely responsible for propping up prices.
Then came a double whammy to undo all the gains.
First was the Asian currency crisis, claiming Korea as one of its biggest casualties. When the bottom dropped out of the Won, the effect on pelt prices was sudden and dramatic.
And hard on its heels came the economic collapse of one of fur’s largest markets, Russia. Could things get any worse? Thankfully, no.
America’s economy continued to grow, to the point where it is now in danger of overheating. By the late ’90s, young city professionals were enjoying the best times of their lives. And when times are good, it shows up in wardrobes, with quality furs the garments of choice for keeping warm in style.
“[Fur] is a symbol of prestige, of making it,” said Michelle Everett, 35-year-old owner of a catering company to the NY Daily News this February. And she is just “one of thousands of city women, many of them successful bankers, brokers and businesswomen, who are splurging on fur after a good financial year,” the Daily News reported.(1)
Meanwhile, Korea is recovering economically, and this spring made a comeback on the US auction scene. While most Western buyers were low-key, Korean and Chinese buyers came on strong for a major part of the offering.
As for Russia, gauging how many pelts auctioned in the US actually end up there can be hard, given the current state of its border controls, but even that shaky economy seems to have plugged some gaps.
And looking to the future, China must give fur producers reason for optimism. Already a huge buyer of pelts, “there is a steadily increasing segment of the population that can afford – and wants – mink and other fur coats,” wrote Sandy Parker, publisher of the Sandy Parker Reports, reporting from the North American Fur Auctions (NAFA) February 2000 sale.(5)
Of course, the volumes of pelts imported by certain countries are a poor indicator of where the final retail markets are, but with 20% of the world’s population, China represents a potentially vast consumer base which can only grow as it shifts to a decentralized, market-driven economy.
On the image front, meanwhile, public sympathy for the animal rights message has waned at the same time as fur has been re-embraced by the fashion world.
While Americans strongly endorse animal welfare, the no-compromise position of animal rightists on fur, or any other form of animal use, was never likely to take hold among our conservative middle classes.
But it is not just the message most Americans have rejected. As with any perennial “cause” that never seems to progress, “The public is … showing signs of protest fatigue,” reported Time.(6) ”In the past, fur activists who freed minks from farms got sympathy. Now they are prosecuted.”
Furthermore, the confrontational way in which the message has been delivered, by the criminal Animal Liberation Front and “respectable” non-profits that tacitly support it, has provoked a backlash from designers and consumers.
Reported the Times Union, “As the fashion frenzy for fur explodes, animal activists, including members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, are in a fury.”(7) A defensive PeTA representative, Christine Mott, told the Times Union that PeTA activists “don’t go into the fur shops and cause a scene or throw paint at people.” Yet days later, they crashed three New York fashion shows to perform their shenanigans with tofu pie and red paint.
“I’ve never dressed any of my clients in fur, but now I will,” fumed celebrity-stylist Phillip Bloch to the NY Daily News after he was hit with paint.
“[E]veryone in the industry is really annoyed” with PeTA, he said. “They are mad and they are not going to be bullied by this organization.” He also predicted Vogue editor Anna Wintour – once treated by PeTA to a dead raccoon tossed on her plate – would “do pages of fur just to spite them.”
The LA Times sees things the same way. “Wearing fur has become, for some, a statement of defiance against the people who want to tell others how to spend their money and which animals are wrong for humans to harvest,” it decided.(8)
But none of this would have happened if the fashion world had not taken a new interest in one of its oldest materials.
In 1985, just 45 designers showed fur in their winter collections. But for the 1999-2000 collections, every US fashion magazine identified fur as a major trend in its fall issue, and more than 220 designers now use fur in their ready-to-wear collections.Saga Furs of Scandinavia, and the International Design Centre which it opened in the late 1980s. Saga has been hosting designers on expenses-paid trips to introduce them to new ways of working with fur, including some developed by Saga itself. Among them are techniques for dying, printing, shaving and twisting fur, and treating it so it can be dry-cleaned.
“One of Saga’s greatest successes,” reported Time, “has been to create fur that is lighter and thinner. … And if there is one thing fashion people like, it’s thin.”
The fruit of these efforts is seen in the flexibility with which designers are now applying fur.
“I look at fur today as I look at a fabric,” said Valentino to Time. “There is no difference. I use tiny borders of mink as a ruffle in my wool suitings.”
Changes on the economic, image and fashion fronts are now translating into healthier bottom lines for retailers, auction houses, and ultimately farmers and trappers.
According to the Fur Information Council of America, retail fur sales in the US grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $1.21 billion in 1998. That’s still well shy of their 1987 high, but when 1999′s results are in, a continuation of the upward trend is expected.
The auction houses tell a similar story. After spiking in 1996 at over $50,(9) average pelt prices at US auctions fell sharply in 1998 and ’99. But this winter, prices rose just as sharply, first in Helsinki and Copenhagen, then in North America this February.
Reporting on its latest auction, the Seattle Fur Exchange [SFX] saw pelt prices advance “on average 60% on males and 35% on females compared to February 1999.” The sale drew over 250 buyers, up 15% from last February, of whom more than half were Asian. The second-largest delegation, after China, came from the revitalized Korea.
Not surprisingly, SFX president Edward Brennan was upbeat. “The new price levels … came as a shock to many of the buyers,” he said. “However, there were a significant number of buyers who could not buy the quantity of mink pelts they had budgeted to purchase. Based on this knowledge, we fully expect that the market will continue to advance during the upcoming auctions. This could mean that we will have one of the most dramatic single year price increases over the 50 years for which we have records on auction sale results.”
A week later in New Jersey, Brennan’s prediction was right on track. Over 300 buyers attended the NAFA auctions, far more than in recent years, and again it was Chinese and Korean buyers pushing the prices up. All mink pelts on offer went at prices firm to as much as 10% above Seattle levels.
Reporting from NAFA, Sandy Parker remarked: “[T]he comparison with year ago levels was dramatic, the male averages showing advances of from 33% to as much as 79% and the females ranging from 19% to 49% higher.”(10)
Of course, a sudden rise in prices followed by a sharp drop has been seen before, but Parker believes it will be different this time. “[T]here is a growing feeling among buyers that there is less likelihood now that the price rise is merely a spike,” he said. “… A major factor is the recovery of the Korean economy, which has returned that country’s buyers to the international market in a big way.”(5)
Farmers and trappers will be keeping their fingers crossed that Parker is right. And that the fashion magazines are right. And that retail figures are right, and media reports are right.
Unless everyone is wrong, they have nothing to fear. Fur is back!
(1) “Cool Stigma Gets Big Thaw”, NY Daily News, Feb. 18, 2000.
(2) “Shoppers Warming Up to Fur”, Columbus Dispatch (Ohio), Mar. 5, 2000.
(3) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), US Department of Agriculture.
(4) Fur Information Council of America.
(5) Sandy Parker Report, Feb. 21, 2000.
(6) “Warming Up To Fur”, Time Magazine, Oct. 19, 1998.
(7) “Fur or Faux: Despite controversy, popularity on rise”, Times Union (New York), Jan. 29, 2000.
(8) “The Fur Fury; Is PeTA Driven by Animal Rights or Resentment of the Rich?” LA Times, Feb. 18, 2000.
(9) In 1996, SFX averaged $53.26 per pelt, up from $37.53 in 1995.
(10) Sandy Parker Report, Feb. 28, 2000.
Fur Sales Up in 1999 : Record Increase Substantiates Fur’s Prominence with Consumers Fur Information Council of America press release, May 31, 2000.