Closeup/Fashion

Made in Canada

Grosvenor Furs is showing the world. And vice-versa

Barbara Amiel March 7 1977
Closeup/Fashion

Made in Canada

Grosvenor Furs is showing the world. And vice-versa

Barbara Amiel March 7 1977

Made in Canada

Closeup/Fashion

Grosvenor Furs is showing the world. And vice-versa

Barbara Amiel

Mrs. David Evins was in a snit. Her seamless face was showing just a hint of little lines around a tightening mouth. She moved across the spacious seventh floor of Bonwit Teller’s Manhattan department store, past the runway put up specially for that evening’s charity show, and aimed her three diamond bracelets and exquisitely understated seven-ringed fingers at a large photo of a Grosvenor Canada mink coat. “Take that sign away,” she ordered. “Immediately. We will not have signs.”

The two assistants following Mrs. Evins shook their scarved heads nervously. “The Canadian Grosvenor Furs people put it up,” said one apologetically. It seemed appropriate enough. Bonwit Teller’s had donated their seventh floor for the swish benefit evening last December in aid of the New York charity Just One Break, Inc., an employment service for the physically handicapped, sponsored by the likes of Mrs. Nelson A. Rockefeller and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and 90 of their friends. In return, Bonwit’s had their name discreetly plastered all over the elaborate invitations. The highlight of the evening was to be an auction, climaxed by bidding on a $6,750 Canada Majestic Demi Buff and Dark Pinstriped mink coat—made and donated by the enterprising and stunningly successful Montreal firm of D. H. Grosvenor Inc. For its part, Grosvenor had placed a blowup of one of their Vogue magazine ads, showing the Grosvenor label and maple leaf symbol, in a room filled with Bonwit Teller merchandise being flogged in the name of charity.

“I don’t care,” said Bonwit Teller’s Mrs. Evins, looking contemptuously at this rank Canadian commercialism. “There will be no signs.”

Robert Landau, president of Grosvenor Furs, gestured quietly to one of his assistants. “Take it away,” he said. His assistant nodded to her assistant. Her assistant conveyed the message to Mrs. Evins, sparing her any embarrassing déclassé contact with Landau. Mrs. Evins received news of the surrender without softening a square centimetre of her newly tightened skin. As the wife of shoe designer David Evins, and in her own right the director of special events for Bonwit Teller, she clearly had a presence to uphold.

The 300 or 400 guests milled around the various items Bonwit’s had on display. (“Ten percent of all sales will go directly to Just One Break,” announced an altruistic Mrs. Evins.) Plates of cold rice and crumbling pâté spilled over little white cotton Tshirts (for the under-five set, priced at six dollars and up) and onto the glass showcases of gold and brass necklaces. Recently divorced Ethel Scull (he kept their New York taxicab company, she got their priceless modern art collection) was there, all alone, dressed in head-to-toe knits by French designer Sonia Rykiel and looking a little like a demented English nanny in three sweaters and a rugby scarf to keep out the chill. Socialites Chessy Rayner and her tall Ivy League husband roamed about with the Newport set, exchanging nautical talk and smart little Newport first names like Binky and Cutler. In the corner of the room, looking desperately uncomfortable, standing alone in her black satiny evening pyjamas and day-length white mink coat, was a middle-aged woman from Mississauga, Ontario. She searched the room. Over in the opposite corner she could see the racks of Grosvenor Canada furs that were to be featured in the fashion show later on. The lustrous red fox capes and dark gleaming minks and sables were being eyed by the charity ladies (hungrily) and watched by their husbands (warily). Doris Boyd, assistant executive secretary of the Canada Mink Breeders Association, headed gratefully over to the Canadian contingent next to Landau. He was assessing the crowd himself.

“They’ve done it badly,” he said. “This isn’t the right crowd.” By 7 p.m. his worst fears were confirmed. The auction had been a failure. The guests had gobbled, gossiped, and gloated over everything and then failed to bid on any of the items auctioned except a tiny and, by charity bazaar standards, inexpensive ($680) Hermès handbag. The couturier wardrobe and the Grosvenor Canada mink coat hadn’t received a single offer. The fashion show had not been helped by a failure of the sound system. The models pirouetted and turned on the runway in dead silence while a hoarse Mrs. Evins shouted out descriptions of the Canadian fur coats at a level audible only to the first dozen people around her.

Robert Landau grimaced. Here, after all, was the first Canadian fur company to break into the international retail market after 10 years of beating his head against indifferent and inefficient Canadian government agencies, the hostility of the U.S. unions, and the jealousy and sometimes seamy manoeuvres of the American retail trade. Now, just as he was getting a toehold on the U.S. market, the damn sound system had to fail. He shrugged.

“Next time,” he said to his New York associate A. Ronald Gabe, “we do the whole evening ourselves. We make it a condition that we organize everything.” If there was anything odd in this sentiment it was only that this evening was probably the first time in his business career that Robert Landau hadn’t done everything himself. He would probably not make that mistake again.

The success of Grosvenor Canada furs is, on the one hand, nothing more than a business story with a (so far) happy ending. On the other hand, it is another splendid example of ideas and dreams triumphing over hard economic realities. Business, as so many other things in life, is often all magic and illusion. Grosvenor Canada, with its emphasis on better quality top-ofthe-line skins, its luxury coats and often fantastic price tags, is selling a product nobody really needs. They are expanding at a time when living standards are under attack and fur costs dramatically rising: last year’s luxury quality mink coat cost $4,000 to $5,000; this fall’s coat will retail at $5,000 to $7,000. Now, Grosvenor has forsaken the security of simply selling wholesale to domestic and foreign manufacturers—who put their own labels in Grosvenor coats and sell them as exclusive Holt Renfrew designs or swanky Italian boutique coats—and set out to establish the Grosvenor Canada label as a couture name to rank alongside Christian Dior or New York’s Alixandre.

If there is a message in the Grosvenor story, it is one that should be of some interest to those economists brooding over the apparent noncompetitiveness of so many Canadian businesses. The Grosvenor story illustrates that what Canadian business needs is not more government assistance (or interference), not more planning and technology, but vision and tenacity—the entrepreneurial imagination that is at the heart of successful private enterprise. In the fur trade, distinguished by saturation, cartelization and a relatively small growth potential, Grosvenor Canada in the last decade has carved out for its Montreal plant—where all its coats are manufactured—a solid chunk of the European market, a good start on the lucrative American scene, and a brand new boutique featuring its label in Eaton’s new Toronto Eaton Centre. (And all this was achieved, curiously, without a single line of comment in the fashion pages of Canadian newspapers or magazines, and with almost zero consumer recognition of the Grosvenor Canada label—except in London, New York, Frankfurt and Geneva.)

Back in 1951, two brothers sitting in their comfortable English living room tossed a coin and it fell tailside up. Heads would have meant Johannesburg; tails meant Montreal, and so wives and children of Denis and Billy Grosvenor were packed up and the family crossed the Atlantic. Like their parents and grandparents, the Grosvenor brothers were skilled furriers; but postwar England was imposing awkward currency regulations for businessmen with international trade ambitions, and government restrictions never did sit well with the Grosvenor brood. The Grosvenors set up a factory with eight employees as soon as they arrived in Montreal and in the same year entered a fur coat in the Canadian Fur Trade Annual Exhibition and Competition. They won. In fact they won every year until they resigned from the organization, which they considered “small-minded.” The Grosvenor merchandising savvy included having matches printed with their name and distributed at the exhibition. This caused other, stuffier manufacturers to complain that the firm was “too individualistic.”

By 1960 Denis Grosvenor had grown restless. True, in 1954 he had stirred up a wave of newspaper publicity when, in the middle of a stupefyingly dull trade show, he went to the window of Toronto’s Royal York Hotel and threw a fur coat out — much to the astonished glee of the suburbanite below who pounced on it. That occasioned a somewhat sarcastic letter from the Toronto-Dominion Bank when he next applied for an extension of his credit line. “You might wish to spend your money more constructively than by throwing coats out of the window,” wrote a peeved credit manager. (This was before Canadian financial institutions learned to become ardent hucksters themselves.) All the same, Grosvenor’s credit was extended. But in spite of the fact that Denis Grosvenor and family were doing well, wholesaling to the Canadian market was, well, so anonymous. Grosvenor coats were being sold with other stores’ names in them. What did it matter if the buyers at Eaton’s or Holt Renfrew clucked happily over Denis Grosvenor’s minks or the innovative designs of his sable-trimmed Swakara? A man has his pride, and the Grosvenor family were not about to be swallowed up in the anonymity of the Eaton’s label. Denis wanted the Grosvenor name to be known.

Switzerland seemed as good a place as any to test the international scene, and so Denis hired a plane, and flew his team of designers and coats to the wonderful world of snob-and-snow at St. Moritz. Denis rented a couple of sleighs, dolled his models up in Grosvenor furs and soon business was turning over just “like a fish and chip shop.” Princess Soraya even bought two coats—one mink and one lynx. The two establishment furriers in St. Moritz, Lidner and Goldfarb, were not amused. They threatened to boycott European wholesale purchases of Grosvenor Canada coats if this flamboyant retail venture were ever repeated in St. Moritz.

But Denis had sniffed money. The Canadian market was too small. If he could sell his Montreal coats in Rome, Paris, London and Geneva, the Grosvenor name could position itself for an assault on the even tougher U.S. market. Four years later, in 1964, he descended upon the Frankfurt Fur Fair.

“When we went there,” recalls Denis, “they gave us the worst booth in the fair because we were just Canadians. So I decided to run a fur auction twice a day. Eventually we got such a crowd that the fair’s director came over, bent down and pulled the fuses out of our power supply. We had no lights or microphone. We were told to leave and never come back.”

The vulgar desire to do some selling led the firm to relocate itself at Frankfurt’s posh Frankfurterhoff Hotel where Grosvenor Canada could stay open from 7 a.m. until midnight. Now every year on the second night of the Frankfurt Fair at the Frankfurterhoff Hotel the Grosvenor Canada Fashion Show is The Event. Budgeted at a cost of $600 a minute with music, models and minks, the show last year attracted 1,950 buyers. In the meantime, fair officials wrote mournful letters to the Grosvenors begging them to return to the convention hall.

All the same, though sales were growing, Denis Grosvenor was not altogether content in his European venture. He felt the time had come to build a stronger retail base in Europe. His nephew, Robert Landau, who had joined the company and was rapidly establishing himself as a powerful voice in the business, agreed. “What we need,” said Landau, “is a prestigious store to feature our furs.” Which is how a Canadian company came to take over the fur department of that sumptuous emporium for the consummate consumer— Harrods in London.

Twice a year the London stores have sales. On these occasions the British again display the determination and sense of mission that was once reserved for their work in civilizing heathens around the globe. In the past few years, as the pound sterling declined and everything else (from rupees to glass beads) went up, Europeans and Asians have flocked to join in the sales jamboree. At about four-thirty on the morning of the first day of this January’s Harrods sale, a queue began forming outside the shop. Most of the early arrivals were Japanese and Belgian with a smattering of Middle East shoppers, some of whom came with chauffeurs serving snacks and warm tea. Robert Midgly, managing director of Harrods, an exemplary figure of the retail trade establishment in his dark blue pinstriped suit, erect, six-feet-two stance and silver-grey hair, placed himself inside Harrods at the side entrance about half an hour before the doors were due to be opened. From his point of view the faces he could see pressed against the windows of the store seemed to resemble the revolutionary stormers of the Bastille and were exhibiting most of the same bloodthirsty instincts.

Upstairs, Billy Grosvenor was patrolling the 5,200 square feet of the Harrods fur salon operated by and featuring only Grosvenor Canada labeled furs. This was an important day for him. Sales had been up 300% from last year, with Middle East buyers snapping up Canadian mink to wear around the draughty halls of the stately homes of England they were collecting. But these two weeks of sales were important in reducing inventory. It had been three years now since they had taken over the entire fur department, working their way up from their first London contract—supplying the Queen’s furrier. Caiman Links. During that time, Landau and Grosvenor kept after Midgly, selling him Grosvenor Canada furs for the Harrods label, talking quietly, persuading, pointing out the value of having them run the entire department under the Grosvenor Canada banner. Midgly seemed to like them now. But still, thought Billy Grosvenor, you could never count on continued support. Midgly had been showing some interest lately in playing a role in the design of Grosvenor furs and his desire to get into combination fur and leather coats last year proved disastrous; they had to put the whole lot out on a reduced rack. Now, on the day of the big sale, a thunderous sound began to echo down the halls of Harrods. The tinkle of china smashing rattled along the walls. “That must be the Japanese getting their hands on the British bone china,” said one of the staff—accurately it turned out. The salespeople in the fur salon lined up cautiously along the edges of the room. At the end of the hall they could see the leading couple sprinting toward the fur salon. They were familiar. As the middleaged Iranian woman with her elderly husband crossed over the turquoise carpet, the staff broke into polite applause. For three years this couple had been racing to be first. Last year they had come close—they were second. As the wife collapsed gracefully into a small gilt chair, asking to see the chinchilla coat and stole (regularly £7,200 reduced to £3,600—dollar equivalents $ 12,240 to $6,120), her eyes settled on a little red fox jacket. “That too,” she smiled before gently closing her eyes. Her husband stood behind her, a model of dignity and concern. “Poor darling, she loves these Canadian furs,” he said by way of explanation.

The task of getting government support for the expanding Grosvenor Canada overseas push fell to Robert Landau who, by 1973, had become president of Grosvenor Canada. It seemed to him that the growing sales of the company (up to $18 million last year), with its Montreal staff of 200, profit sharing plans and a French-Canadian director ought to justify some support from a government that was paying a great deal of bilingual lip service to expansion of Canadian exports.

Then in the fall of 1976 Landau managed to pull off his Harrods coup when he got the store’s important central hall for a display of Grosvenor furs; it was the first time since prewar years that furs had been the theme of a central hall exhibition. It was launched with a gala social occasion hosted by the directors of Harrods and there was even the chance that Margaret Trudeau would put in an appearance. (She didn’t but she managed to find time to nip down to Grosvenor’s Montreal showrooms and have a fur coat made up.) The Harrods central hall display featured furs, maps of Canada, Canadian artifacts and international booths exhibiting various aspects of the fur trade. The spectacle began to arouse the interest of other fur-producing nations. The Russian, American, Dutch and other governments responded to Landau’s request for a token donation of £,250(about $425) per booth (Landau’s cost in mounting the display: $90,000). The exhibition was to last one month and to hype it Landau purchased lush, eight-page color advertisements in the British and U.S. editions of Vogue as well as other magazines. Grosvenor was bringing over via Air Canada more than five million dollars worth of Canadian-made furs. On the strength of this, a request was made to Ottawa to sponsor one booth as a way of denoting official government support. This unprecedented suggestion sent the federal government into a tizzy of conferences. What, sponsor a booth for a single firm? The government recoiled from this notion in what appeared to be sheer horror. They explained that policy prevented them from assisting an individual company. They could only offer direct financial support to trade organizations or, presumably, to the minks and beavers themselves. Accordingly, Landau mentioned the federal government’s aristocratic reticence to engage in the nation’s business to the government of Quebec, which promptly responded with a cheque for $6,000. It seemed that showing up the feds was worth Í0 times the amount Landau had originally asked for.

Landau was not surprised by Ottawa’s attitude. Back in 1966, when he first attempted to move into the U.S. market and took a suite at New York’s Pierre Hotel to display his furs, his American fur broker was roughed up by local fur union men who were boycotting the unionized Canadian products on the grounds that, in the immortal words of George Stofsky, manager of the Furriers Joint Council, “our workers don’t live off what our Canadian brothers earn. We don’t pool our wages.” (Neither, it seemed, did George Stofsky, who in 1975, along with several other union biggies, was convicted of taking kickbacks from manufacturers.) When Landau and his broker, Ronald Gabe, asked the Canadian consulate in New York for help, no one—they claim—was available to come to the phone. The Canadian consulate was out for lunch.

Despite the animosity of the U.S. unions, Landau kept working away at getting a big American store to feature Grosvenor furs. For a few years, he bypassed New York. Then he decided on a massive media campaign with close to $500,000 worth of print advertising. The results were immediate: fashion page stories in The New York Times, Grosvenor furs in a James Bond film, Grosvenor Canada furs featured on the Merv Griffin Show, and finally eight of the Fifth Avenue windows of Manhattan’s Bonwit Teller store filled exclusively with Grosvenor furs. Bonwit Teller was to be the new American home of Grosvenor Canada furs.

“I don’t know how I’m going to stop you,” said Oliver Gintel, then president of the American Fur Manufacturers Association in a telephone call to Ronald Gabe, “but I’m going to stop you because you Canadians are harming our fur trade.” Not everyone shared Gintel’s view. “Grosvenor has helped everyone in the fur business,” says Sandy Parker, formerly of Women's Wear Daily. “Their advertising has a spillover effect and it just makes the purchaser more fur conscious.”

The Canadian consulate preferred being lunch conscious. In the elegant surroundings of Manhattan’s exclusive La Caravelle restaurant last December, Robert Landau watched the Consul-General and his assistant pick at their plates of fried whitebait. “Next time you’re in town,” consulate officials had told Landau after enjoying one of his lavish receptions, “you must have lunch with us.” On the way over to the consulate offices high above the Avenue of the Americas, Landau and his colleagues speculated on where their government would take them to eat. “Maybe,” said Gabe hopefully, “to the Canadian Club.” No such luck. The Consul-General, it appeared, expected to be taken to lunch. His assistant seemed particularly happy with the expensive meal ($200 for five) and leaned back in his chair to reflectively light a cigar before dessert. Landau decided to make one last stab at getting some action out of the New York-based Canadians. “What,” he asked, “can you do to help us?”

The Canadian officials offered the use of the consulate for a reception, but the exquisitely furnished offices with their stainless steel and velvet furniture, long corridors and acres of broadloom were simply not suitable for a fashion show. Landau wondered if the consulate would just lend its name as host or sponsor of a fashion show elsewhere. “If you want other ambassadors or consuls to attend, then you have to have your own consul sponsor it,” he explained. “The French ambassador sponsors Dior or Balmain, not just trade association shows.”

The Canadian Consul-General was expansively evasive. “You know how anxious I am to help Canadian businesses,” he insisted. “We’re working very hard to get a whole edition of Vogue to feature Canada.” “But I need real cooperation,” said Landau. “The state of Alaska offered me cooperative advertising, shared expenses.” “Well,” said the Consul-General’s assistant, brushing some whitebait off his natty tweed suit and avoiding Landau’s eye, “a manufacturer already has help in the expense deduction clause.” He eyed the dessert trolley.

“We don’t make the rules,” explained the voice of the Consul-General, sounding like a recorded announcement. “We have to follow the guidelines Ottawa sets for us.” Bleep. On the way back to his hotel room Landau wryly remarked: “The only reason Vogue is even considering a Canadian feature is because of the advertising we placed in it and the contracts we’ve built up.” He shrugged. “What does it matter anyway. I can’t be bothered with those government asses anymore. We’ll do it on our own, Gabe. It’s the best way.” And in 1977, so refreshingly old-fashioned.