THE CROTCHETY MERCHANT OF MINK
Jack Creed walked across Europe on his way to establishing Toronto’s toniest fur salon. Now he drives in a limousine to his $400,000 business where the customer is always right as long as she agrees with Jack
THE HOME of some of Canada’s most expensive fur coats is a modern, white-painted, two-story building on Bloor Street, which is
Toronto’s closest approximation to Bond Street, Fifth Avenue, or Rue de la Paix. Four long windows space the façade; the doorway, decorated with black iron grilling, looks like an entrance to a private house, and the atmosphere that greets you is either genially personal or coldly condescending, depending on the heft of your pocketbook or how well your name is known on sizeable cheques.
This is Creed Furs Limited, built to its present eminence in 32 years from a $160 grubstake by Jack Creed, who once walked across Europe from his home village in western Russia to Paris.
Creed likes to relate that he paid $25 a month for his first Toronto store-and-flat while his yearly rental today is $40,000. His establishment now consists of the Bloor Street shop and a cold storage plant for furs and is valued at around $400,000, while his yearly turnover is reputedly more than a million. He will occasionally take a favored customer through his air-conditioned stockroom and reluctantly admit that, yes, it practically always holds a cache of fine furs worth half a million dollars.
Fur coats designed, sewn and sold by Creed are worn by well-dressed, well-heeled Canadian women from coast to coast. Among his customers are Mrs. Austin Taylor, wife of a Vancouver financier, Mrs. Alfred Rogers, owner of a Winnipeg creamery, Mrs. Allan and Mrs. Samuel Bronfman, of the Montreal distilling Bronfmans, and Mrs. E. P. Taylor, wife of the Toronto financier, and Mrs. Milton Cork, of the Loblaw Corks.
Barbara Ann Scott sports a Creed’s natural ermine coat, an ermine jacket and a silver mink cape, while her mother owns a Creed’s mink coat. Such well-known Americans as actress Lillian Gish and the wife of violinist Jascha Heifetz do their fur shopping at Creed’s. When Princess Elizabeth was married the IODE presented her with an ermine coat, rumored to be worth $20,000. Whether
this is the correct figure or not neither Creed nor the Imperial Daughters will divulge, though the latter hasten to explain that Creed insisted on contributing to the present himself by cutting the price considerably.
When a group of Toronto friends of Fiorenza Drew, wife of the Conservative Party leader, decided to chip in for a sable piece for a going-toOttawa present, they bought it at Creed’s. There is a framed letter in praise of a Creed coat from the lady-in-waiting to Lady Bessborough, wife of a Canadian governor-general, gathering dust on top of a cupboard in Creed’s office.
But year in, year out, Jack Creed’s steady clients—“We want clients, not customers”—are such Toronto blue-book, big-bank-account names as the Gooderhams, Worts, Masseys, Jarvises, Osiers, and Kemps.
Creed himself is a dapper stocky little man who stands so straight he almost seems to be leaning backward. His accent, still strong, thickens when he gets argumentative, as he wül a couple of times a day. Then his ever-present dangling cigarette and his anger reduce listeners to watching his gestures for some clue as to wbat he’s saying.
Clotheshorses at the Woodbine
In temperament he is Napoleonic. His family has long since ceased to argue with him and clients learn it doesn’t get them anywhere. Recently he hired the services of a publicity firm and started to tell them what he wanted and how he wanted it done.
“I’m sure you don’t want a yes-man, Mr. Creed,” the public relations man put in.
“No,” said Creed, “but I don’t want any arguments either.”
He is immensely interested in news and politics. His son Eddie says, “If he has any hobby outside the shop it’s radio news, every hour on the hour.” But in conversation he prefers to listen to himself. When Creed got into a political argument with fellow furrier Johnny Cohen, neither could hear the other above the shouting. Creed held up his hand. “Wait,” he said, “I’ll tell you what we do. I’ll say
everything I have to
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say. No interruption from you. Then you take your turn.”
“Fine,” agreed Cohen, and he listened for an hour while Creed held forth. When Creed finally paused for breath Cohen said, “Well, now I’ll tell you what I think.”
“I’m not interested in what you think,” said Creed and stomped out of the room.
Some of Jack Creed’s grand blunders are by now legendary and accepted as the eccentricities of a shrewd tradesman, but one early publicity stunt almost wrecked his career.
Having learned his trade in Europe he remembered that a lot of the good fashion houses used to parade their wares on the race tracks. He hired 10 models, draped them in his best furs and launched them at Toronto’s Woodbine in the members’ enclosure among his preferred prospects. The rules say each member may buy only two guest tickets for the enclosure but Creed talked some of his friends into taking the models in as their guests.
As recalled by Mrs. Creed, the short, loquacious, housewifely woman whom Jack Creed met and married in Winnipeg, the girls were too highly lacquered and extravagantly dressed to escape horrified notice. The more conservative members stormed at this infringement of the rules and subsequently staged a short-duration boycott of Creed’s shop. But next year Creed did it again, although, says his wife, “We washed their faces this time.”
Creed’s models continue to mingle with Woodbine members annually and other fashion houses, such as Holt Renfrew and Eatons, occasionally send their own clothes horses to the post. “But everybody thinks they are all our girls, anyhow,” Mrs. Creed says.
His more refined clients sometimes find Creed’s manner startling. He will stroll into his fur salon on the second floor of the shop, or into one of the poky dressing rooms, cigarette dangling from his mouth. His memory of names is conveniently conscious of client-preference. He undulates from newish clients to whom he will say, “Come, come, help me, what is your name again?” to customers such as Mrs. Herbert Bruce, wife of an ex-lieutenant-governor of Ontario, who get the ambassadorial treatment with red carpets and homage. In between are clients who either prefer, or have accepted, his first-names terms.
One customer remembers Creed painstakingly fitting her with a mink coat, pinning and repinning, trying to reach the perfection of line and effect which has brought him the standing he enjoys. But this particular coat was set to foil him and finally he jerked off a sleeve, and threw it on the floor and stomped away shouting, “Make her another coat. A completely new coat.” The elegant wife of a well-known Toronto corporation executive tells one on herself. She went to see Creed one day with her silver fox jacket. “What .would you do with this?” she asked
Jack Creed stared at the garment morosely. “Have you got an attic?” he asked finally. Surprised, the customer said she had. “Take the jacket,” Creed said, “climb three floors, open your attic window, and pitch it out.” A good 80% of his steady customers have at one time left the store swearing never to return when Creed has adamantly refused to fall in with their suggestions. He doesn’t mince words in these arguments. “I want my clients to have the best,” he says. “If necessary, I am going to make them have
only the best.” While he has never been heard to confess that the customer is always right, at Christmas time he throws a cocktail party for preferred clients and all is forgiven.
People in the trade report that Creed unfailingly buys only the very best in furs. Furriers buy their raw materials direct from fur traders, or more often at either of two big annual fur auctions in Montreal—the Canadian Fur Auction and the Hudson’s Bay Auction.
Last year the top price for a beaver skin at the Montreal fur auction was $108, paid by Creed, and about 10 of those go into a Creed beaver coat. Labrador mink brought $75 to $80 per skin, and a mink coat requires 100 skins. According to trade sources Creed uses an average 15% more skins than most furriers. He is prodigal in clipping valuable edges clean and discarding skins which he does not think match perfectly. This, plus his flair for design and his workmanship, explains why customers put up with Creed and his prices. Creed will pay upward of $150 a week for a first-rate mink cutter, while $125 would be tops for the same job in the average fur shop.
All this adds up to prices as fancy as the furs. Jack Creed will be glad to make you a Russian sable for about $30,000. A Labrador mink could run you around $15,000, a common ordinary mink from $4,000 to $10,000, depending on whether it’s wild or ranch-bred. Chinchillas are so rare there are no comparative prices—you might get one for $30,000. Ermine wraps start from $1,500 to $2,500.
Vests For Chilly Sailors
Barely beneath these aristocrats in furs are beaver, kolinsky (a Russian mink), broadtail (unborn lamb) and Alaska seal. The next strata include grey lamb coats (from $1,000 to $2,300), nutria, and otter. Creed prefers to deal in these expensive furs. However he can sometimes be prevailed on to make a coat of black Persian lamb, Hudson seal or one of the novelty furs such as leopard and ocelot.
Jack Creed is unusually prodigal with his masterpieces. Recently he was in a serious motor accident. When he recovered he immediately sent a present of a coon coat to the doctor who patched him up. Somewhat later he found out two doctors had had a hand in the job. The other one got a coon coat too.
He recalls having given four mink coats to charitable organizations for raffles during the war, one of which raised $90,000 for the Red Cross. He also organized a donation of 20 fur coats from Ontario furriers for an IODE raffle. During the war he started the fur-vests-for-sailors campaign. Most of his old customers responded nobly with donations of their tired old fur coats which Creed converted into fur-lined vests free of charge. The idea caught on so well the government finally took it over.
Dwarfing this campaign, however, was Creed’s drive to collect old clothes for the Russians, then our allies. He turned his shop into an old clothes establishment, filled it and his storage plant, too, then rented a large, old building at Yonge and Bloor which was also jam-packed within days. He rented a huge storehouse farther up Yonge and, with Simpson’s loaning their trucks to pick up donations, stuffed this storehouse, too. The old clothes shipments to Russia were counted in tons.
During the war Jack Creed designed the uniforms for the Canadian Women’s Army Corps—this one won a prize in an international competition
held in London—the Wrens and the women’s division of the R.C.A.F.
Sometimes his sales methods have been as unorthodox as his personal behavior. The late W. B. Cleland, president of Seagram’s, a show-horse breeder, found a unique way of doing business with Creed when the latter bought a farm and became interested in horses. He’d trade. A friend remembers a long-distance telephone conversation which went something like this.
Cleland: "Look here. Creed, 1 think you still owe me for the hind legs of that horse.’’
Creed: "All right, send your wife
down for a coat on Monday.”
Another time the Toronto Junior League put on a benefit fashion show and Creed’s, among other Toronto fashion houses, exhibited dresses and furs. All Creed’s costumes were made for and exhibited by the Junior Leaguers themselves. Creed suggested to a husband who'd come to pick up his model wife, “These things look so nice on your wife I think you ought to buy them for her.”
“How much?” asked the husband, but when Creed named his price he said, "Nothing doing. Why these are devaluated clothes. In the first place 30,000 people have seen them already. Worse—My wife’s friends have seen
Creed didn’t hesitate a moment, but took the husband’s offer of 10 cents on the dollar.
A New Life With S3
Creed’s memory plays tricks about his birthplace. He recalls it as France these days, but the official record says Russia, 1890. He prefers not to disclose his original name, for he probably adopted his present one from the famous London firm of Creeds. He went to work at seven or eight as a furriers apprentice in his native village in western Russia. His fingers were nimble, his eye sharp for a good line, and he liked the work. Besides such natural ability, he’ll say today, you need only to be “gifted, honest, ambitious and very talented.”
Early in his teens he decided the scope in Russia was too limited, which was when he started walking toward Paris. It took him two years.
He reached Paris during a serious labor shortage and landed a job the first day at the famous fashion house called Gallerie Lafayette. Later he was a designer with Robert Leba, in Switzerland, a house which catered only to queens, duchesses, and princesses. He worked in most of the big western European cities before he left for America about 1905. Today he isn’t quite certain of the date.
He landed in New York with $3 in his pocket, rented a room for $1 a month, and put an advertisement in the newspaper to the effect that a tailor, designer, fitter and furrier par excellence had just arrived from Paris. He got a job at the then fabulous salary of $30 a week, worked it up to $75 a week in a year, and decided to have a look at Canada.
For a time he worked on Toronto’s Spadina Avenue but his itchy foot took him to Winnipeg where Mrs. Alfred Rogers, owner of a creamery, staked him to $250 with which he opened Creeds and Co., women’s wear. In Winnipeg he married and the Creeds had their first child, Donna, who is now married to Paul Sherman, assistant conductor of the Toronto Philharmonic Orchestra. But two years after arriving in Winnipeg he headed back to Toronto.
With $160 he had in his pocket he rented a couple of rooms in a house on Bloor Street and started all over again.
Mrs. Creed, the baby and his customers mingled in pleasant confusion in his workshop. But his flair and courage piid off. Today, besides his business he owns a town house in the once swank and still refined Rosedale district, a handsome farm half an hour out of Toronto and a 52-foot pleasure yacht on Georgian Bay.
In the early 20’s Mrs. Creed decided to branch out with accessories as a sideline. Her astute buying has made the specialty shop as successful as her husband’s fur and tailoring departments. She confesses to only one costly mistake and that occurred on her first overseas buying trip, when she purchased yards of those long strings of pearls, the kind that were knotted twice and hung to the waist, “We still have some of them,” she laughs.
You Need An Introduction
Son Eddie, 27 and a dark, goodlooking ex-Navy type, has also learned the business by making his own mistakes. When he spotted a line of women’s straw hats in New York last spring which he thought the perfect thing to ward off hot northern suns he brought back 500 of them.
“We sold about three,” he says ruefully. “However, every year we have a big corn roast for our best customers—friends, that is—at our farm near Woodbridge. The hats will go as favors to the guests this year.”
Creed’s store has moved from Bloor Street to Yonge Street and back to Bloor. The shop is due to shift again soon to a location somewhat west of the present spot but still on Bloor. This prospect doesn’t please Jack Creed.
“These days such a lot of people walk right in off the street,” says his wife. “Our clients don’t like it and Mr. Creed would prefer to move to an exclusive district.”
When it was pointed out that Bloor Street is now so much the fashionable shopping centre that Morgan’s of Montreal have moved in, Mrs. Creed stated firmly, “Where Creed’s is the street will be.”
That Creed’s manages to remain exclusive in spite of the “people who walk right in off the street” is due not only to the prices but to the fact an unknown customer can reportedly wait indefinitely for service. Eddie Creed has been trying to break down this aspect of the family business; but you still do better if you arrive armed with an introduction from a well-known sponsor to a salesgirl, who herself may be the haughty daughter of a longstanding Creed’s client.
A Chef With Scissors
Meanwhile, Creed’s Jack Creed continues to bounce briskly about his exclusive premises so relentlessly each day that under the worn leather couch in his small office he keeps a couple of extra pairs of shoes to rest his feet.
Certainly he never fails to keep a sharp eye on everything that goes on in the fur salon, certain that only he can really tell what’s right. He’ll stalk into a fitting room, replace the cigarette in his mouth with a handful of pins, and fit the coat molds himself, meanwhile giving his customers the benefit of his culinary knowledge. “Now, if you really want a good salad you will follow this. Take greens, all sorts; take two hard-boiled eggs; smash, and I mean smash, the white and yellow separately; take a bôwl . . .”
Once at a Fur Farmers’ Association convention, stocky Jack Creed delivered his own summing up of Jack Creed: “I am a man who loves beautiful things. I love beautiful furs. Beautiful cars. Beautiful women.” if