Fashion

How the beaver turned to gold

Barbara Amiel November 20 1978
Fashion

How the beaver turned to gold

Barbara Amiel November 20 1978

How the beaver turned to gold

Fashion

It hasn’t yet reached the point of kittynapping, but given the consumer’s yen this year to throw a fur—any furon her back, owners of the lustrous Persian cat or the ombre-hued Siamese might be wise to keep a close eye on their pets’ nocturnal outings. The dizzying escalation of fur prices (up about 20 per cent from 1977 alone, and as much as 500 per cent in three years for certain furs such as lynx) seems to have done little to stem the growing appetite of women and men to buy and buy now.

Last year Canadians shelled out a record $500 million for manufactured furs and that figure is expected to increase this year.

But the big story in fur merchandising is the fashion designers’ rush to get their names on brocade-and-jersey furcoat linings. Almost unseemly in their haste to cash in on the big profits of fur (average markup on a coat, like most garments, is about 100 per cent, but individual items can retail as high as $50,000 for Russian lynx or Crown sable

and average out in the $4,000 range), haute couture and prêt-à-porter designers are leapfrogging over one another’s fashionably padded shoulders in the rush to get a fur line. France’s Yves St. Laurent got his first collection last year. America’s Halston, Geoffrey Beene, Anne Klein, and virtually all of the Manhattan Seventh Avenue mafiosi are crowding one another’s guard hairs in the nation’s fur salons. This year Canadian fashion doyen Leo Chevalier joined the jamboree and succeeded with a bang unequalled on the Canadian export Richter scale. Chevalier’s collection (for Natural Furs of Montreal) premiered last spring at a snappy evening at—where else?—Manhattan’s love-tohate-it disco Studio 54, with 28 models marching forward in battalions of Chevalier lynx-and-beaver uniforms. The platoons of models undulated in waves back and forth across Studio 54’s stage against a 120-foot-wide cyclorama of New York’s skyline, artificial snow falling steadily on their minks and sables. It was 60 minutes of unrelieved glitter and New York’s “We’ve-seen-it-all” set of retailers lapped it up. By September Chevalier had a sold-out sign on the Montreal storage vaults. “We sold every Chevalier coat we had,” says Natural Furs Vice-President Irving Camlot. “We can’t fill any more orders till after this November and if we’d had the production capacity we could have sold another $1.5 million worth.”

Long a star in the Canadian fashion firmament with his Montreal couture salon (phased out in 1971), Chevalier has become something of a galaxy ever since he turned his hand to designing ready-to-wear. When Natural Furs decided to enter the designer sweepstakes, it was Irving Camlot’s decision to go with Chevalier: “We knew he designed for the customer who likes the good lines of higher-priced fashion and that was a look we needed to compete with the Europeans.” Prices for Chevalier furs in Canada (which retail exclusively at The Bay, currently upgrading its fashion image) range from a wheatdyed fox coat at $5,900, natural raccoon coats for $3,500, and little fox jackets (“to go over blue jeans,” explained the mid-20s shopper at Toronto’s Bay, slipping on a red and grey fox topper) at $2,800. Top-quality skins are often

worked like fabric: demi-buff and wild mink coats with yoked backs that have the elegance of a high fashion look but a versatility that can weather almost any fashion about-turn. “My customer,” says Chevalier, “doesn’t want to spend several thousand dollars on a coat to find it dated in a couple of seasons.”

But some Canadians, wealthy enough or maybe just blithe enough about fashion, do. And for them, Canadian stores are showing a vastly different breed of designer furs. These designers march to a pace set by Italian heavies like Giancarlo Ripa, Fendi or the high chic of Giorgio Armani and Greta Bast. Though prices are astronomical, the skins used are generally in the lower price range. Fendi is particularly fond of muskrat, lamb, rabbit, and marmot dyed in extravagant colors of plum, khaki or gold. A Fendi plum marmot full-length vest over a quilted cotton coat goes for $4,500. An American raccoon coat by Ripa sells for $6,950.“What you are buying,” explains Holt Renfrew’s public relations director Krystyne Griffin, “is a piece of art. This is the look for a woman who wouldn’t be caught dead in her mother’s staid old fur, who loathes The Fur Coat.” When

Holt Renfrew decided to take an exclusive on the Fendi line, Griffin travelled across Canada last year showing the coats. “We didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “But when a working girl in Winnipeg asked me to hold a $1,700 cotton raincoat trimmed with mongolian lamb over the lunch hour so she could arrange a bank loan to buy it, I knew we had a market. These coats are bought by women with their own incomes. A husband doesn’t buy a melon-colored chopped-up fur vest for his wife. He stays with the safety of a nice little mink.” From the consumer point of view, however, a Fendi-type coat makes best sense if one has fur coats to spare. The new designs lean heavily on chevron and feathered fur. This means less fur used in the coat, and a narrower, more fashionable look achieved by alternating strips of leather with strips of fur. It also means dozens more seams that can come apart with wear. “This Ripa raccoon coat,” explains Jeffrey Nelson, manager of Creed’s (Toronto) fur salon, “is made by computer. There are hundreds of thousands of bits of fur, some no larger than a quarter of an inch square, all sewn into this specific design.” What’s confusing consumers and retailers alike is the profusion of fancy fur names. “Sometimes a customer comes in and asks for a fur she’s seen in

a magazine and we don’t know what it is,” explains Nelson.“What has happened is that as the market becomes so competitive, each designer looks for a new name for his fur and so they are calling the Japanese raccoon one name, the Finnish raccoon another and so on. Really it’s the same old raccoon or weasel.” Examples: basserisk (raccoon family, formerly known as ringtail cat), marmot (groundhog), tanuki (Japanese raccoon), baronduki (Asian chipmunk). Only the prices are different. And the reason for the hikes seems fairly simple—whatever the market will bear. “No one,” says Creed’s Nelson, “believes in currency anymore. They’re putting their money in things.”

His advice to the Canadian consumer with $5,000 and an itch for a fur is straightforward. “Take $2,500 and have a fantastic vacation. Then, if you’re young, buy a long-haired natural Canadian beaver and if it’s for your mother, get her a plucked and sheared natural grey Canadian beaver. It’s the bestwearing fur in the world and in the States and Europe a similar quality coat will sell for close to $4,000. It’s only the Canadian consumer who has forgotten the beaver.” Nationalists note: Leo Chevalier does a beaver coat that’s selling like griddle cakes in the United States. Barbara Amiel