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  • Staying Warm and Fuzzy During Uncertain Times

    December 3, 2002

    Last Friday afternoon, the day ritualized consumerism is traditionally at its most frenetic, Alexx Balcuns twirled in front of a full-length mirror at the Ritz Thrift Shop on West 57th Street as if inhabited by the soul of Eva Gabor in "Green Acres." Ms. Balcuns was languishing in a $795 dyed-mink parka her grandmother had just bought her, a garment that became part of a collection that included a full-length purple shearling and a white mink car coat she received three years ago. Ms. Balcuns is 6.

    Clearly, kindergarten coat racks are not lined with sable, but Ms. Balcun's winter wardrobe indicates the extent to which fur has broadened its reach and become accessible to a wider cross section of Americans.

    After the dark years of the early 1990's, fur sales started edging upward in the middle of the decade, thanks to design innovations that helped separate fur from the habits and proclivities of those populating Danielle Steele novels. Sheared, made lighter weight or cut and trimmed to resemble corduroy, fur regained its position as an object of fascination among the young, fashionable and tastefully manicured. The year 2000 was the fur industry's best ever, with sales of $1.69 billion. Though sales slipped last year to $1.53 billion, they exceeded what at the time were unprecedented figures in 1998 and 1999, said Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Fur Information Council.

    Few could have predicted such an outcome given the events of Sept. 11, coupled with the economic slump and warm winter. "Fur has broadened its distribution base," Mr. Kaplan said. "We saw a big increase in the areas of men's wear and urban wear."

    There is evidence to suggest that this year will be another robust one for the fur industry, regardless of what common sense would have us imagine. Sherry Cassin, a Manhattan furrier, for example, said her business had improved in 2001 from 2000 and that this year her sales are already up 30 percent over last year. Ms. Cassin does a brisk business in $995 ponchos made of rabbit and $1,000 mink-trimmed denim jackets. (The bulk of her sales come from coats in the $2,500 to $5,000 range.) Ms. Cassin's six highest grossing trunk shows ever occurred this year. One took place at a boutique called Barbara Jean in Little Rock, Ark., in August, where she sold more than 20 pieces in two days.

    At Neiman Marcus, fur sales are experiencing a double-digit increase this year over last, said the store's fashion director, Joan Kaner. In Dallas, Stanley Korshak, the rarefied boutique, has already sold one of its most expensive coats, a $32,000 vanilla broadtail. Against all conventional wisdom, 2001 ranked as the best year for fur sales in the store's history, Jim Farr, a vice president, said. This year, he added, fur sales are inching up even higher.

    "I think there are a number of factors at work here, not the least of which is luck," Mr. Farr said. "But I also think that after the events of last year people have really wanted to do something for themselves."

    An afternoon at the Ritz Thrift Shop, the purveyor of new and secondhand furs where Ms. Balcuns was doing her shopping, indicates that fur is considered not just a showy sign of arrival, but in some way perhaps a signifier of survival. On Friday, a middle-aged woman who did not wish to be named bought a used calf-length, sheared-mink Valentino coat partly as a badge of honor. After a year of unemployment, she had just found a high-level job at an advertising agency, which she considered a triumph given her age and current circumstances. "I was going to buy a camel's-hair coat and then I thought to myself, `Well, this is close to camel hair,' " she said.

    A few feet away stood Kim Herman, a graphic designer, married and in her 30's, who was wearing thigh-high leather boots she got on Eighth Street and who was about to buy a used full-length white mink for $1,500. She bought her first fur, a ranch mink with fox trim, last winter. "There was just such an undercurrent of unhappiness," Ms. Herman explained, "and it just made me happy to go out and buy the coat."

    Also shopping at the Ritz were several young single women for whom fur represented a kind of emotional compensation. Aiysha Stokes, 25, from Jamaica, Queens, was picking up from storage a stone martin coat that she bought two years ago. "For a young woman my age to be working and going to school, I thought I deserved a present," said Ms. Stokes, who likes to wear her coat to church functions. "I encourage young girls, if you're working, go out, treat yourself, buy a fur coat."

    It is this kind of consumer psychology that the animal-rights movement has yet to do battle with, though fur protests continue. Last month, members of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demonstrated during a fashion show alongside Gisele Bundchen, who models for Blackgama furs. On Friday, the Fund for Animals, a Washington group, staged 22 silent demonstrations outside branches of Neiman Marcus nationwide. Michael Markarian, the fund's president, said that the group has been trying to get the retailer to stop selling fur.

    "The fur industry has mounted such a successful campaign to bring fur back," he said. "They try to mask it, and dye it orange or blue so that it doesn't look like a dead animal.

    But as James Twitchell, the author of "Living It Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury," pointed out, the forcefulness of the antifur movement in recent years has had the effect of emboldening some men and women to buy fur when perhaps they otherwise might not have. "Now buying fur is an act of self-affirmation," he said. "You're saying, `I'm not afraid of that.' "

    And if you are among the very well-to-do, buying fur is an act of self-affirmation even broader and more powerful in scope. "There are lots of things people are doing in the very upper end of the luxury market to express their success," said Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPD Fashionworld in Port Washington, N.Y., which analyzes retail trends. "There's a small percentage of the luxury market that wants to show the world that the difficult times haven't affected them," he said. "With fur you're saying, `Everyone else is suffering but I'm not.' "
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