US Fur Sales Increase As Economy Recovers

Activists hurt business less than warm winters, recession

AFTER a long slump in fur sales that sheared profits and drove some furriers out of business, retailers and manufacturers expect this winter's sales to continue building on last year's turnaround.

In 1992, cold weather and an improving economy helped push retail fur sales up 10 percent to $1.1 billion, the first improvement since sales peaked in 1987 at $1.8 billion, according to the Fur Information Council of America in Washington.

In fact, so confident is the fur industry of a comeback, it has launched a $1 million advertising campaign. Between October and December - the high season for fur sales - print ads will appear in magazines such as Harper's Bazaar, Newsweek, and Vanity Fair together with a series of local television commercials.

The campaign kicks off with a five-page spread in the October issue of Vogue. Models, swathed in fur, pose on a beach with the copy: ``The way it reveals. The way it empowers. The way it embraces. Fur - more than any other fabric.''

After years of price-gouging and factory outlet-style merchandising, the industry is trying to recreate furs' luxury image and mystique, says Carol Wynne, executive director of the Fur Information Council.

A number of department stores that closed fur salons as sales dwindled are getting back into the act. Nordstrom's has opened a fur room in its Oakbrook store outside Chicago. Bloomingdale's flagship store in Manhattan is expanding its Maximillian salon to become the largest in any US department store. Macy's is making inquiries about selling fur.

Fur is also back in fashion. The Paris catwalks and American ready-to-wear collections gave renewed emphasis to fur in their fall designs.

Behind the flurry of activity, however, are some hard facts. Since 1987 the number of mink farms in the US has halved from 1,027 to 571.

A world glut in mink pelts pushed the price down 30 to 40 percent at the height of the slump, according to North American Fur Auctions of Cambridge, Wis.

Supply has tightened and pelt prices rose around 20 percent in the mid-season auctions held over the last few weeks. But the price of pelts has to go up another 20 percent before mink farmers break even, one fur auctioneer comments.

Further along the supply line, fur shops were equally hard hit. Slim profits as coat prices plunged forced many retailers to board up their windows. Jindo, a chain that planned to be ``the McDonald's of the fur industry,'' overexpanded in the 80s and has since closed most of its three dozen shops.

Even such doyens of the trade as Edward Kakas of Kakas furs in Boston admit storage and repair work has been the bread and butter of their business through the lean years. A lot of companies ``turned their noses up'' at the storage business in the booming `80s, Mr. Kakas says. When sales slumped, they went bust, he adds matter-of-factly.

Retailers, traders, and manufacturers alike say campaigns by animal rights activists have had ``no significant influence.'' The recession, a string of warm winters, and the luxury tax were more instrumental in the industry slump, they say.

Activists' militancy backfired with mainstream America, Ms. Wynne adds. Surveys conducted by the Fur Information Council showed that two-thirds of consumers believe in freedom of choice.

Anti-fur activists are not about to be written off, however.

Washington-based PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) staged a sit-in at Vogue magazine's New York offices to protest the fur ad. Campaign coordinator, Peter Wood, says that by calling fur a fabric, ``they [the fur industry] are trying to make it more of an object [in order] to take away the animal issue.''

``Fur is not a fabric,'' he says bluntly.

PETA plans an extra-large parade through New York's fur district on ``Fur Free Friday.'' Traditionally held the day after Thanksgiving, the celebrity-studded protest will include anti-fur floats and a ``rock against fur,'' Wood says.

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