Snuggling Up to Fur Fashion: Animal-rights activists may still howl, but on the runways and in long-suffering luxury shops, that warm-and-fuzzy feeling is back.

October 23, 1997|By Vida Roberts | Vida Roberts,SUN FASHION EDITOR

No more hiding, no more apologies. Fur has come out of the closet, out of storage and into fashion's good graces.

There isn't a glossy magazine on today's newsstands that doesn't feature glamour wraps or bits of fluff in its editorial vision of style. Vogue sees it as a "return to cafe society -- sophisticated urban dressing with a flurry of fur." Mirabella frames fall's glamorous faces with mossy lamb and aqua fox. Elle celebrates "flights of fancy -- fur done as coats or simply as a cheeky bit of trim."

Cheeky? Fur has evolved from fashion poison to fashion treat. After a decade defined by anti-status and anti-fur sentiments -- where women were bullied into retiring their minks and the fur industry went into virtual collapse -- designers are suddenly draping their collections with warm fuzzies.

The explanation for this turnaround differs among the players. Retailers say the cycle of a sluggish economy and unseasonably warm winters is over. The Fur Information Council, which represents retailers, farmers and manufacturers, says consumers have matured and have come to resent the terrorist tactics used by animal-rights activists. Animal-rights activists blame fickle, insensitive and cruel fashion mavens.

The change in the politically and fashionably correct climates comes just in time for the women who kept their longing for fur under wraps and the furriers who were on the road to becoming an endangered industry.

Michael Miller, whose family has been in the fur business since 1898, has traveled a rocky road in Baltimore the last decade. The Miller Brothers establishment, which catered to the carriage trade on North Charles Street, was finally forced to close last year. Its location, in the traffic path of a young and college student population, was a frequent target for fur vandals.

"We're starting fresh, narrowing our focus and expanding a new customer base," says Miller, now ensconced in a new York Road store with plans for official grand opening events starting on Nov. 5. "We held on to our old clients, but there's a younger customer out there now who wants furs that reflect the way she lives. She's the one who will be looking at furs as fashion, not just as a status garment the way her mother did. I'm optimistic about our future."

The same optimism pervades the Mano Swartz fur salon in the Village of Cross Keys. Granted, it's not on the same scale as the four-generation family business that was a fixture on downtown's Howard Street and then a free-standing luxury palace in the heart of Towson.

"We were badly hurt. Furs plummeted in 1987 and that continued to 1991," says Richard Swartz, who is steadily rebuilding after the closure of the Towson salon in 1992. The economy was lousy, winters were warm and there was a glut of cheap and low-quality coats.

"It's a different business now, with different treatments. We're moving a lot of shearling, fabulous woven furs, sheared mink and beaver and furs dyed in strong color. There's more interest in carpool coats and small fur accessories," he says.

jTC The new fashionability of fur has also led to a renewed respect for craftsmanship evident in the old coats that have been lingering in closets and storage. Furriers Hannah & Demetrios, relative newcomers on the retail scene here, built a following on a knowledge of back-room crafts.

Hannah Scubacki and Louizos Demetrios know the business from the inside out. He's a master furrier and she was the in-house fur designer at Mano Swartz.

"We went out on our own in 1992, after getting a very supportive sendoff from Mano Swartz," says Demetrios. "Our specialty is custom coats made in our own workrooms right here. There is also new interest in updating, so we can get creative."

Trendier customers now have no qualms about turning a mink coat into golf club covers, linings, headbands or mittens, a reflection of the younger and lighter attitude about fur.

Demetrios says common sense prevailed and turned the fur industry around. "It was hypocrisy protesting fur and continuing to wear leather shoes. Logic won out and the mood has changed."

Keen fashion observers can understand today's quick-change attitude about the wearing of fur. After all, if the fashion industry could convince women that a black nylon bag by Prada could be worth every penny of its $1,000 price tag, anything is possible. Fashion moves in cycles, boredom being a motivator as strong as economic fluctuation.

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