Fur as a Fashion Fad?

Thirty-six years ago, the Beijing Fur Fair was essentially ignored by the international fur trade. That’s not the case today. The recent fair, which concluded on Jan. 15, might be the largest in the world. We’ll have to wait for the attendance records for the Hong Kong Fur Fair from Feb. 25 through 28.

The fair was attended by buyers from around the world, even Russia, but the driving force was the Chinese domestic fur trade. Many smaller shops in China are running low on inventory and claim replacements are difficult or impossible to obtain.

Wang Ye, secretary of the China Fur and Leather Products Fair, reports 12,000 attended the fair that featured more than 200 exhibitors. Fur Harvesters Auction of North Bay, Ontario, and North American Fur Auctions of Toronto, had personnel, samples and exhibits featuring wild fur products. The auction companies’ reports indicate the reception was excellent with hundreds of interested potential customers stopping by their booths each day. FHA and NAFA should be applauded for their promotion efforts of our wild furs.

Buyers shopping for dressed or raw skins were confronted with some prices that were 30 percent above last year’s levels. This is mostly attributed to the ever-increasing prices of ranch mink.

The higher prices did not dampen the quest for replacement inventories. Chinese retail sales of fur products are reportedly up about 20 percent from last season. A harsh, early winter is partly the cause. However, these newly established levels did result in far more attention being placed on wild fur.

While the Chinese have been noted for being conservative for centuries, the young, upwardly mobile buyers are seen as being on the cutting edge of style and innovative design. Chinese designers and manufactures certainly know their markets and customers, and are tuned in to these young shoppers.

Fur trim and collars on wedding dresses, fingerless fur gloves, fur pockets on wool sweaters, fur belts and even fur shoes are luxury symbols these young shoppers crave. That’s where many of our wild furs play into the picture. A mink scarf simply doesn’t offer much pizzaz, but a red fox, sable or fisher certainly does. The sameness of mink has not gone unnoticed by those seeking something “new and different.”

One fear that seems to be common among fur market watchers is the lack of production of wild fur. Suppose that some items really catch on with these young shoppers. What then? Can we supply the fashion trends?

When compared with worldwide ranch fur production, our highly desirable, unique, wild fur harvest currently is merely “a drop in the bucket.” Gone are the days when we harvested more than 5 million raccoons a season.

There is certainly room for some wild fur price increases. To stimulate the harvest size needed, prices will have to increase. But, there is a limit to how high prices can go before these novelty type items are beyond the financial means of young buyers just entering the market.

If these novelty items become a trend — a fad — the demand could be enormous. They will appeal to style-conscious shoppers, even in the southern regions of China where the weather is near tropical. I believe this will be the case.

Early on, a short harvest will result in rapidly increasing prices for us, but quickly could lead to pricing the items beyond the reach of the young, upwardly mobile consumers. In this case, slowly increasing prices would be better than a rapid rise.

In recent years, our markets saw some favorable price increases. Yet, growth was tethered by a thin thread to one market — Russia. The thread broke and this fragile market tanked. The Russian market will return. There are simply too many people who desire furs. When is the question.

Until the Russian economy improves, which is expected to be rather slow, we must play into the hand we’ve been dealt. Right now, that’s China.

China has more than 10 times the population of Russia, and about six times the number of people as all of Eastern Europe. A great many Chinese people still suffer abject poverty, but that’s also true of Russia. Regardless, the potential is enormous.

While most of the nations around the world are still suffering economic retraction, China continues to post gains.

It is critical that our suffering fur trade network, from harvesters to country buyers and collectors to auction houses, remains viable and intact. But, we also need to remain profitable for each element involved.

Please FAX regional fur auction results to Parker at (501) 262-1582. Or e-mail results to HeTraps@aol.com.

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