A couple of news releases in recent weeks came across my desk. Initially, they did not seem to mean a great deal to our little corner of the fur trade. But then, after further exploring these events, I begin reflecting on the significance these events hold for our wild fur markets.
First was a report issued by THE SANDY PARKER REPORT newsletter. Sandy has been publishing his report for nearly 35 years. He was based in the fur district in New York. But that enclave, once the hub of the North American fur trade, is no more. Understandably, he has moved on to greener, and I might add more tax friendly, turf. I first met Sandy about 30 years ago in New York during lunch at one of the local fur dealer’s watering holes. Nice guy.
THE SANDY PARKER REPORT is read by a wide range of people in the fur trade. Intended primarily for those involved at the retail and manufacturing levels, his report is often a wealth of information. Sandy is one of us: Seeking out and sharing information significant to the fur trade.
The headline read: “U. S. May Imports of Fur Apparel Rise Sharply.” For the last couple of years, North American retail furriers have let inventories slip. This is understandable considering the dismal state of the economy, especially the markets for luxury goods. Could it be that inventories are so low that replacements are necessary in order to keep the doors open? Or, could it be that these fur retailers see brighter days ahead?
The answer really doesn’t matter. These are ranch mink, foxes and other luxury items that will not be available to retail trade in China, Korea, Russia and other growing markets for fur.
The report states fur garment imports in to the U.S., mostly for Hong Kong, have soared 50 percent from a year ago. Interestingly, the greatest advance was in the importation of “other furs” not merely ranch mink as we’ve come to expect.
A lot of those “other furs” are likely ranched fox, curly lamb or something like farmed chinchilla. Nice sheared beavers might play into this, but from what I’m told, wild furs are still ignored by many of our domestic retailers.
In fact, while sheared beaver is a hot item in some of our major urban markets, these skins come from North America and are manufactured and sold here. They are not an imported item.
The other news article, a dispatch from Seoul, South Korea published on Pg. 1 of the Wall Street Journal, detailed consumer spending on luxury brand items.
According to the article South Korea is “emerging as one of the most ‘luxury friendly’ places in the world.” As salaries increase and wealth spreads among the middle class, Koreans demonstrate this newly achieved status with the purchase of high-end luxury items. Furs play well into this role.
Twenty five years ago, Korea-based Jindo was the largest fur maker and retailer in the world. Duty-free retail fur outlets were in many major airports. Their facilities in Korea — which I’ve visited — are huge, well-managed, and ultramodern, turning out high-fashion, well-constructed fur and leather garments — and sold for a low cost.
Yet, at the time, the Korean people were not allowed to buy or own a fur garment. All furs were for export. The reasons behind this government mandate were somewhat complicated, and the law was eventually changed.
I doubt Jindo remains the largest fur maker. That title has most likely moved to China. But, Jindo has established facilities in China due to lower labor costs.
In another move that is expected to move more furs off the racks, the Korean government recently agreed to allow “standalone” luxury retailers. Prior to this political decision, only major retailers were allowed to offer luxury items. Evidently, the original system was to assure imports and VAT revenues were paid.
This season Jindo and The Fur Vault (a Jindo twin) outlets will be offering furs in Seoul and Inchon.
These two seemingly unrelated events will ultimately begin to help our wild fur markets grow.
Presently, about 50 million ranch mink hit the market each season. There are only so many mink to go around. The more consumed in North America and Korea, the fewer available to Eastern Europe and China. Prices for raw skins will continue to escalate. Competition will grow.
“Ole Timers” in the fur trade witnessed these same type of events unfolding more than 40 years ago. Markets grew. Fashions and styles changed.
Slowly, wild furs began holding favor with a wider range of consumers. Young people moved into the fur market. “Fun Furs” became the rage with the “Ski Bunny” crowd.
Prices paid for our wild furs began moving upward in the early to mid ’70s. By the early ’80s, we were in the middle of “The Fur Boom.”
The financial crisis of October 1987 killed the fur trade, both ranched and wild. Even those with wealth were reluctant to flaunt it. But, given time, things change and new markets emerge.
In recent years, NAFA launched a fur promotion campaign targeting the Gen Y crowd. These are young, upwardly mobile, fashion-minded shoppers. It appears these modern fur buyers might soon be our new “Ski Bunnies.” They enter the fur market with no pre-conceived perceptions. They are seeking cutting edge fashions.
Throughout its 400-year history in North America, the fur trade has experienced ups and downs. It would appear we are on the upward swing again. History is merely repeating itself. It always does.