My first hands-on encounter with fur came early, and rather unexpectedly. Not long after the death of my Norwegian great-grandmother when I was 8, we received a box packed with her clothes, most of which dated from the 1920s. My mother and I sorted through filmy gowns and sequined flapper dresses until we hit upon a dark, furry mass at the bottom: a child's fur coat, its sealskin still glossy and reeking of mothballs. Black, and with cookie-sized buttons and a gray-brown rabbit fur collar, I eagerly awaited some—okay, any—excuse to put it on, to dig my hands into the velvet pockets and step into the damp chill of a Seattle winter. I wore that coat every holiday season until its lining shredded and the edges stopped at my waist instead of my knees. Sometimes I would just stand in my parents' front closet and pet it.
We're not supposed to like fur, to wear fur, or to even covet our neighbor's fur. PETA activists slash and spray and picket and hiss at celebrities who dare to grace the red carpet dripping with chinchillas, and their straightforward Web site, www.furisdead.com, proclaims "Compassion is the fashion!" Nordstrom is a current focus of the anti-fur campaign, based on the prevalence of fur-trimmed garments on their racks this season. The real problem with fur products, PETA claims, is how they get that way—through trapping and inhumane farming methods. Even the supposedly humane ranches are nothing more than appalling torture dens where animals, already caged and maltreated, get gassed and electrocuted. The fur industry has suffered in the last decade, with top models and designers eschewing fur and promoting faux products or appearing in those eye-popping "I'd Rather Go Naked" billboard ads from the early 1990s. Faux was in, the real stuff was out, and all was right with the world. For a while, anyway . . . .
Open any glossy style mag on the stands and you'll find the fashionistas are now on board with fur: No one's ashamed to flaunt fox or maneuver in mink, whether it's a full-length coat or a fur tie-on collar. The new, luxury- craving class is driving designers back to the drawing boards to create Dynasty-like excesses with all the trappings, figuratively speaking, of prosperity. At a wedding last month, I counted no fewer than a dozen fur-clad women of all ages sitting around me at the ceremony. Certain folks aren't leaving their pelts in storage any longer out of shame, and, depending on the occasion, you'll be as likely to brush up against a fur as against a gleaming leather jacket (another PETA no-no).
And in case you weren't aware, the Seattle Fur Exchange, which trades pelts and helps determine their market rate around the continent, has been in business here since 1898. Backed by the national Fur Commission, which represents family farmers and the humane euthanizing of animals, they're keeping our trader-trapper, bearskin rug-wearing reputation intact—and making a hotbed for controversy. Forget WTO, forget EMP, the business of furs is alive and kicking in this town.
Feels so good
A Web poll conducted by the Fur Commission (www.furcommission. com) asked, "Why own a fur?" The answers, in order of popularity, were as follows: They're 1) warm, 2) long-lasting, 3) great-looking, and 4) great-feeling. Other reasons included the eco-friendly (contrary to PETA's arguments) nature of furry animals as renewable resources, and the responsible farmers who contribute to wildlife management and protection. But let's get back to that sensory response. Sure, we don't get frostbite here regularly, and no, rain is probably not the greatest thing for your mink wrap. But the physical sensation of fur is like no other—soft, smooth, and feather light. For many customers, it's why they buy.
Speaking of actually buying one of these things, where can one do so in Seattle? In the land of activism and fleece, drizzle and microbrews, there are few purveyors of pelts easily scanned in the phone book. But ask any Seattleite who wants not just a fur, but the fur, and they'll extol the virtues of guilt-free jaunts to the East Coast, specifically recommending New York and Boston. We're just not really a fur town, they lament. It's not as acceptable here.
Tell that to Bob Manders, who specializes in new and secondhand furs from his workshop and showroom at 1424 Pike (622-3076). Manders has been in business locally for 22 years, and his workshop is a testament to fur's timeless elegance and the hands-on craftsmanship you'd expect from such a pricey garment. His walls are adorned with adulatory letters from clients who inherited furs or needed them altered, furs he bought secondhand and tapers, or new furs he brought in from trade shows in Canada ("Bob—Great job on the stole. We still owe you for the mink heads"). Manders, a courtly, goateed man, was in an apron when I met him. He's worked with fur for over 50 years—and his experience shows. He led me around his work tables, which were littered with blue, brown, and white pelts, before stopping in front of a rack from which hung a dozen new coats from a Canadian excursion he took a couple of years ago. One by one, he helped me try them on: the gorgeous, full-length black mink coat ($4,250), a sumptuous sheared beaver jacket with a chevron-patterned collar and lapels ($2,750), a three-quarter-length brown mink jacket ($1,950). Each felt so much lighter than it looked on the hanger—and weighed pounds less than leather.
Considering couture coats can run upwards of $90,000 (a recent one-of-a-kind Fendi job in a magazine boasted this outrageous price tag) and aren't readily accessible, Manders' prices seemed almost staggeringly low. But they still gave off the unmistakable whiff of luxury—just enough to transform this bespectacled, blue jeans-wearing writer into a goddess. Or someone who looked like she never had to wear jeans (or specs, for that matter) again. When you buy a fur, you're buying into a fantasy, an image of glamour and success and, yes, a delicious naughtiness at spending so much for something so soft and so sensuous. And taboo.
Fee, fi, faux, fum
If the Web's your thing, fur can come to you in private, where there's nary a spray can or picket line in sight. At www.efurs.com, you have the luxury of browsing and buying at home. Some of the more unusual items for sale include the Christina Perrin mink puppy harness ($1,290) and the Christina Perrin condom holder ($295, fits three condoms). They also feature sable-trimmed coats, a goat coat ($7,075), mink-lined denim jackets ($1,895, in his and hers), and a chinchilla blanket ($90,000 for 8H by 10 feet). Between efurs and www.fur.com, there are plenty of helpful guidelines for the firgin to follow. Fur types (mink, lynx, fox, shearling, pony, chinchilla, beaver, raccoon, ermine, fisher, otter, sable, lamb, coyote, opossum, muskrat, squirrel, fitch), prices, and tips for storage and care are at your fingertips. If you're heading in the faux direction, just point yourself in the direction of any clothing store. Fake or not, the fur is out there. But oh, the real thing is touchable to a sinful degree. So be naughty. Or be nice. But don't blame us if your selfish splurge this season results in a lot of heavy petting.
Emily Baillargeon Russin is the managing editor at Seattle Weekly.