Alternately adored and detested, fur sparks passion. Having lost its shine in the 1980s as a result of the persistent attacks from anti-fur activists, the material has found favour once again and has successfully made a comeback on the fashion stage. Premiere Vision provides an overview of the market and production processes used by master furriers.
Sales have more than doubled in recent years, growing from 14 billion euros in 2011 to nearly 32 billion euros in 2013. Concerned about the environment and the wellbeing of the animals, the major breeder associations and the international industry authorities have increased their efforts to formulate regulations that combine pleasure with ethics. At the same time, artisans, furriers and renowned manufacturers are breathing new life into one of the oldest professions in the world. Sourcing, production and style have become their daily watchwords. Here is a close up on some of the carefully-chosen players that are to be found at Premiere Vision Leather.
Wanger: Chinchilla is softer than soft. This small rodent from the Andes was once threatened with total extinction and the species is only in existence today because it is farmed for its fur. Chinchilla fur had already been remarked upon by the Incas and then by the Spanish Conquistadors for its extraordinary softness, a result of the very high density of incredibly fine hair. "Each follicle produces fifty or sixty downy hairs," explains the director of the Hungarian company Wanger, a specialist in the material since 1978 and exhibiting for the first time at Premiere Vision Leather. Its colour, dark grey on the back and white on the belly, also contributes to its charm. "There are four or five natural shades. The darker the central part, the more beautiful the pelt. But chinchilla can easily be dyed in a whole range of colours.
Around 80 per cent of our production is coloured," the director continues. Raised on farms in South America, Russia and Hungary, the skins are then subject to a mineral tanning, generally using aluminium, which makes the hair very persistent and extremely light, compared to rival species such as mink or the Rex rabbit. But the leather is very fine, which makes it much more complicated to use. "Global production is low, around 300 000 skins per year, around half of which come from our company," the specialist tells us. "Despite it being so rare, demand is stable and pelts trade at an average of around 80 Euros per unit. Luxury houses buy them for clothing and for accessories". Difficult to resist this exquisite material!
Chinchilla by Wanger / Premiere Vision Leather
Patrick Terzakou: a globe-trotting buyer
It is down a cul-de-sac in the 10th district of Paris that the furrier-manufacturer Terzakou has located his showroom and workshop. Representatives from the studios of the leading names in fashion can be found here discussing the details of their order. Just like in a research laboratory, the wearing of a white coat is compulsory. Experts in the material, Terzakou's teams put the finishing touches to the latest catwalk models and develop new procedures to render fur even more irresistible. Innovation at the service of tradition is one of the keys to the success of this label.
Patrick Terzakou, the latest in a long line of furriers, knows all about the ups and downs of the industry. He has lived through tough times. Fur fell out of favour in the 1980s but has now regained its popularity. Heavy shapeless overcoats are a thing of the past and the focus is now on fashion and youth. In the stockroom, mink, fox, astrakhan and chinchilla in all their natural variations are visible as far as the eye can see. Tomorrow they will be transformed into clothing or fashion accessories. Patrick Terzakou knows every single one of his products intimately. He studied at ESCP Europe and is now a sub-contractor in this niche sector for the biggest fashion houses. For more than 40 years, he has travelled the world to buy the best quality furs. His experience means that he knows exactly to which fashion house he will send each fur. This family company, created in 1917, was recently awarded the "Living Heritage Company" label, a guarantee of the quality and reliability of its purchasing. Saga Furs in Helsinki for Finnish and Baltic mink, Finnish fox and Afghan astrakhan lambs.
Kopenhagen Furs in Denmark for Scandinavian mink and astrakhan lambs from Namibia (Swakara). NAFA in Toronto for mink and wild species. American Legend in Seattle for north-American mink (Blackglama). Fur Harvesters in Canada for wild species. Fojuzpushnina in Saint Petersburg for sable. The guaranteed sourcing route by Patrick Terzakou.
Although it is highly regulated, the fur market is subject to pressure from anti-fur organisations. To better guarantee the origin and oversee the living conditions of the animals, breeders have formed an association and respect the same ethical charter. Drawn up by the International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF) in partnership with the six leading professional sales centres for fur worldwide (Nafa, Saga Furs, Kopenhagen Furs, American Legend, Fojuzpushnina), the Origin Assured (OA) label guarantees the origin and the traceability of the fur as well as the treatment of the animals, whether they are raised on fur farms (85 per cent of global production) or whether they are wild animals (15 per cent of worldwide production).
From Scandinavia to North America via Russia, Patrick Terzakou, assisted by his son, JeanPierre to whom he has handed the reins of the company, select the lots of furs bearing this label at the fur auctions. At this stage, the furs have already undergone an initial selection process, organising them by size, colour and quality. A task which requires a sharp eye in order to identify similarities from furs that are far from being identical. And therein lies the art of the furrier.
Henri Gruber, exquisite dexterity
There are many behind-the-scenes professions in the fashion world, and the artisan furrier is one member of this very exclusive designer club. Meeting the artisan means meeting a man with a passion. His intelligent eyes and skilful handicraft leave no doubt that Henri Gruber lives and breathes for fur.
In his workshop in the 11th district of Paris, this self-declared atypical craftsman explores techniques by reconciling innovation and tradition. In the shadow of the catwalk, he interprets each noble item that is like no other. With his nimble fingers, he weaves his magic in order to create perfection.
In this era of globalisation and standardised products, he understands that to survive he has to educate his clients. This awareness-raising takes place upstream and starts with ethical sourcing. Why try and save a few euros per pelt when the main breeder associations guarantee the origins of the skins and certify the conditions in which the animals were raised?
When a great craftsman can offer a bespoke Made in France service at prices that are only 5-10 per cent higher than those from countries that do not offer the same guarantees?
Thankfully, new generations looking to stamp their identity tend, these days, to focus on quality. It would seem that this movement will last.
The production process
The artisan-furrier uses a number of techniques to transform the skin. To start with, he selects which skins to assemble, comparing their size as well as the shade and density of the fur.
Each skin is dampened and brushed on the leather side to stretch it and extend the material before being pinned and dried. The craftsman works on the underside of the skin so as not to damage the fur on the other side.
Using a pencil and a ruler, the furrier draws symmetrical lines starting from the epicentre of the skin, and numbers them. These act as guidelines when cutting out the strips of skin. Like a surgeon, he incises the leather and delicately removes each piece. Similar strips on the left and right are assembled symmetrically in order to obtain a similar finish.
A seamstress sews the pieces together using an overlock machine, making sure that not even 1 mm of the precious material is lost. Then the skins are drummed to remove any excess hair.
Lastly, they are brushed by hand and steamed to make them shine.
The different construction techniques can be illustrated with the cult model, the coat:
Like a jigsaw, a fur is transformed using a variety of assembling techniques. No pattern is used and there is no room for error, given the value of the material!
In the 1930s the mosaic technique appeared, which consisted of alternating skins of different colours; this technique required maximum attention from the furrier.
The "letting out" technique involves cutting a short and wide fur into long and narrow strips. The cutting out is done on the leather side in a series of V-shapes. Each strip is sewn back together with a slight off-set of a few millimetres between each stitch.
On the fur side, this letting-out makes it possible to harmonise the distribution of hair and produce relief.
To give fluidity and lightness to a coat, the artisan intersperses strips of leather between the strips of fur, producing a whole range of patterns like herringbone and checks.
Lastly, there is the "full skin" technique which involves producing a coat from skins sewn to each other, which is the easiest solution.