Fur Fashion's Animal Magnetism

Pelts are hot again, thanks to Scandinavian marketers

Bitter cold in New York City. Frosty chills in Paris. Snowdrifts in Tokyo. Deep winter--the season that's perfect for fur.

Not your grandma's ankle-length mink, mind you--the kind big enough to double as a tent on the plains of Mongolia. What's really hot is fur in hot colors or mixed with fabrics. How about a candy-pink mink coat from Givenchy? Or a Jean Paul Gaultier black mink and chiffon kilt?

Fur is très à la mode these days, especially with Paris designers such as Christian Dior's John Galliano, who can't get enough of the stuff. The fusion of fashion and fur has driven an extraordinary comeback in the business of pelts. According to the International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF), worldwide retail sales, minus China, topped $10 billion last year, a 20%-plus increase from 1999. Fur's newfound popularity is driving up the price of pelts. Mink, the industry benchmark, is up nearly 50%, to $29 per pelt, over the past two years.

Appropriately, this success can be traced directly to the land of the midnight sun and Saga Furs of Scandinavia, a joint marketing organization that represents 7,000 fur breeders. The organization, based near Copenhagen, controls two-thirds of the $1.5 billion market for mink and fox pelts. Saga works closely with fashion designers, educating them about the properties of fur and inspiring them to use pelts in new and often unconventional ways. "I want to change people's attitudes--that fur is a fabric to be used year-round, not just in winter and not just for coats," says Saga's managing director, Ulrik Kirchheiner.

To spread his fur gospel, the 43-year-old Dane has lured top designers such as Galliano and Michael Kors to Saga's research and development center housed in a converted farm outside Copenhagen. The goal: to inspire designers with new techniques such as shearing fur, blending it with wool, or dying it bright shades of red, blue, or purple. Christian Tournafol, an independent designer in Paris, created a sleeveless sweater out of silverfox after visiting Saga in December, 2001. "You see that there are a thousand different possibilities with fur," Tournafol says.

Under Kirchheiner, who was previously CEO of a Danish apparel company, Saga has become a full-service operation. Its 50-person staff helps train manufacturers so that fur meets a designer's specifications. It also counsels salespeople at boutiques on how to sell fur. The organization boasts a nearly $10 million budget garnered from a 1% pelt assessment on upwards of $900 million a year its members earn at fur auctions. "Saga is making it much easier to go from the design process to fixing a retail price," says Tom Julian, a trends analyst at Fallon Worldwide in New York.

Thanks in no small part to Saga's evangelizing, the number of designers using fur has risen tenfold, to 400, in a decade. Fashion houses are catering to a new generation of customers: The average age of a fur buyer has dropped from 50 to 35. Apparently, you're never too young to start wrapping yourself in pelts. The Dior children's line, Baby Dior, features a $5,000 fur coat.

Saga's success isn't thrilling animal-rights activists. "Saga is hand in glove with the fur industry," laments Mark Glover, campaigns director for Respect for Animals. A fur-lined glove, that is.

By Christina W. Passariello in Paris

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