High Season for Hand-Tailored Furs

Alessandro Grassani for the International Herald Tribune

Vladimiro Gioia, left, cutting  pieces of fine fur with one of his brothers, Ivan.  The family business once focused on traditional designs but Mr. Gioia has attracted the attention of high-fashion designers by experimenting with styles and color.


ROVELLO PORRO, ITALY — Fashion’s love affair with fur hit something of an all-time high during the autumn 2013 shows that ended in March, as designers pushed fur into the kind of colorful, look-at-me designs not seen since the brash 1980s.

“I cannot remember a season that was more fur-packed than the one we just had,” says Marco Zanini, the creative director at Rochas, whose parents and grandparents were furriers in Milan. “It was absolutely everywhere.”

Sales figures illustrate the attraction. According to the International Fur Trade Federation, sales of fur in 2012 reached $15 billion, 70 percent more than those in 2000.

Creatively speaking, designs have moved light years beyond the traditional, knee-length brown mink coat — from Miu Miu’s bubble-gum pink astrakhan coat to Valentino’s unorthodox blood-red mink with a white platelike collar dotted with dark ermine. Even the accessories have become fluffy, like Fendi’s orange and purple fox mohawk hats, Chanel’s electric blue swimcap-style headgear and Altuzarra’s striped mink boxing gloves.

Intarsia, the intricate cutting and matching of different elements, is a linchpin of the current creative fur craze. It requires not only perfectly prepared raw materials but also an experienced hand for the precise cutting of minuscule strips of fur, often involving different fiber lengths, and an artist’s eye to assemble the final jigsaw puzzle — all the skills of Vladimiro Gioia, 37, a quiet, serious man who discreetly unveiled his eponymous fur label in 2010.

Mr. Gioia has been slicing and sewing fur since he was 17 years old at F.G. Furs, his family’s company in Rovello Porro, a tiny town about 18 kilometers, or 11 miles, south of Como.

Founded in 1989 and still operated by Ugo Gioia, one of Mr. Gioia’s four brothers, F.G. Furs started as a producer of classic mink and fox coats that were sold to traditional fur shops throughout Italy. It was not until Mr. Gioia joined the company in 1992 and his brother taught him to cut furs that the company took a more trendy, creative turn, suddenly attracting big-name fashion labels who look to individual fur suppliers for quality and creativity.

“I just started playing with the designs, working with intarsias, interesting colors and new mixes of materials,” Mr. Gioia says. “I sent my designs via fax to every fashion company’s production department, then I’d set up an appointment with them and bring a big sack of work samples.”

The cold calling worked. F.G. Furs has produced furs for Valentino, Burberry, John Galliano, Bally, Gianfranco Ferré and even the footwear company Casadei, all based on designs by Mr. Gioia that then were shaped into silhouettes by the fashion houses.

Two years ago, Mr. Gioia decided to combine his fur designs with his own silhouettes and put his name on the label. Starting with just 10 pieces in two stores, the company now has 10 clients and will produce 130 fur coats for the coming autumn season.

“It was always a dream,” he says. “I love to design, and I had so many ideas that were not brought to market by other brands.”

It is difficult to imagine which fashion house might be bold enough to produce Mr. Gioia’s latest jewel: a graphic black and white coat that is composed of more than 1,000 strips of mink and panels of rich black crocodile.

The grueling process of slicing the mink into perfect slices of 7 millimeters, or about a quarter of an inch, and then using the 1950s-era industrial sewing machines to create the checkerboard, diamond and microchevron patterns took one person two weeks to do.

“And that person was me,” Mr. Gioia said with a smile.

“Every line you see in this fur is an intarsia, a separate piece of fur that has been sewn together,” he explains. “It’s very precise. You need patience and a very steady hand.”

You also need high-quality furs that have been properly prepared. Mr. Gioia uses his family’s company, which purchases pelts through experienced brokers in Copenhagen, Helsinki and Toronto, where the world’s top auctions for fox and mink take place. For ultra-luxurious sable, however, they buy only in Russia.

Mr. Gioia acknowledges the anti-fur concerns of organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals but insists that his suppliers follow strict guidelines for the humane treatment of animals. “The films and images PETA shows do not come from proper farms,” the designer insists. “How could they? Those bloody processes ruin the animal and the pelt.”

The fur is shipped to Italy in a raw state and then processed at Manifattura Italiana del Brembo, a tannery in Bergamo Province.

“It is the most important tannery in Italy in terms of quality and workmanship,” Mr. Gioia explains. “And they ensure elasticity, softness and brilliant colors when the fibers are dyed.” The tannery meets European health standards so the pelts are certified for safe use, unlike many cheaper furs that are tanned and dyed in China and produce allergic reactions in some wearers.

As in his newest creation, Mr. Gioia loves to mix furs with crocodile, which is bought at farms in Missouri and processed at a factory in Tuscany. “The fur becomes a lot more modern when mixed with other materials, and with crocodile you don’t lose the luxury,” he says.

Luxury, however, does come at a price. The new mink and crocodile coat will retail for €15,000, or $19,180. Mr. Gioia has sold 15 of them, and they will go into production by F.G. Fur’s 13-person workshop in the same way that Mr. Gioia made the first prototype.

“Fur is nothing like regular clothing,” he explains. “People have tried to make big ‘fur machines.’ But it doesn’t work. It cannot be industrialized. It is still a very manual, artisanal process.”

Marc Kaufman (left) with legendary NY Jets quarterback “Broadway Joe” Namath 

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