Fashion show at 46th North American Fur Taker Rendezvous

July 09, 2013 11:09 pm  •  PATRICK DURKIN For the State Journal
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MARSHFIELD — Maybe it’s stretching things, but I couldn’t help but think of French philosopher Blaise Pascal while hanging out June 29 at the 46th North American Fur Taker Rendezvous.

Why Pascal? Because he said, “A man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once.”

The Rendezvous, which made its first Wisconsin appearance last weekend, demonstrated such range, too.

One minute you’re wobbling as if tear-gassed, steadying yourself against a rustic sales booth at the Central Wisconsin State Fairgrounds. You’re OK, though. You’re just woozy from a snootful of bottled skunk scent, and wondering if it stripped the enamel from your teeth and vaporized 5.99 million of your nose’s 6 million scent receptors.

Then, just as your heart restarts and your feet regain feeling, you hustle down a muddy path, step inside an arena, and follow Neil Diamond music to the last open chair beside a curtained stage and brightly lighted runway. Seconds later, three stunning models walk out, stop and strike a pose to highlight the latest fashion furs from renown designers in Italy, Greece and New York.

This wasn’t some novelty act. It was one of two professional fashion shows held that day by North American Fur Auctions and its Wild Fur Shippers Council. The shows resemble runway events the groups stage each year in fashion hubs like Toronto, Dubai, New York and Hong Kong.

NAFA is the largest fur auction house in North America and holds the world’s third largest fur auction. Its corporate office and auction facility is in Toronto, Ontario, but its NAFA USA headquarters is in downtown Stoughton, about 20 miles southeast of Madison’s Capitol square.

The Stoughton facility is NAFA’s central fur-grading and pelt-processing operation. It buys domesticated fox and mink pelts from fur ranches, and wild furs like otter, fisher, beaver, raccoon, muskrat, coyote, wild mink, red fox, gray fox and ermine (weasel) from trappers.

After cleaning and processing the pelts, NAFA sorts them by species, type, size, shade, color and quality. It then holds several international auctions each year in Toronto, attracting buyers from the world’s major fur markets.

The global fur market has changed dramatically the past 10 to 15 years. Around 2000, this market was worth about $10.9 billion. Since then it’s grown 44 percent to $15.7 billion in sales, including a half-billion increase the past year.

Once the world leader in the fur market, North and South America today combine for about 7 percent of its sales. Today’s No. 1 market is Asia, dominated by China, which in 2012 accounted for 35 percent of the global market with $5.6 billion in sales. Besides luxury furs, China uses fur in furniture, footwear, accessories and novelty items, even ermine-lined toilet-paper covers.

Second is Europe at 28 percent of the global market with $4.4 billion in sales, and third is the Eurasian market – Russia, Turkey, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan — with 27.5 percent of the world market and $4.3 billion in sales.

Russia has long loved furs, and continues to influence world markets. In fact, Russians have helped make Dubai a major fur center by traveling there to buy furs because it’s cheaper and relatively hassle-free compared to shopping in Europe. One report said Dubai’s al Nasser square had about 18 fur-coat stores 10 years ago. Today it boasts about 140, with mainly Greek store managers employing mainly Russian sales staff.

With the fur industry strong again, pelt prices paid to North American trappers are also rising. Trappers at the North American Fur Taker Rendezvous are happy to see this turnaround, particularly those who kept trapping through fur’s 1990s doldrums.

“These are great days to be a trapper,” said Mike Wilhite of Scandinavia, associate editor and fur-market columnist for “Trapper’s Post” magazine. “Not counting for inflation, some fur prices the past couple of years have been higher than what they were in fur’s boom years (roughly 1976 to 1988). I’ll take a $40 average for pelts any day over the $16 I had been getting.”

Perhaps the most notable spike is in muskrat pelts. Wilhite recalls averaging $1.80 per pelt when selling 100 muskrats he trapped from Iola’s millpond in 1991. “I had to add $20 of my own money to say I got $200 for muskrats that year,” Wilhite said.

In contrast, Wilhite averaged $16.50 per muskrat pelt during a fur auction last month, while the overall average per pelt was about $14. “The best I ever got for muskrats during the boom years was about $8 per pelt,” he said.

And because buyers are paying premium prices for ranch-reared fox, which provide a long-haired fur for trimming cuffs and collars, the pelts of wild red fox have soared, too. Wilhite said red-fox pelts hit about $90 earlier this year, while averaging about $67. Ten years ago, these pelts fetched about $15 to $18.

Higher-grade Wisconsin pelts, which tend to be fuller and thicker because of our cold climate, are often bought by fashion houses for luxury garments. Meanwhile, midrange pelts are often used for more utilitarian things like lining mittens and coats.

Further, designers are using furs in ways never before possible, thanks to advances in fur processing. Designers now mix thin strips, sheered furs and dyed furs into garments – including reversible fur coats – so artistically that only professionals recognize it as fur.

Therefore, many such coats, jackets, stoles and strollers are no longer “your grandmother’s furs.” These garments often express their designer’s “serious but frivolous side,” as fashion show speakers would say.

Even so, high-end coats of wild mink, bobcat and coyote continue to turn heads wherever they’re seen. And that will forever be the case, whether you’re on the streets of New York City or the muddy walkways of the Central Wisconsin Fairgrounds.

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