Manhattan’s once-bustling fur district has clung on through rising rents and changing tastes. But earlier this year, the furriers appeared to be trapped.
Cheered on by animal rights activists, San Francisco and Los Angeles had already approved bans on the sale of new fur garments. New York was poised to follow suit after Corey Johnson, the speaker of the city council — and a politician seeking a progressive path to the mayor’s office — proposed his own prohibition.
But then an unexpected ally came to the furriers’ aid.
Johnnie Green, pastor at Harlem’s Mount Neboh Baptist Church, descended on city hall in May, activists in tow, thundering that fur was a cherished part of African-American culture. The proposed ban was insensitive, he complained, even discriminatory.
“On any given Sunday, you will find that the black church is filled with mink,” Mr Green later told the FT. He recalled the fashion of the Harlem Renaissance and the surge of pride he felt when he bought his wife a mink coat after their first year of marriage and then whisked her home to a temperate Dallas to show it off to his mother. “It’s a status symbol,” he explained.
As for any obligation to protect all God’s creatures, the pastor did not view mink and sable as such urgent priorities, saying: “I wish that animal rights activists would spend more time arguing for human rights and saving black and brown lives!”
Whether it was a sincere expression of cultural injury or the handiwork of cunning lobbyists — or a bit of both — Mr Green’s intervention may have turned the tide in a clash between progressive politics and a historic New York trade. A bamboozled Mr Johnson backpedalled, saying he would rework his proposal — but not drop it.
For animal rights activists, it was a galling moment. “There is absolutely not a genuine grassroots movement opposing the bill,” said Ashley Byrne, associate director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, citing prominent African-Americans who have come out against fur. “The fur industry has been spending millions of dollars on lobbyists to try to fight this bill.”
With a growing roster of designers — from Burberry to Prada — pledging to go “fur-free”, Ms Byrne was convinced the industry was in its death throes, anyway. “The days of the furrier are nearly over,” she predicted.
Perhaps, but the industry is waging an energetic lobbying campaign to guard against that. It has cited lost jobs and invoked international trade rules to thwart Mr Johnson. None of its arguments, though, has been as emotive in New York as its appeal to African-American heritage.
“When we were talking about strategy people were saying, ‘we’re going to lose jobs’ and I would say, ‘the jobs are important but for someone like me, this is about emotion’,” said Charlie King, an African-American partner at Mercury Consulting, one of three-high-powered lobbying firms, along with SKDK Knickerbocker and Capalino & Co, working for the fur trade. This year, Mercury helped Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska overturn US sanctions on his aluminium company, Rusal.
Tying fur to race, Mr King insisted, “was not a cynical ploy ginned up by a hired hand like myself — it is a heartfelt issue”.
Fur, Mr King said, was a hard-earned statement for African-Americans that “we made it”. Joyce Dinkins, he recalled, wore fur on the steps of City Hall when her husband David was sworn in as New York’s first black mayor. Mr King’s own mother, a social worker, wore her mink when he was growing up. “God forbid if we ever touched her when she was wearing it or got too close!”
African-Americans are not the only ones to make a cultural claim on fur. Many Hasidic Jews wear fur hats — or shtreimel — to synagogue. Even though the proposed ban would include an exception for religious apparel, some New York rabbis have still expressed unease.
Fur is deep rooted in New York — so much so that the official state seal features a pair of beavers. While the fur district on the west side of Manhattan is much reduced, a study commissioned by the industry estimated there were still about 150 fur businesses in New York City — from retailers to skin traders — employing 1,100 people and generating about $400m in annual revenue.
Much of the business now involves incorporating fur into other luxury items, such as the trim on Canada Goose down jackets.
“It’s no longer grandma’s coat,” explained Mark Oaten, chief executive of the International Fur Federation, an industry group. “These days it’s more likely to be a 25-year-old who chucks on a fur gilet with a tracksuit and trainers to go to the gym.”
If anything, talk of a ban may actually be helping sales, according to Maria Reich, chief executive of Reich Furs, who says customers have been stocking up, the way gun owners do before a Democrat enters the White House.
Still, Ms Reich acknowledged, a New York prohibition would be “catastrophic” for a family business that has been a mainstay of the fur district for generations. It was founded by her late husband’s grandfather, Charlie Reich, a Polish Jew who came to New York, via Palestine, in 1938 and became one of the city’s biggest skin dealers.
On a recent afternoon, Ms Reich glided through the company’s fur vault on West 30th Street and it did not seem much had changed from Charlie’s day: Cream-coloured mink skins hung in neat rows under fluorescent lamps, their tails still visible. They were females, whose short hair tends to fetch higher prices. In an adjoining room, Kostoula Skourlas, a native of Greece who began working for New York furriers 45 years ago, sat beside a sewing machine as she stitched by hand.
“We’re one of the last industries — the fur industry — that actually manufactures in New York,” Ms Reich said. Like others in the neighbourhood, she regarded the ban as a short step from state-imposed veganism.
As it happens, Mr Johnson’s district office is in the same building, one floor above — though he and Ms Reich have never met.
Until the ruckus over the ban she had not been aware of fur claiming any special place in the African-American community, she confessed, saying: “It’s been a nice introduction to a world I really didn’t know.”
A few doors down, another furrier, George Cris, an immigrant from northern Greece, said he was well-acquainted with African-American customers: they had helped sustain his business, USA Furs by George, since 1966.
“Nobody is going to beat the black person,” Mr Cris enthused in patchy English. “He pays. Boom!”
As if on cue, Michael Lewis, a repeat customer from Brooklyn — and African-American — walked into the store to try on his latest purchase: a $2,660 waist-length fur coat with his name stitched into the satin lining.
“It’s cultural,” said Mr Lewis, 27, as he admired his reflection in the mirror. “If you go back to the African kings and queens, what did they wear? They wore gold and fur.”
What did he think of Mr Johnson’s proposed ban? “Insane,” Mr Lewis said, never taking his eyes off his new coat.