The illusionist isn't fooling anybody. The audience claps and cheers, all right, but more at the feebleness of his so-called powers than at his ability, with the help of an enormous privacy screen and an awkward delay, to transform a satiny black ranch mink bedspread and pillows into thick, brown northern sable ones. The gee-how-did-he-ever-get-that-mobile-phone-all-the-way-over-there-into-the-fur-lined-cookie-jar trick? Pure camp. But still, the crowd of high rollers, sipping Great Wall wine in the basement of Beijing's Jinbao Place Palace of Global Luxury, is politely transfixed. Vogue and Elle China, not to mention China's main television network and the important newspapers, have all sent cameras for the spectacle, a fashion show where the fashions are black mink cookie jars, $20,000 fisher bedspreads and picture frames made from fur.
Wong Jian Hua, the pioneering salesman whose fast-growing enterprise, called Polardeck, retails these high-end fur housewares (the firm's mission is to "create life of joy and happiness for high-income groups in China and around the world and to introduce the aristocratic lifestyle in Europe in the 1970s into the Chinese families") approaches the stage, beaming. "I'm sure you all enjoyed the show as much as I did," he says. Afterwards, VIPs retreat to a suite of private dining rooms for Peking duck, lobster soup and foie gras en gelée.
While Wong was the evening's official host, its impresario clearly was Diane Benedetti, international director of the marketing arm of Toronto-based North American Fur Auctions, the world's No. 3 fur auction house, which produced the magic show to thank Wong for his business. To the extent that ordinary Chinese people have heard of NAFA-and more and more every day, they have-Benedetti is the reason why. Though she doesn't speak much Mandarin, Benedetti, a former model, has made an art of blundering and charming her way into China's booming new luxury fur market. Benedetti and her company, built from the remains of the Hudson's Bay Co.'s New York and Canadian fur holdings, are a big part of the reason the market even exists.
She has mounted fur fashion spectacles at a military aviation museum outside of Beijing ("They had a chopper from Vietnam all full of bullet holes-it was sensational!" she says); at an international model search in Tibet, for which she was also a judge ("We were the grand finale!); in the Great Hall of the People (a newswire story a while later guessed that Mao must have been rolling in his grave); and in countless shopping malls and public squares around the country, where, when she's not employing wildly underskilled illusionists, she arrays teepees, canoes, polar bear rugs, snow machines and models dressed like Pocahontas to sell the company's wares.
The work is paying off. NAFA sold some $250 million worth of skins to China in 2008, accounting for more than 70% of the company's total sales. And even as other important fur markets-Russia, in particular-dropped out almost entirely this year in the wake of the global financial crisis, China has turned that dip in global demand into an opportunity: Many Chinese manufacturers have seized on lower auction prices to increase their production; they're betting that Chinese customers will more than pick up the slack.
The Chinese are besotted with luxury goods, but fur might well be the most in-demand luxury item of all. In Beijing and Shenyang, in the country's frigid north and even across its monsoon-prone southeast coast, where winter temperatures can often climb into the high 20s, newly wealthy members of the country's surging middle class can't seem to get enough mink and wild fur coats.
The development couldn't come at a better time for the industry. Fur sales in North America and Western Europe have collapsed in the past two decades; where customers in Chicago, New York, Montreal, Frankfurt and Milan were once the lifeblood of the fur trade, they barely warrant a footnote on the industry's balance sheets today. So far this year, China has bought more than 80% of the global supply of raw skins. Companies like NAFA can't afford to have their China efforts fail.
Yet before China became the industry's saviour, the great new market was Russia, and before Russia, Japan and Korea. Through much of the 1980s, buyers from Japan and Korea bid global prices to historic levels. That bubble priced many of fur's more established markets out of the business. When Korea and Japan collapsed in the early 1990s, they took much of the industry down with them.