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A customer at a Harbin, China, fur shopping centre, one of dozens of dedicated fur malls popping up around the country. (Andrew Rowmat)
A customer at a Harbin, China, fur shopping centre, one of dozens of dedicated fur malls popping up around the country. (Andrew Rowmat)

National Magazine award nominee

Mink dynasty Add to ...

But the Wall Street crash that October dispatched what was left of the North American and European markets; when Japan and Korea followed a few years later, mink prices fell from their 1987 average of $52 per skin to around $20. Every week, it seemed, another fur-trade heavy went bankrupt and shut its doors. NAFA lost some $25 million in 1990 and 1991, says Herman Jansen, then the new company's vice-president of sales and wild fur. "We were desperate," he says. "The industry was desperate."

There was one bright spot left in the market. Hong Kong's garment industry, capitalizing on its access to cheap labour and experience with mass production, picked off much of the work that small ateliers and family-owned factories in Montreal, New York and Paris had been doing for centuries. As the Chinese government began to open up the mainland to outside investment, the Hong Kong Boys, as Benedetti still refers to them, began moving their factories north, to where labour costs were lower, and where a few ambitious factory owners sensed they might find an emerging market.

Benedetti moved to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s, working as a freelance fashion consultant and fur promoter. In 1992, a Hong Kong fur company hired her to help it break into the mainland's retail market, by producing a series of small fashion shows in northeastern China. The north of the country had a history of using fur-state-run factories churned out styleless, utilitarian jackets, often made with raccoons, fox and even house cats-"freaky fur," as Benedetti calls it. Her shows-held in government department stores with intermittent power and bare floors-were mobbed with cash-waving locals who had never seen anything like them.

Jansen, too, had travelled to China, and he saw the potential. If China ever started buying quality fur in any quantity, the country could save the business. "We knew we had to go to China," Jansen says. "It was just a question of how to get in."

NAFA appealed, first, to the Hong Kong trade, but the factories there used European mink almost exclusively, and few of the owners had any intention of changing. Theirs were volume operations; they didn't want to pay a premium price for North American mink, or to have the hassle of learning to work with a new product. The European auctions had a huge head-start on the mainland, too: Finnish Fur Sales had a long history of selling blue fox there, for the trimming on leather jackets. Kopenhagen had also made inroads, and had been allowed to throw a fashion show in Beijing just before the market crash. American Legend, meanwhile, was the preferred auction for the few manufacturers who wanted North American fur. NAFA would have to work its way up from last place.

Benedetti, working for NAFA now, hauled sample furs to malls in the country's more promising areas, particularly in northeastern cities such as Harbin and Shenyang, inviting shoppers and factory owners to feel the difference between European and North American mink. Slowly, the company started making headway. In the fall of 1995, Benedetti used her contacts in Hong Kong to win permission for a NAFA fashion show in a stadium in Baoding, a few hours south of Beijing. She and her colleagues brought the pelts into the country in hockey bags, and transported them from their hotel to the stadium on a convoy of bicycle carts. Nausea was a constant problem: Nearly every meeting with her hosts involved elaborate, multicourse meals, and every meal was lubricated with endless, and mandatory, shots of sorghum liquor.

In the weeks leading up to the show, Benedetti told the Chinese officials that, as the show's director, she would require headsets to communicate with her assistants backstage and in the lighting booth. "They kept saying, 'yeah, yeah, don't worry.'" On the day of the show, they turned up with 20-kilogram military backpack radios-the type that were used to call in air strikes during the Second World War. "It wasn't funny at that moment."

In spite of the difficulties, the show attracted 8,000 onlookers-a capacity crowd-as well as media attention. Images of the furs, and the company's name, were beamed across the world's most populous country.

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