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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 coup de grâce came in November of 1998. Benedetti had been casting around for a truly monumental venue for months-and nabbed Beijing's Great Hall of the People. The building, at the western end of Tiananmen Square, is sacred to China's Communist Party. Built in a mere 10 months in 1959 by an army of "volunteers," the hall was one of Chairman Mao's "Ten Great Constructions." It is the home of the National People's Congress-the country's rubber-stamp legislature-and has been the site of innumerable state dinners, including the one thrown for Richard Nixon during his groundbreaking visit in 1972.

Government officials rebuffed Benedetti's request at first: Nobody had ever held a fashion show in the Hall before, much less a Western firm. The Hall could only be used for cultural events, she was told. "Well, of course it's cultural," Benedetti replied. "I said we wanted to-I can't remember what kind of crap we said in those days-share our friendship."

The result mixed pure, North American catwalk spectacle-shapely models high-stepping in high-end mink-and, true to what Benedetti promised, cultural celebration. She had the stage designed to look like part of Beijing's Forbidden City, and for the opening scene, Benedetti dressed the models in slightly modernized takes on traditional Tibetan clothing: colourful hand-woven wool belts, wool and cotton boots, and the multihued aprons that many married Tibetan women wear. Of course, every one of the models wore fur, from red- and purple-dyed raccoon and fox, to yellow sable hats and coats. Nearly a year later, Jansen says, television coverage of the show was still playing in heavy rotation in the business-class section of China Airlines' flights.

The little company that had been last into China had shown just how serious it was about working there-and unlike Kopenhagen, which had pulled out of the country after the fur crash at the end of the eighties, NAFA gave every indication that it was in for the long haul. "With the Chinese, it really takes time to build relationships," says Tina Jagros, who runs NAFA's promotional arm and has spent much of the last decade travelling there. "People want to know you're still going to be there in five years."

Workers at the sprawling Zhejiang Zhonghui Fur and Leather Co. tannery and factory complex pull rickety bamboo handcarts filled with fox and raccoon skins through a maze of low-rise buildings. Discarded rabbit pelts lie in the roadway, fluffy white puffballs tattooed black by a hundred tires. But inside the office of Hu Jian Zhong, the company's chairman, everything is clean and terminally shiny: The wood laminate floors gleam like polished mirrors, and a surround-sound stereo system and enormous flat-panel Samsung-now playing a very slick, albeit syntactically egregious English-language company promotional video called "Great Industry in Flourishing Era"-claims pride of place on a glossy black dais.

There are entire towns in China that make nothing but buttons, or toy bikes, or hardware for underwire bras; when a factory opens up and finds success, it doesn't take long for workers to bolt and start up their own competing business. Tongxiang, where Hu's company is headquartered, was traditionally a textile and leather centre, but like many other places of its kind, the city has rapidly retooled to catch the latest trend, transforming itself into a sort of Fur City. Hu's complex is one of the biggest. The operation manufactures 150,000 fur garments a year, and consumes one million sheepskins and 150,000 mink annually (50,000 of these mink skins were purchased at NAFA's auction in Toronto earlier this year).

NAFA is hoping to help take the company's business upmarket. Most of the furs that Zhejiang Zhonghui produces are low-to-middle quality at best. One visiting NAFA board member is drawn to admire a cheap mink coat that's dyed canary yellow. The fur is matted and rough in spots, he notes, instead of supple and soft. And yet the jacket-and others like it, he soon sees-have already made it past the factory's quality inspector. NAFA views this sort of quality level, as well as its low price point, as a temporary evil, at best, and is all too happy to leave the bottom of the market to its competitors. Salesgirls aren't NAFA's target customers-"unless they have a very, very rich boyfriend," Benedetti later says. But the company also knows that master furriers almost never start out in the business with whole, high-end skins-they learn to cut and sew with floor scraps and work their way up. Many consumers also start out with cheap, simple fur garments, and trade up over time. And so NAFA has made a practice of getting in early with ambitious companies, and pulling them up along the way.

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