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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 ...

Hu's company, established in 1993, is on that path. He says he's less interested these days in garments made with sheep and rabbit than those made with mink, because that's what Chinese customers want. Hu says he plans to grow that business by at least 20% annually. He's willing to pay for his move upmarket, as well. Through a broker, Hu bought the top lot of mahogany-coloured mink at NAFA's auction last February, for which he bid $150 per skin-a $115 premium over the average. (Top lots typically contain 50 skins.)

After this year's auction, NAFA encouraged Hu to send his best garment, made with that top-lot mink, back to Toronto, where the auction house hired a model, hair and makeup artists and a fashion photographer; NAFA's in-house designers then turned the photographs into posters and billboards, all to a standard that-as much of the display advertising around southern China attests-isn't quite as readily achievable inside the country. The company also produced a DVD that documents the Toronto shoot-and which Hu plays, on a continuous loop, on a big-screen television in his store. This fall, Benedetti, along with Lumin Yao, a cheery York MBA graduate and Chinese national who is the marketing director in China, were also trying to figure out if they could stage a fashion show for Hu later in the season, at a new fur mall he opened this past September.

In Tongerpu, Shenyang and Harbin, all in the country's northeast, there are more than a dozen fur malls-North American-style shopping centres, but where the only thing you can buy is fur. Tongerpu has six free-standing fur shopping malls, selling everything from fur gloves, jackets and hats to fur car-seat covers; there's a seventh mall, bigger and better than all the rest, of course, now under construction and due to open next year. In Harbin, Zhang Mian, a 34-year-old furpreneur, opened the city's first top-end fur mall last year; he also has a chain of 77 mink stores that spans the country, and plans to increase that number to 100 by year's end. Zhang says he's expecting sales to nearly double to 35,000 garments, from 20,000 pieces last year.

Even China's subtropical southeastern coast has gone fur-crazy. One mall and manufacturing complex in Yuyao, a booming city south of Shanghai, has 300 stores jammed with racks of 48,000 RMB ($8,000) black mink bomber jackets and full-length, 200,000 RMB ($33,000) Canadian sable coats. The mall has a "fur interpretive centre," chronicling the history of fur fashion in China. February in Yuyao can bring 28 C weather-by all rights, selling fur garments here should be as hard as hawking high-end ice cubes in Iqaluit. But as one mall owner in the region said, "Men in China all want to have a nice watch. Well, women want something nice, too, so they get their husbands to buy them a mink." The Yuyao complex has nearly doubled its sales in each of its three years in business; its owner is now planning to build a second complex next door.

NAFA has made it its business to be there for the malls' owners. One developer named Zhao Bin, scrambling early this fall to open his new mall in Shenyang in time for the busy season, had installed a 47-inch plasma television in the building's lobby, where he planned to play DVDs of NAFA fashion shows from Milan and Hong Kong; NAFA posters filled lightboxes through five storeys of marbled halls, and outside, a three-storey-tall NAFA poster, showing a leggy blonde in a black mink wrap, was strung over a lightbox on the building's side. Zhao said that he had even threatened some of his merchants who had put up cheap-looking advertising that he would replace it with NAFA's art. NAFA helped Zhao when he first started out in the fur business, with a mall he opened in 1998, he says. "NAFA is the best," he adds. "NAFA has always been very serious about its work." When I suggest that NAFA, too, should be happy to have him displaying so many of its posters, Lumin Yao tells me to shut up, so as not to give Zhao any ideas.

NAFA's educational efforts have become its central narrative in China: Work with us and we will help you succeed. Tina Jagros, of NAFA's marketing arm, says the company's China budget is still minuscule, considering the market's size. NAFA will spend less than $1 million on its China operations this year, she says, quickly adding, "It's not so much about throwing money around in China. The money is the easy part." And yet the payoff has been enormous: Only Kopenhagen is bigger globally these days, and the gap appears to be shrinking.

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