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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 perhaps the most important step for the industry, psychically at least, is the few baby steps the fur trade has taken back into North America. Jansen, for one, argues that the industry has cleaned up its act on hunting and trapping methods; the company's ranchers and trappers work ethically and humanely, he says. Fur promoters have seized on a new argument, too. Last winter, the Fur Council of Canada ran billboards in Canadian cities to announce that "Fur is Green." "If we don't use part of what nature produces, we will use petroleum-based synthetics or other materials that may damage the environment," the campaign's website elaborates. "We've got to get fur back onto shopping lists," Jansen says.

Back in Toronto, in a sun-filled studio on the top floor of a converted warehouse in Liberty Village, Lynda Jagros-May, the head of NAFA's design studio (she is Tina Jagros's sister), is working to build an international network of fur-using loyalists. Studio NAFA, as it's called, is both a promotional tool and a hedge, of sorts: The company hosts fashion designers, students and fur technicians from established and developing markets and teaches them new ways to use its wares. While many of the students come from Hong Kong and China, the studio hosts groups from Turkey, Korea, Greece, Russia, Italy and North America as well.

On a Wednesday afternoon last summer, Jagros-May and Basil Kardasis, the company's creative director (he teaches design at London's Royal College of Art when he's not in Toronto), are taking a class of Chinese designers through a stack of novel fur samples. In one of them, white and black mink has been cut into strips almost as narrow as fettuccine, then sewn back together into a herringbone pattern. Jagros-May shows samples in which the fur has been turned into checkerboards and waves. She shows strips of red fox and coyote sewn onto chiffon, with subtle plays on fur direction where the fabric reflects light back and forth like a swimming pool at noon.

Sophie Wu, a design manager for Ports International, tugs at one sample of a mink skin that's been cut into a fine honeycomb pattern, so it stretches easily and readily slips back into its original shape; when Jagros-May notices her, Wu looks like she's had an epiphany. "I really wanted to do this with our sweaters," she says, "but I didn't know how."

"We're going to show you," Jagros-May says.

Near the end of her presentation, Jagros-May pulls out a sample made from silver fox; it looks full and decadent, like it should cost tens of thousands of dollars, but when she flips the fabric over, the students see that it's made by sewing thin strips of fur, alternating with a thicker strip of leather: What little fox fur the technique uses is so long that it hides the leather filler in between the strips.

"This one takes me back to when I was 15, and my father was a furrier," Jagros-May says. "I worked in the family store on weekends. At night I worked in a store that was called Fairweather." She's referring, of course, to the middle-brow Canadian clothing chain.

"These coats sold for-a jacket was $250, a fingertip-length was $500, and a full-length was just $750. They sold thousands of them," she remembers. "Furriers like my father were so angry."

"But the benefit was that an 18-year-old girl could afford a fur. It would fall apart, of course, but the beauty of it was that that girl would go on to buy a proper fur coat."

"They're seduced by it," Kardasis interjects.

"Once it seduces you, it's a thing you want to have," Jagros-May says.

Or that is the hope, at least. It's hard not to think, as the two of them work to sell those Chinese designers on a dream that has failed them at home, that the company-the entire industry-now has an opportunity in China to roll the clock back to its glory days. And maybe this time around, they'll get it right.

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