Fur is flying " off the racks

Janet Urquhart
Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly

In Aspen’s love-hate relationship with furs, love prevails.

The town that once flirted with a ban on fur sales is draped in the luxurious outerwear. Fur sales are up dramatically and so is the number of stores that sells them. Minks and other fine furs proliferate on shoulders and in shop windows.

And fur, no longer just a fashion in its own right, has infiltrated everything from skiwear and handbags to jewelry and accessories. Buyers have snapped up the selection of mink belts with interchangeable buckles at B’Jewel, but the Mill Street shop continues to offer a mink necklace ” available with or without a pendant.

Aspen shoppers can find everything from fur-trimmed skirts to furry children’s boots and entire blankets woven with fur. Even Boogie’s, a purveyor of youth-skewed street clothes, offers a jacket with a collar trimmed in ” racoon fur. An athlete at this year’s Winter X Games in Aspen sported a black rabbit-fur jacket in the superpipe.

Recent eulogies for the late Katharine Thalberg, a longtime local who crusaded against the fur trade in the late 1980s, stirred memories of Aspen’s controversial attempt to ban the commercial sale of wild animal pelts. But today there is little more than the occasional letter to the editor to hint at anything other than acceptance ” or at least, indifference ” toward furs and their wearers.

Detractors of fur, at least locally, are a small but vocal minority, local furriers contend.

“I think the issue is emotional. Once you take the emotion out of it, most people support furs,” said Mickey Alper, owner of Aspen Fur and Shearling.

If furs get a bad rap, it’s in the local newspapers, he added.

“There’s a lot of negative slant toward furs in the Aspen newspapers,” Alper said. “There seems to be a negative slant toward the fur business.”

Certainly, furs still garner harsh words from a few newspaper readers. A Dennis Basso Furs benefit fashion show for the Aspen Art Museum in late December elicited a letter from Denver invitee Ellie Guttman, who expressed her dismay that support for the museum was linked to “killing animals for our pleasure of expensive jackets.”

“The grocery store sells more dead animals than we do,” Alper said. “Fur is a farm-raised product, just like livestock.”

Aspen-area resident Michelle Fox fired off a letter to The Aspen Times after the newspaper cited a local shopkeeper’s mention of fur as a chic fashion choice for the holidays.

“It is my observation that most full-time Aspen locals wouldn’t even consider wearing a fur coat,” she wrote.

Not so, claim fur retailers, but Fox said she finds the practice of killing mammals for their fur repugnant, given the other suitable options available in outerwear.

“There’s absolutely no need for fur to keep you warm anymore. It’s purely for fashion,” she said. “The fact that fur sales are increasing in Aspen is shocking because it means people are choosing fashion over compassion.”

Alper contends letters to the editor often level accusations about the fur industry that are more fiction than fact, and he proffers a copy of an Associated Press report about two PETA employees charged last year with animal cruelty and illegally dumping dead animals. PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, was referenced in Guttman’s letter and the organization regularly lashes out against the fur trade and other practices it deems abusive to animals, including, at one time or another, Aspen’s annual snow polo tournament.

Nonetheless, “to each her own” has been Aspen’s attitude toward furs since voters overwhelmingly nixed a 1990 ordinance that would have banned their sale. And, it appears, plenty of women do own one, or more than one, while shearling is a popular option for men.

“Different strokes for different folks,” philosophized Mary Catherine Vaughan, proprietor at B’Jewel. “I have no hard feelings for the people who don’t prefer fur.”

The community as a whole makes fur wearers feel comfortable and welcome, she added.

“I think it’s accepted here. People don’t hesitate to bring out especially luxurious items,” Vaughan said. “I do feel that, on the whole, it’s a very comfortable way of life in Aspen.”

“I think it [Aspen] is definitely more accepting,” agreed Betsy Weil at Hillis Furs, the resort’s longest-running furrier and a fixture at Mill Street and Hyman Avenue. A longtime Hillis employee, Weil has watched attitudes shift since the “fur fight” briefly placed Aspen in the national spotlight.

Those who appreciate and wear furs are clearly among Aspen’s clientele ” as well as its working populace, some retailers say. They constitute a visible segment of the visitors and part-time residents on which the town’s economy depends.

“People realize where their livelihood is coming from,” Weil said. “Even if you work at Paradise Bakery selling ice cream, people in furs come in.”

Count longtime Aspenite Linda Harlan, a ski instructor by winter, among the locals who have an appreciation for fur. She purchased her first fur coat at a local shop 20 years ago and now owns several.

“They’re the warmest coats I own,” she said, but conceded a down-filled jacket would provide equal warmth. “I have a girlfriend who says, ‘them that gots ’em, wears ’em.’ “

Harlan, who stressed she doesn’t own any furs made from endangered species, said she feels comfortable wearing her fur coats around town at night.

“No one has ever spray-painted me or anything,” she said. “I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, nice coat,’ [facetiously] and I know what they mean. I just say thank you.”

Fur styles in Aspen are as diverse as the nine shops, by Weil’s count, that now specialize in furs or make them a significant part of their inventory. They come in every shape and color, including dyed shades from canary yellow to purple and shocking blue.

Mark Goodman, a partner in Mark Richards Fine Outerwear on the Cooper Avenue Mall, offers jackets of woven fur among his selection, and coats designed by Zuki that feature intricate, inlaid designs made with pieces of beaver pelts.

“It’s a fashion statement,” Goodman said. “We don’t carry any plain-Jane furs. We carry things that are more fashion-oriented.

“Of course, it has to be pretty,” he added. “It has to be fresh. If it’s something you saw your mother wear, you won’t want it.”

“Furs have gotten a lot more casual ” more sporty-looking,” Weil agreed.

Goodman is a third-generation furrier, following in the footsteps of his grandparents, who met in a fur factory on the East Coast. His father, Gus Goodman, is credited as an innovator in the fur industry, the furrier who made the Cassini-designed fur muff and pillbox that Jackie Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration, according to Mark.

Business at Mark Richards, which opened several years ago, is up, he said.

“My sales have never been better, and we just moved to a store that’s twice the size because we outgrew the old one,” said Alper, a third-generation furrier with roots in Chicago. He opened a shop on Durant Avenue five years ago and moved to the larger space on the corner of mall at Cooper and Mill last fall.

Fur retailers rang up $1.06 in sales last year, based on sales tax reporting to the city, up — percent from 2004 receipts. The sum doesn’t accurately reflect the value of furs actually sold, though, one retailer confided, as many buyers have their purchases shipped home. In that case, they don’t pay sales tax and the sale isn’t tallied by the city.

Of recorded sales, fur receipts have been on the rise ” from $293,920 in 2001 to last year’s total, according to city sales-tax figures.

The price tag on a fur coat can range from a few thousand dollars to well more than $100,000, but the attraction to the garments is a constant. Whether it’s about warmth, style or its indescribable softness, the allure of fur is ultimately its feel ” a glamorous coat makes the wearer feel glamorous.

Shoppers don’t venture into Mark Richards to purchase a fur because they need a new coat, Goodman said. They buy one because they find it fabulous, and they feel fabulous in it.

“I think women feel luxurious wearing it,” Vaughan agreed.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is


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