The sky turns mink.
It's a moment when you're sitting on a little uphostered chair in the hushed expanse of a big-time fur salon (the high-priced ones tend to have a very spacious feeling, like a Starship Enterpise with rugs) and the salesman comes back from the vault with the black willow mink, sheared beaver, racoon, tanuki, lynx, coyote, otter, blue fox, silver fox, fitch, sable, New Zealand opossum, Russian broadtail, whatever . . . and he throws it into the air! Flings it, spreads it and it's like a satin-bellied hairy petrodactyl taking flight until it lands at your feet. Prostrate. That strange combination of glitter and darkness that is fur. Maybe $5,000 worth of coat spread out there if it's otter, maybe $30,000 to $100,000 and higher, way higher, for sable that fetched the top-bundle price at the Leningrad auctions. hSprawled at your feet.
It's one of those moments.
It is not one of those moments just now, however, for Lynn Perrigo, who is sucking her teeth and full of deep thought in front of an $8,500 lynx jacket at Neiman-Marcus.
"Believe God," she says. She is an "ambassador" for a mission called the Word Over the World, which means she is a teacher of bible-study intensives. She's 30, and she's been doing it for eight years now.
"God opens doors. I never had a fur coat until a month ago, and one night I was looking at one. I said: 'God, one of these days I'm going to ask you for one of them.' The next morning, a woman I know asked me to try on her raccon coat. Then she said: 'It's yours.' Only one day after I asked God for it!"
Now she wants to trade up to lynx, this year's trendiest fur.
She doesn't have the money, which is why it isn't one of those moments, but "God supplies all your needs," she says.
A fur coat is a need?
"You bet," she says. "A Cadillac can be a need."
Now is a very big moment for furs, as we learned at the inauguration. Restaurants complained that minks were overstuffing their coat rooms. Hotel lobbies looked like large-mammal houses at the zoo.
"We haven't closed on time for weeks," said a salesman at Bethesda's Saks-Jandel on Inauguration Day.
"Retailers all over the country were short on inventory this Christmas because they believed the gloom-and-doom forecasts," says Carol Speed, fashion director for the American Fur Industry, a trade association. "And now we have Mrs. Reagan in her Lunarain mink coat, and all those wives of the kitchen cabinet buying coats at Merrrill-Lowell on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. A lot of fur came East for the inauguration."
"Unfortunately," says Lewis Regenstein, vice president at The Fund for Animals, "Mrs. Reagan and Betsy Blooomingdales and all those women are flaunting their furs, and encouraging this cruelty to animals. The leghold trap is the cruelest torture one species has ever devised for another. Even the ranch-raised mink don't have much of a life in their cages. We're just going to have to work harder to get our message across."
A lot harder.
Retail American sales of furs went from $565 million in 1976 to $858.4 million in 1979, says the American Fur Industry.
And that was under the Carter Administration, your ultimate cloth-coat crowd.
Suddenly: Who cares if 10 years ago we were all so wonderfully evolved that never again could we condone the killing of say, the muskrat, for mere vanity? Remember that? Back when stars were appearing in ads that said: "Real People Wear Fake Furs." Then the Blackglama mink people ran their own star-ad series, using names so famous they only had to show the faces with no identifications: Nureyev or Streisand wrapped in mink. And then, in a moment of advertising genius, Lillian Hellman.
Lillian Hellman was a great moral exemplar for the 1970s, inspiring the Standing Ovation Reflex whereever she went. When she appeared in national magazines dressed in Blackglama mink, it became totally okay, baby. It was living a little, doing something for yourself, and don't you deserve the best?
At the same time, designers were taking an interest in furs: Valentino, St Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Geoffrey Beene.
"There was a time when fur coats came in one or two styles," says Ernest Marx, who heads the Saks-Jandel operation. "We give credit to the designers who have made furs part of fashion not status. Twenty years ago, fur coats were status symbols, and the status thing was out for the younger generation. Now people wear them more for fashion, not status."
And the styles, which once were about as exciting as insurance salemen's shoes, now include braiding, pleating, computer paterning, mink jogging suits, a mink Western jacket with the fur worked into a corduroy look, a reversible beaver/cloth wind-breaker for men (who account for 25 percent of all fur sales in this country -- not including furs they buy for women), fur anything/everything.
Furthermore, women with good jobs have taken to buying furs for themselves, instead of waiting for husbands to do it.
So who cares about faltering economies and altering ecologies?
"Women just feel wonderful in furs," says Neiman-Marcus' Lenore Krugman, manager of the fur salon.
"There are people who will sell them as investments. That's unconscionable. They are sold for luxury, they are bought for luxury," says Bert Gartenhaus, who with his brother, Donald, runs the Gartenhaus stores in Bethesda and White Flint.
"Reason not the need," says King Lear.
For all that furs are fashion, not status, nowadays, it's strange that the most fashionable ones tend to be the most expensive. Russian lynx has more clout than Canandian, which is ahead of the American. Coyote may have been the Volkswagen of the fur market, getting bought by people who carved a sporty wilderness look, but when it comes to a showdown, the blue fox runs it out of town. (Coyote came in when wolf, along with other-endangered species such as leopard and ocelot, were banned for sale in this country.)
It seems logical that some furs might be expensive -- more people want them, and with a wild species it's hard to increase the numbers. But how can mink stay so pricey when anyone can raise them in a collection of cages the owners like to call ranches? Shouldn't supply increase with demand?
Well, demand is high, for one thing. "Mink is the simple best-selling fur -- it's 55 percent of the market," says industry spokesman Speed. "We also export 85 percent of the mink we produce. American mink is the finest in the world."
At a recent New York auction, the average male skins brought about $52 apiece, and the females were at $48, which is actually a higher price per square inch because a female mink is much smaller than the male, and its fur much more highly prized.
It takes 50 or 60 skins to make a coat. The best skins fetched $540 apiece at the same auction. Competition gets fierce at the top end, status once more outweighing fashion, it seems.
Also, even though the coat-bound mink has a life expectancy of only nine months, it spends it as "a long feeding tube," says Speed. "They eat nothing but high-quality food, chicken and fish meal, a lot of protein, along with things like cream cheese and ice cream which have spoiled for the human market. They're coddled and cared for like you can't imagine."
And then their glossy little necks are broken, and the fur removed from the bodies uncut, like a mailing tube for prints.
Depending on the coat, the fur can be only half the cost -- not to be confused with price, which also includes wholesale and retail mark-ups. Another half can come from the complicated process furriers call "letting out," in which the skins are sliced into quarter-inch strips and stitched back together in order to keep color and texture consistent. It's a craft which, with all the other skills required to make a fur coat, takes eight to 10 years to learn, says Bert Gartenhaus, a master furrier himself, with a shop in the basement of the Bethesda store.
It can take just as long to learn to appreciate. When Gartenhaus appraises a coat, he starts with looking at it, checking the color, looking for dyes, studying the thickness and the evenness of the fur. Then he runs his hands up the coat, against the grain, to feel what he calls the "tickle." He hefts the coat for weight -- the lighter the better, which is another reason for the popularity of female skins. And he feels for the suppleness. "A good coat you can pull through a bracelet."
"He's going to buy her a sable," says Gina Porten of Potomac. She has wandered into Saks-Jandel because her two-week-old tanuki, which is Japanese raccoon, got slightly damaged, and she's, well, looking around, she even has a friend with her to give advice.Anyhow, the sable: An Englishman in a bright-yellow sweater and a wristwatch that looks as if it were hewn from the mother lode has strolled into the store, and Gina Porten knows that his wife just had a baby boy.
"Sable," she whispers. She is unshaken by the fact that he stands by they lynx jacket and the blue fox, rocking on his heels, thinking about it. "He wants her to have the best."
Sable is top of the line, along with chinchilla, Russian belly lynx, black willow mink and a few others. (The standard bottom is rabbit. In the '60s the fur industry tried to sell rabbit as a "fun fur." They don't say "fun fur" any more. Rabbit is . . . rabbit.)
Ernest Marx brings out a mink, a very formal, classical coat, to hang on the shoulders of Gina Porten. "I'm not Nancy Reagan," she says. "But maybe in a few years." She sportier. Besides, she already owns a mink. Soon she's trying on an $18,000 lynx. "Take it off! Otherwise I won't like my tanuki any more." She looks sadly at the tanuki, as if it's a son and she's admitting to herself, after years of hope, that he'll never get into medical school.
She glides from coat to coat, mirror to mirror. "Thank God it's too big," she'll say. And then she looks at the tanuki again: "This is beginning to look shabby."
Meanwhile, the wife of the Englishman in the yellow sweater comes into the store. Ernest Marx, all cushioned grace with his glasses dangling from his hand, congratulates her on the son she's just had, nine pounds, one ounce, yes a big baby indeed, everyone agrees.
And then there is a moment that comes in the life of every furrier like Marx, when Mrs. Anthony Bamford, Staffordshire, United Kingdom, mother of a son and heir, looks across the salon at all the glitter and bristle and says, as Gina Porten, Potomac, Md., and a woman of fine instinct, knew she would: