Montreal furriers still practising trade amid changing times

MONTREAL - As Sarkis Ajamian carefully slices the head off a silver fox pelt - being sure to not cut any of the silky grey hair - he's participating in an increasingly rare Canadian tradition.

See Full Article

Ajamian is a third-generation furrier and one of the dwindling number of people left in Montreal who specialize in transforming animal pelts into fur coats.

The process is labour-intensive, with much of it still done by hand using methods that have remained largely unchanged since Ajamian's grandfather launched the family business in Armenia in 1890.

"A real furrier knows how to put the skins together so everything looks exact, because you're bringing in something from nature," says Ajamian, 59.

But although many techniques remain the same, Montreal's fur industry has changed profoundly since Ajamian entered the business 25 years ago.

Today he is one of only a few dozen furriers left in a city once called the "fur capital of North America," where foreign buyers flocked to buy pelts at auction and small companies galore occupied the downtown fur district.

Montreal, the historic hub of Canada's fur trade, benefited from waves of immigration that attracted skilled furriers to the city in the first half of the 20th century.

By the boom period of the 1970s and '80s, there were about 200 fur manufacturing and supply companies in Montreal, according to Alan Herscovici, executive vice-president of the Fur Council of Canada.

Today, he estimates only 40 remain, with few furriers like Ajamian still practising the old skills.

In the workshop above his store, Ajamian works with a pelt, cutting it into long strips which he sews together by machine.

He and his workers will shape and cut the fur blocks using a pattern, sew it together and send it elsewhere to be cleaned in large drums of sawdust and chemicals.

The finishing is done in shop, with details such as pockets sewed by hand.

Completed products are sold in the store below under the watchful eye of Ajamian's sister, Jacqueline.

At one time, the business paid well, but nowadays Ajamian says he can't get a bank loan because "they tell me I'm working in a dead industry."

He makes do with less tangible rewards: doing what he likes and having his work appreciated as art.

The fur industry's decline began at the end of the 1980s and was caused by a trifecta of factors: a plummeting stock market, the gradual shift of manufacturing to China and the rise of the animal-rights movement.

Advertising campaigns that painted the industry as blood-soaked triggered a public backlash against fur, resulting in sinking sales.

By 1992, the price of a mink pelt had dropped to US$20 from $50 in the late 1980s.

It would stay low for the next 10 years until demand from Russia and China began to push prices upward again, to a new historic high of more than $100 two years ago.

The industry that emerged from the downturn was a changed one, according to Herscovici.

Heavy fur coats were being replaced by lighter, more affordable pieces, and new designers were experimenting with techniques.

Ajamian changed too, carving out a new niche as a "recycling" specialist who restyles decades-old coats.

He points to a beaver fur coat, now unrecognizable after being dyed, sheared and given a new lining to make it reversible.

"I gave a new life to this coat for another 30 years and once 1/8 the owner 3/8 is done she can give it to her daughter or her granddaughter and they can change it and wear it for another 30 years," he said.

Although fur auction prices are down again, Herscovici says that in terms of fashion, fur is coming back on top.

It appeared in more than 70 per cent of designer collections last year, creating an opening for a new generation of Montreal designers, including many who have no family connections to the fur trade.

They include Rim and Rita Elias, sisters in their 20s who are finding success with a line of versatile fur pieces such as vests, purses and fur-trimmed leather jackets designed to cross over from workplace to evening wear.

In the 18 months since launching Elama furs, they have gained some high-profile celebrity clients, including Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban, and sold enough to quit their corporate day jobs.

Rim Elias, 29, says she and her sibling fell in love with the softness, durability and luxurious feel of fur despite having no family connection to the fur trade.

"It's really out of a passion and interest for this material that we're in this industry today," she said.

Herscovici sees designers like them as a sign of renewal in the industry.

"There's a huge opportunity for different designers right now," he said. "I think we're on the cusp of a very different fur trade now."



Advertisements

Latest Economic News

  • Notley: Keystone XL doesn't lessen need for Energy East, Trans Mountain

    Economic CTV News
    CALGARY -- Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says U.S. approval of the Keystone XL pipeline does not lessen the need for two other controversial proposals within Canada's borders. U.S. President Donald Trump announced the green light for the line more than eight years after Calgary-based TransCanada first applied for a cross-border permit. Source
  • Trump's Keystone XL decision sets up new fight in Nebraska

    Economic CTV News
    LINCOLN, Neb. -- U.S. President Donald Trump may have approved a federal permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, but the fight is far from over in Nebraska, the one state in its path that has yet to approve the project. Source
  • Toronto stock index extends rally, Wall Street mixed after 'Trumpcare' pulled

    Economic CBC News
    Specialist Stephen Naughton, left, and trader Michael Milano work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday. North American equity markets finished mixed on Friday after U.S. Republicans withdrew their bill to overhaul Obamacare. Source
  • PepsiCo, Wal-Mart, Starbucks join YouTube ad boycott in U.S.

    Economic CTV News
    SAN FRANCISCO -- An advertising boycott of YouTube is broadening in a sign that big companies doubt Google's ability to prevent marketing campaigns from appearing alongside repugnant videos. PepsiCo, Wal-Mart Stores and Starbucks on Friday confirmed that they have also suspended their advertising on YouTube after the Wall Street Journal found Google's automated programs placed their brands on five videos containing racist content. Source
  • Debate renewed over economic benefits of Keystone XL pipeline

    Economic CTV News
    U.S. President Donald Trump is calling his administration's approval of the Keystone XL pipeline a new era for American energy policy. As expected, the State Department reversed a decision by the Obama administration and favoured energy development over environmentalists' objections to the pipeline, which will carry thick Canadian crude oil to Nebraska, where it can flow on to refineries along the Gulf Coast. Source
  • BRP could move Mexican production if NAFTA changes too onerous, says CEO

    Economic CTV News
    MONTREAL -- The company that makes Ski-Doos, Sea-Doos and Spyder vehicles says it could move production from Mexico if NAFTA changes result in hefty border taxes, but BRP chief executive Jose Boisjoli is hoping "common sense" will prevail during upcoming negotiations. Source
  • FCA to wind down transport operations in Windsor

    Economic CBC News
    Nearly 300 jobs could be eliminated at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles as the automaker winds down its FCA Transport operations in Windsor. "Retirement packages will be offered to eligible employees at the Windsor Assembly Plant, which includes FCA Transport," said a company spokesperson in a statement. Source
  • Dakota Access pipeline builder, U.S. government want lake crossing upheld

    Economic CBC News
    The company building the $3.8 billion US Dakota Access oil pipeline and the Army Corps of Engineers want a judge to reject a request by American Indian tribes to revoke permission for the project to cross a Missouri River reservoir in North Dakota. Source
  • Ontario premier discusses trade issues with auto industry leaders

    Economic CTV News
    TORONTO -- U.S. political leaders are showing a better-than-expected understanding of how important trade with Canada is to the health of the American auto sector, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said Friday. Wynne, who met with several auto industry leaders in Toronto, said her government has been lobbying U.S. Source
  • Wynne: Ontario auto sector concerned about U.S. trade

    Economic CBC News
    Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says leaders of the province's auto sector have told her trade with the U.S. is their top concern. Wynne, who met with several industry leaders in Toronto on Friday, says her government has been lobbying U.S. Source