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

  • Real estate reality check: CBC's Marketplace consumer cheat sheet

    Economic CBC News
    Miss something this week? Here's the consumer news you need to know from CBC's Marketplace. Get this in your inbox every Friday. Sign up here. House cooling Time for some cold water on that hot southern Ontario real estate market? Here's how the province is proposing to rein in the madness. Source
  • Birthing April the Giraffe becomes cash cow for tiny U.S. zoo

    Economic CTV News
    April the giraffe has become a cash cow for a tiny zoo in rural upstate New York, thanks to a livestream of her pregnancy and birth that has enthralled viewers around the world. Owners of the Animal Adventure Park won't say exactly how much they've pulled in from all the April-related ventures, but marketing experts who specialize in viral internet campaigns conservatively estimate the haul in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Source
  • Despite special regulations, edible entrepreneurs hope to take bite of Canada's marijuana market

    Economic CBC News
    Amid all the uncertainty about the federal government's ?plans to legalize marijuana by mid-2018, a culinary mystery stands out: How will marijuana-infused food products, commonly called "edibles," fit into the legal regime? Ottawa has signalled that regulations governing the sales of edibles won't be ready by the time recreational marijuana becomes legal. Source
  • 'Vital for tenants' or 'textbook' bad policy: How rent control works in NYC

    Economic CBC News
    Before Ontario's provincial government announced its plans to expand rent control, some economists were already sounding alarm bells about imposing the controversial policy. In response to some Toronto tenants who say their rents have doubled, the government on Thursday unveiled its Fair Housing Plan. Source
  • What we can learn from New York's rent control regime

    Economic CBC News
    Before Ontario's provincial government announced its plans to expand rent control, some economists were already sounding alarm bells about imposing the controversial policy. In response to some Toronto tenants who say their rents have doubled, the government on Thursday unveiled its Fair Housing Plan. Source
  • Despite special regulations, entrepreneurs hope to take bite of Canada's marijuana edibles market

    Economic CBC News
    Amid all the uncertainty about the federal government's ?plans to legalize marijuana by mid-2018, a culinary mystery stands out: How will marijuana-infused food products, commonly called "edibles," fit into the legal regime? Ottawa has signalled that regulations governing the sales of edibles won't be ready by the time recreational marijuana becomes legal. Source
  • Canada's central banker on Ontario housing move: 'I'm happy'

    Economic CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- Measures to cool the housing market in the Greater Toronto Area have received a warm response from Canada's central banker, who said Saturday it should have some effect on runaway housing prices. "I'm happy there are measures," Stephen Poloz, the governor of the Bank of Canada, told reporters during financial meetings in Washington. Source
  • Opening shot coming this week in fifth softwood lumber war between Canada-U.S.

    Economic CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- The opening shot in a fifth softwood-lumber war between the United States and Canada is expected this week, and policy-makers north of the border are preparing to calculate the potential damage of American duties. Source
  • Global finance leaders grapple with globalization fears

    Economic CTV News
    From left, German Federal Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schauble, Zhou Xiaochuan, Governor of the People's Bank of China, Chinese Finance Minister Xiao Jie and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde gather for the Family Photo during the G20 at the 2017 World Bank Group Spring Meetings in Washington, Friday, April 21, 2017. Source
  • LinkedIn for farmers aims to remedy labour shortage

    Economic CTV News
    If you know how to tag and process cattle or drive a “semi to haul silage,” or need to hire someone who does, this new website could be for you. WorkHorsehub.ca is a farmer-designed online hub aimed at connecting agriculture workers with jobs in the industry. Source