- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

“Think Restyle” blazed across a poster in a window at Gartenhaus in Chevy Chase not long ago.

The retailer, whose primary business is selling new fur apparel, was advertising a service many consumers don’t know exists.

In addition to cleaning, repairing and storing precious furs, a number of local specialty retailers and department stores can take old styles and create up-to-date looks: completely remodeling a family heirloom by turning a coat into a jacket, for instance, or making plush pillows for the home.

If sales of new fur styles don’t tempt a customer in the off-season, the possibility of remodeling old ones might. It’s easy on the conscience, too, because salvaging the wearables is akin to recycling.

Such a conversion depends entirely on the condition of the fur. Old, worn skins aren’t good candidates for a makeover. Master furrier Cynthia Parks has to be as much diplomat as stylist when it comes to explaining the possibilities to Gartenhaus customers hoping to keep vintage goods in fashion with an upgrade.

Darlene Coles Boyd was one of the lucky ones when she came to Ms. Parks for help last month. She wanted to rework a decades-old full-length ranch mink, a Christmas present from her father to her mother, “so it wouldn’t look so out of date.” She also wanted it longer — as well as sportier — because she is 6 feet tall without shoes.

Among other matters, the job would involve adding pelts to make a yoke (thus lowering the hem), adding cuffs, changing the shawl collar to a wing collar, and reducing the swing profile to a more boxy, modern look.

“And make a belt, if possible,” Ms. Boyd asked.

“In Washington, furs always are necessary and popular because of the nature of the beast,” Ms. Boyd says. The beast, she explains, is the nature of her work and friendships. She is affiliated with a Montgomery County health program and has “a lot of friends in politics” who invite her to “a lot of galas.”

Appraised at $15,000, the original coat would undergo drastic surgery priced between $2,200 and $3,000 — but with the added pelts, its value would increase enough to cover the cost. The finished version would resemble a new coat while retaining the sentiment of the old: Ms. Boyd wanted her mother’s monogram label to be sewn inside.

The coat had to be taken apart so pieces could be attached to what is called a nailboard for Ms. Parks to begin work. First, she created a pattern out of brown paper upon which to lay the fur pieces. The pattern also was used to make a new lining, which Ms. Boyd tried on before the work started.

The range of techniques at a master furrier’s command involves such ordinary utensils as a fur knife, which resembles a carpet cutter, and a staple gun. Special sewing machines are used because fur has a completely different texture from fabric. A lot of choices on how to proceed depend on the nature of the fur itself, including the gender of the animal: Pelts from females are narrower; males’ pelts are heavier.

Lois Seamons of Friendship Heights, another longtime Gartenhaus client, wanted to know if a long-haired beaver bomber jacket from the 1980s could be reshaped. Ms. Parks suggested turning it into a vest, cautioning, “If you are not a vest person, forget it.”

On a previous visit, Mrs. Seamons had brought in a dated mink coat to be downsized and refitted. Now, she says, she plans to shop for a tweed jacket and use extra mink taken off the coat hem to make cuffs on the new jacket.

Another project under way in Gartenhaus’ downstairs workroom was the conversion of a collared tourmaline mink stole bought at Garfinkels, a well-regarded but now defunct Washington department store, into a 20-inch-square pillow that was to be a present for the grandson of the original owner. The grandson “loved to pet the stole” when he was a child, Ms. Parks was told, and his mother, who inherited the coat, didn’t like fur. So it became a gift for the grandson, complete with his grandmother’s original monogram sewn on the pillow.

Sometimes, the store gets requests to line raincoats, especially trench coats, with old fur. Less often, customers ask to have handbags, clutch bags and blankets made out of fur coats.

The most difficult challenge, Ms. Parks says, is working with lighter shades of fur that more easily show new seams. The easiest fur to work with, she notes, is Persian lamb “because it has curls; you don’t have to worry about hair length.” Fox hair is difficult “because the fur flies around.” Mink is durable and has the advantage of not shedding, she says.

Both Neiman Marcus and Saks Jandel restyle old furs to a greater or lesser degree. At the former’s Mazza Gallerie store, the most frequent request is taking out old shoulder pads because the store doesn’t do major makeovers in-house. Saks Jandel has a master furrier in-house, although some of the work, such as fulfilling a request to shear down a mink coat, is done in New York.

During warm-weather months, Miller’s Furs in Chevy Chase, which also employs a master furrier, offers a 20 percent discount on restyling, according to sales associate Victor Tebeka. Popular requests, he reports, are lining a raincoat with fur, changing shoulders to a narrower size and shortening a full-length model to three-quarter length.

Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Fur Information Council of America, says no statistics exist to chart the popularity of restyling old furs, but he confirms the trend “anecdotally,” noting the number of interior designers using fur.

“It’s everything from the expected throws and pillows to full seat coverings, furniture and accessories, even carpets,” he says.

Calling fur “the ultimate luxury fabric,” he predicts that “as people spend more on their home environment, they will indulge themselves more.” Young people especially, he says, “look at fur as a fashion item,” which helps drive the trend. Where boomers are concerned, he notes, “a girl inherits her grandmother’s coat and wants to keep it as a reminder. But it can’t be remade because it is so old, so the next best thing is a pillow.”

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