For many women, a family hand-me-down fur is the most valuable item in the closet, yet it never sees the light of day.
Often they’re floor-length and heavy, or boxy and unflattering. Maybe simply the wrong size.
But with the right help and careful consideration, a vintage mink, fox or chinchilla can be transformed into not only a once-a-year-wear-to-the-opera coat, but something that’s a wardrobe staple.
The fur industry, which reached $1.2 billion in U.S. sales in 2012, is aiming to make fur more appealing to younger generations by creating more streamlined, tailored pieces that look nothing like grandma’s bathrobe-length longhair coats.
Susan Hagy spends her days overseeing fur transformations at Douglas & Montaldo’s Furs on Park Road in Charlotte.
“We call it the ‘chop shop,’ ” says Hagy, laughing.
The most-common fixes
Hagy says customers are often shocked when they realize how many ways they can alter their fur.
Some women, especially those in their 20s and 30s, approach Hagy holding their hand-me-down coat at arm’s length away from their bodies, unsure if they want to keep it or sell it to the store.
Hagy has them play dress-up with the other coats around the shop to get a sense of their fashion tastes, lifestyle and vision for where they’d wear a fur coat.
For instance, a floor-length mink coat can be transformed into a shorter jacket, with the leftover fur being used for a vest or scarf. A fur cape can be made into a vest lined with silk or cashmere.
Even a fur that’s rotten in spots can be taken apart, mixed with fur in a contrasting color or a rich cashmere fabric and remade into a coat or vest.
One easy way to modernize a coat, Hagy says, is to shear the hair on the fur. Shearing makes the coat less bulky and formal, leaving it more velvety and casual.
One of the most common remakes at the store is to turn a traditional fur coat into what Hagy calls a “Charlotte” – a reversible coat with fur on one side and a water-resistant taffeta trimmed in fur on the other side.
Fur alterations typically take two to six weeks, depending on the extent of the work, and require a specialized sewing machine that creates miniscule side-to-side stitches. Douglas & Montaldo’s employs three furriers who create patterns and cut and sew the fur, as well as four “finishers” who sew in linings and closures. (The company wouldn’t give a price range for alterations.)
Alter or sell?
Deciding whether to alter or sell a fur coat (many fur sellers will buy used coats to resell or chop up to create new ones) can take some thought.
First, the condition of the coat will determine what’s possible. Any portion that is dry rotted will be unusable.
Most coats that come in for alteration are in usable condition, says Douglas & Montaldo’s owner, Gregory Albert. The areas that are exposed to the most body heat, such as under the arms and the back of the neck, are often the most damaged. (Fur experts recommend having furs cleaned and conditioned once a year and stored in a climate-controlled environment.)
Next, consider where the coat will be worn.
“Shearing it makes it less pretentious,” Hagy says, so shearing is recommended as part of a more casual wardrobe, as well as shortening a full-length coat into a short jacket or a “stroller,” a fingertip-length jacket.
In Charlotte’s mild climate, many women opt for fur vests they can dress up with dresses or dress down with jeans.
For some women, radically changing an inherited coat can be stressful.
When Susan Caldwell’s mom died last September, she struggled with what to do with her mother’s floor-length crystal fox coat and mink stole.
Her mom had brought the two furs with her when she moved to Charlotte from New York 35 years ago, and while they were beautiful, Caldwell didn’t see herself wearing a floor-length fur around Charlotte.
“I looked like a moose in it,” she said.
Her mom had the coats stored at Douglas & Montaldo’s Furs, so Caldwell consulted with Hagy on the makeovers. The full-length fox coat was shortened to knee length and sheared for a slimmer, more modern look. The remaining fur from the bottom of the coat was used to make a vest and to trim a new cashmere cape.
The mink stole was turned into a coat for Caldwell’s maltipoo, Cindilu. “My mom always said to get the baby (Cindylu) a mink coat made,” Caldwell said.
Deciding to make such radical transformations was tough at first, but Caldwell is glad she did.
“I thought I was taking a lot of the memories away,” Caldwell said, “but I think she (mom) would be really happy to see it.”
Even Hagy found herself putting off altering a fur stole she inherited from her husband’s grandmother. She had fond memories of Carolyn Law, whom she affectionately called “Rab,” and although she knew she wouldn’t wear the stole in its original condition, she paused at the idea of cutting it up.
Last fall, she had the stole transformed into a lush brown vest with the three monograms belonging to her, her mother-in-law and Rab’s sewn inside. When she walked into her mother-in-law’s house at Thanksgiving, she held her breath to see what the extended family would think.
They loved it. Hagy was relieved.
A vest for a new generation.
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