For the past decade, Yves Salomon has been thriving. The family-owned French luxury brand, which was founded as a furrier in 1920, successfully reinvented itself for a new generation, with trendy fox-trimmed parka jackets and utilitarian-style mink-lined coats. In 2016, the brand did $50 million in sales for the first time, helping to fuel an ambitious international expansion plan. In 2019, revenue reached $60 million.
But the company’s success was based on shifting foundations. Despite the strength of the Yves Salomon brand, the broader fur market was in free fall as a cocktail of overproduction, slowing demand in the core Chinese market and a cultural backlash — driven by a powerful anti-fur movement online — moved a number of major luxury players to ban the material. Over the last few years, brands including Gucci, Prada and Burberry all promised to stop using fur.
The market’s value was estimated at $22 billion in 2019, down a whopping 45 percent from $40 billion in 2015, according to the International Fur Federation (IFF), a trade group.
Then the pandemic hit, bringing lockdowns, travel bans and a Covid-19 outbreak on mink farms. A government-ordered mink cull in Denmark functionally ended the country’s mink-fur farming industry. Animal rights activists pounced, ramping up lobbying efforts to outlaw the industry, while governments clamped down on fur production.
Today, fur makes up only 30 percent of the Yves Salomon business. It also sells cashmere, shearling and leather pieces. Knitwear collections and a digital pivot have helped insulate the company from some of the pressures of the pandemic, said chief executive Yves Salomon. But for others in the fur industry, 2020 was one of the most challenging times they have ever faced.
“Last year was the toughest year that I have ever known,” said Mark Oaten, chief executive of IFF. “The dynamics of the industry have shifted hugely.”
A Tipping Point
The crisis certainly had the potential to serve as a tipping point for an industry already in decline.
Last year’s nationwide mink cull in Denmark decimated the world’s highest-calibre market and wiped out hundreds of businesses that took decades to build. As a result, Kopenhagen Fur, the largest fur auction house in the world that operates as a cooperative run by Danish fur farmers, is preparing to shut down by 2023.
It’s the end of the fur farming industry in Denmark as we know it.
Before the pandemic, the auction house sold 40 percent of the world’s mink pelts, alongside other skins like chinchilla and fox, and owned 60 percent of the market, according to the company. It still has about 10 billion Danish krone ($1.62 billion) worth of pelts to sell, said Kopenhagen Fur chief executive Jesper Lauge Christensen. But after these are sold, it will start liquidating the business.
“In Denmark it has been a terrible year,” Christensen said. “It’s the end of the fur farming industry in Denmark as we know it.”
Euromonitor International estimates the global production of fur and fur products (including faux fur) declined 2.6 percent last year. In Western Europe, the decline was 13.3 percent.
“The integrity of the product supply chain has now become a public health matter and a moral issue, which makes the future of the fur industry very uncertain,” said Irina Ivanilova, luxury and fashion consultant at Euromonitor International.
All Is Not Lost
And yet, despite the turbulence, fur sellers are positive about the outlook for 2021. The broader luxury market has bounced back much faster than expected, with demand in China and South Korea — key markets for fur consumption — booming. A cold winter has helped, fur sellers say. Meanwhile, fur prices have risen for the first time in years, and the fur industry is also close to a new vaccine to protect mink from the coronavirus, said Oaten.
Fur has to be a luxury product and not a mass-production product.
Survivors in the industry and luxury players see an opportunity in the market squeeze. At a December auction, Saga Furs saw fur prices increase around 40 percent, said Charles Ross, business manager at the auction house.
Meanwhile, the shortage is not necessarily a bad thing for brands either, Salomon said.
“To have mink restoring its luxury status is quite good news for our brand and for all the luxury brands,” he said, condemning the rise of cheap and low-quality fur from markets like China. “Fur has to be a luxury product and not a mass-production product.”
Does Fur Have a Future?
The political pressures that were threatening the fur trade pre-pandemic still remain. If anything, the Covid-19 mink crisis has given a new zeal to lobbyists and regulators wanting to outlaw fur production and sales. The Netherlands moved up its plan to phase out mink farming from 2024 to March this year. Meanwhile, Israel moved to ban fur sales, the first country to do so. The UK is said to be exploring a similar ban.
“I think the writing on the wall is: this is the end of the fur trade as we know it,” said PJ Smith, fashion policy director for The Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights group. “These farms are always going to be reservoirs for the virus...not just for COVID-19, but for future pandemics.”
The impact of the sudden collapse of the Danish market also has long-term implications. The country was the world’s biggest producer of mink and held a reputation for producing pelts unrivalled in their quality. Industry veterans hope other countries, like the US, Canada, Finland and China, can move in and fill the production void left by the end of the Danish farming industry, providing further regulations are not introduced.
For some brands that use mink, higher prices and shorter supplies will mean finding alternatives. High-end leisurewear label Izaak Azanei, which uses fur to trim its cashmere sweaters and merino wool joggers, already uses mink sparingly as it is expensive, said co-founder Deeya Khemlani. (The brand tries to keep prices for its sweaters under £450, or about $600 at current exchange.)
“No doubt the price of mink will surge,” she said. “This will surely make it difficult for us to use it in our next collections if we want to meet our price points.”
Yet, in fur’s biggest market, fur clothing manufacturers are betting appetite for their products remain stable. Chinese manufacturer sales of fur apparel and clothing accessories are expected to rebound to the pre-pandemic level of $8.5 billion this year, after a 1.7 percent decline in 2020, according to Euromonitor. In the US, manufacturer sales are expected to hit the much smaller figure of $428 million — a return to 2018 levels after a 5.4 percent decline last year from $442 million in 2019.
Khemlani said Izaak Azanei hasn’t received any order cancellations over the pandemic from its main wholesale accounts, including Harrods, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Joyce Hong Kong.
“At a time where a lot of retailers are cutting back on emerging designers, this fact goes to show that the demand is still there for fur-related products,” she said.
Additional reporting by MC Nanda.