In the buying frenzy of the '80s, the fur industry enjoyed unprecedented growth, as sales increased steadily every year. But as the '80s wound down and consumers became more price-conscious, fur sales suffered severe blows.
Activists say the drop in sales is a result of a heightened awareness about animal rights that has severely damaged the industry's image and may have permanently reduced its customer base.
But furriers like Barry Mamot, senior vice president of 70-year-old Zinman Furs on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Pennsauken, say a drop in sales can be expected in a recession, especially in a luxury industry like fur where a single coat may cost several thousand dollars.
"I think the industry is as viable as it has always been," said Mamot. The decline in sales has more to do with the recession than with the protesters, he said. "We are more sensitive to the economy and weather" than to anti-fur protests.
Furriers maintain that the decline in sales is part of the same economic and warm-weather cycles the industry has withstood in the past. Two consecutive warm winters have hit the industry hard, they say.
An anti-fur group, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), "is trying to take credit for the drop, but it's an economic thing," said Bill Outlaw, a spokesman for the Fur Information Council of America. "We're facing the same problem other luxury industries are. There has been a decline, but it's on parallel with other luxury industries."
Outlaw said sales of fur, like other consumer items, increased in the '80s and declined when the recession took hold.
"We feel confident that when the economy gets moving, sales will increase," Outlaw said. "If the economy is healthy, fur sales will be fine."
But perhaps not as fine as they were in the past.
Some designers, such as Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani and Bill Blass, have announced they will no longer use furs. The anti-fur activists contend their well-publicized announcements have dimmed the glamour of furs.
"The number of fashion designers saying they will not use fur and the number of celebrities announcing that they will not wear fur indicate that fur is less of a mainstream status symbol," said Steven Simmons, a spokesman for PETA. Instead, wearing fur has become a "social liability," Simmons said.
Mamot acknowledges that furs have lost some luster. But he attributes the changed attitude to the recession, arguing that luxury cars have also lost some of their exclusivity.
Sales declines in the recent recession have appeared particularly pronounced because they followed the buying frenzy of the '80s, when fur became hugely popular. "You could walk into any clothing store and find fur," Mamot said.
Now, many of the more general retailers, like Macy's, have eliminated their fur salons, Mamot said, because they were supported by '80s consumerism that no longer exists.
There are "whole categories of people" who are potential luxury buyers who have been lost not just to the fur industry but to the real estate and jewelry industries as well, said Andre Ferber Jr., vice president of Jacques Ferber Furs in Philadelphia and Wilmington and a spokesman for the Delaware Valley Fur Association.
Furriers say activists - whom they label extremists - don't represent public opinion and should brace for a backlash. The activists are a small minority, and "most Americans don't agree with them," Ferber said.
Mamot said the backlash already had started. "We have very feisty customers who say, 'No one is going to tell me how to live,' " he said.
Activists, however, believe furriers are falsely optimistic. They "would like to think there is a backlash and create one," Simon said. "They are grasping for any sign of hope."
PETA collected 2,000 fur coats last year from people who vowed never to wear furs again, Simon said.
Furriers are making plans for a comeback, heavily promoting the quality and comfort of fur.
"There is nothing warmer on God's earth than fur," Mamot said. "It is the first outer clothing men knew. There is no fringe element that is going to eliminate it."