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Precious Pelts: Detroit's Infatuation with Fur

A fur coat is the very definition of elegance, an accomplishment, a showstopper, an heirloom. What is it about furs that enchants us?

Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

As a family gathering entered its deceleration phase a couple years back, my great-aunt quietly pulled me away from the foil-wrapped paper plates and into her impressive walk-in. "I wanted you to have this," she said as she presented me with a garment bag, and immediately I noticed the Neiman Marcus monogram stamped in gold. This was going to be good. She unzipped the bag to reveal a full-length mostly black fox fur coat, the shoulders and trim a sandy brown. I slipped it on over whatever unworthy smock I happened to be wearing that day and stared at myself in the mirror, my jaw competing with the hem of the coat in a race to the floor. I'd never worn anything so regal, with its full shoulders and shining pelts. I felt honored that she'd think me deserving of such a stunning piece and to be ushered into a very particular culture. Blame it on the brutal winters or all the black folk flair, but fur in Detroit, specifically black Detroit, is a thing – a major one.

'Fur Town'

"Detroit is a fur town. When it comes to the top fur towns, it's New York, Chicago and Detroit," says Jason Dittrich, vice president of Dittrich Furs and great-great-grandson of founder Emil Dittrich, who started the business in 1893. It's Detroit's oldest privately-held company – "We would hold the title for the state, but there's a survey company in Troy that's like a year or two older." – and one of but a couple go-to spots in the city for quality fur coats. CEO Hal Dittrich, Jason's father, says, "My grandfather had a list that I kept – I don't even know where it is anymore. There was at one point 185 furriers in Detroit in his lifetime."

Jason and Hal say Detroit is unique in that, unlike other cities with seasons, fur sales here ebb and flow with the snowfall, not necessarily with the temperature. "I'll never forget, one day we got like 9 inches of snow. We had one of the best days ever. It was just unbelievable," Hal says. "We were considering closing down the store because everything was shut down," Jason adds. "We only had four employees here to start, and we were like, 'No one's gonna be coming in today. Well we're already here, let's stick around for an hour.' And then customers just started flooding in."

Retired anesthesiologist, former state representative and Dittrich customer Dr. Jimmy Womack says, "I think it's a fur town because, in my opinion, we have a large African-American population, and because we're so influenced by social media and what we see, the athletes, the entertainers. And you know, Detroit has (had) that illicit culture for a long time." Womack owns several furs, and if you were to add in the ones belonging to his late wife Sophie, it's closer to a couple dozen. She gifted him with his first, a full-length cappuccino-colored mink about 25 years ago. "I wore it, and it was a little awkward at first," he says. It was the extravagance and his idea of the type of men who wore fur coats that initially gave him pause. The stereotype, of course, goes: entertainers, athletes, preachers and drug dealers. An exaggeration, sure, but like most stereotypes, not entirely without merit.

"Aretha Franklin has sat right where you're sitting right now," Silver Fox Furs vice president Richard Welch says when we speak. "Aretha was a unique customer. She was the queen and she always let you know she was the queen, and you did not call her 'Aretha,' you called her 'Ms. Franklin.'" Welch also names Magic Johnson, and Detroit Lions' Jerry Ball and Barry Sanders as customers. "Athletes are funny, too. They all want to be stroked. You've got to stroke 'em but not like you're a fan, because then they don't respect you." On the walls of the small Detroit shop hangs a photo of Martha Jean the Queen and one with Welch and former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Ironically, Welch says, Tamara Greene was also a patron. You'll remember Greene, aka "Strawberry," was the stripper who was rumored to have danced for Kilpatrick at the infamously alleged Manoogian Mansion party in 2002, and was found murdered several months later. And about the "uncertified pharmacists," as Welch calls the city's high-level drug dealers, he says, "I've had them all." 

A Prized Piece

Womack says, "People wouldn't think that a physician would have a (fur) coat on, but if you go to a black-tie affair, you will see physicians with the full-length coats on." It used to be that if he were walking through the airport wearing one of his furs, he'd be regularly stopped by people who'd ask things like, "What do you do?" and "Should I know who you are?" He says, "I literally feel empowered when I wear fur coats. I feel like people think I've done something that's successful. It's the perception of money and power." René Thomas, Detroiter and founder of the health and wellness coaching brand Ageless Beauty, says, "I feel luxurious, I feel confident. I just really feel pulled together, it's just a great feeling. I just love when I put that coat on, it doesn't matter what you have on underneath it."

Thomas bought her first fur coat as a teenager, when she was working as a fine jewelry salesperson. "I worked with a lot of Jewish women, and that was the tradition that they did, they just bought furs. I didn't really have a model because my mom had died young and I was this 18-year-old working with these seasoned sales people, and I just watched them and whatever they did, I did it. They bought a fur, I bought a fur. They took a vacation, I took a vacation." She says she was enraptured from that point on. "I continued to buy furs, and I received a couple furs as gifts. But I told women who would say to me, 'You know, I want a fur, but I've got to wait until I get married,' or, 'My boyfriend says he's gonna buy a fur when we become husband and wife.' And I would say, 'You have a job, you work, you don't have to wait until somebody buys you a fur. How else will he know what you like if you're not modeling what you like?' You have to model what you like in life."

Jason at Dittrich says, for many customers, buying that first fur is very much a pivotal moment and a marker of accomplishment. He says, "We get lots of women come in and they're like, 'I've worked hard my whole life, I finally got to this point. I've had kids, I've gone to college, and it's finally time to treat myself. I'm getting a fur.' That's one of the best scenarios." When you buy a fur, it's a commitment, and it precedes check out and extends beyond it. Welch at Silver Fox says, "A fur is going to be the most expensive piece in your wardrobe. So, when you shop for it, you want to make sure it's the one you want, because when you make a decision, you've got to live with it. I've had people come in for a couple weeks. We're going to go through everything. We're taking everything out. We're going to try everything on you. "

It's recommended that you cold store your coat during the warmer months or when not in regular use. Dittrich houses six vaults at its Detroit location. "We have a huge capacity here. We can store 24,000 coats here at any given time," Jason says. "We keep them at 34 degrees, which costs us a fortune," Hal says. If you do choose to store at home, they warn emphatically against ever freezing your coat, despite what cousin so-and-so may suggest. "If you freeze it and thaw it, it breaks down the leather molecularly. You want to get them as close to freezing as possible without actually freezing it." He adds, "You've got to remember, it's a biological product. The same reason we're refrigerating it is the same reason you put your food in the fridge." They also encourage regular cleanings to remove the dirt and oil that can build on the coat from the environment and from the leather lining.

Moral Dilemma

As splendid as the finished product may be, there's an elephant in the room, or rather a fox in a cage. We can't talk about fur without addressing the ethical concerns. Animal rights advocates and groups oppose the use of fur. If you can stomach it, scroll the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals website and you'll find descriptions and videos of animals being kept in horrific conditions, tortured and, in some cases, skinned alive and otherwise killed inhumanely during the fur-making process. Hal and Jason claim that such videos are staged and manufactured by PETA. "That's not the way it's done. It can't be done because those wouldn't produce pelts that would be usable in a fur coat," Jason says. A common argument of pro-fur advocates is that the fur is biodegradable compared to faux fur products. "They did some studies, and they buried a fur coat and they buried a fake fur," Hal, a member of the Fur Information Council of America, says. "After a year, the fur coat was crumbling underground and the faux fur coat – aside from being dirty – was perfect." PETA refutes this, claiming that after the raw pelts are processed and treated with preservatives, they're no longer biodegradable.

Womack says, once, he was leaving the Ren Cen with Sophie, wearing one of his furs when he encountered a man with a can of spray paint. As they walked toward him, Womack says the guy yelled, "Keep on coming, I got you!" Can at the ready. "I was strapped. I opened up (the coat) and I said, 'And I got you.' He walked away and called the police, and they came but I had a permit." Thomas had a similar experience while in New York. She was stepping off a tour bus when suddenly her date rushed her across the street; Thomas was wearing a fur and they were heading right into a crowd of protestors. "He's like, 'They will throw paint on your fur.' I said, 'Nobody's going to throw paint on my fur.'" She says, "I mean I love animals, I do. I happen to eat meat, and I happen to wear leather shoes and I like leather bags. My thing is: pick your poison."

I've yet to wear the fur that my aunt passed on to me, not for concerns of morality but of instead modernity. It's beautiful and it's elegant, but it's not exactly fresh and cool, two things I'd fancy myself. Not to mention, it's formal, and I haven't been invited to any balls as of late. Young people are wearing furs, but we're seeing a move away from special-occasion coats toward more everyday options, which look like shorter hemlines, bolder colors and lighter weights. I wonder if she'd mind if I cut it short, nip it in at the waist and see if there's a way to curtail some of the bulk for an easier feel. That way, I can still carry along her sophistication and energy, but whisk in a little me. 

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