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The Last Furriers


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Still from unreleased film courtesy Ann Manov.

One of Werner Herzog’s lesser films is about fur trappers in Siberia: big men who sled for eleven months of the year in pursuit of sables, the small and silky martens that live east of the Urals, burrowing in riverbanks and dense woods, emerging at dusk and at dawn. Russian sable—barguzin—is one of the most expensive furs in the world. The trappers make their skis by bending birch with their own hands, the same way trappers have for a thousand years. They see their wives for only a few weeks a year. They seem to have no inner life, neither anxieties nor aspirations: no relationships besides those with their dogs, no goals beyond survival. “They live off the land and are self-reliant, truly free,” Herzog tells us: “No rules, no taxes, no government, no laws, no bureaucracy, no phones, no radio, equipped only with their individual values and standard of conduct.” The film is called Happy People.

***

There was a year in which I tried very hard to make a film about the decline of the fur industry in New York City and Connecticut, and all I ended up with was a fox’s foot, a holographic poster for vodka, and a hard drive full of footage that, had I ever finished the film, would have been strung together as an incoherent montage of fragmented memories.

I remember eating General Tso’s chicken and drinking sugary deli coffee while people paid in thousand-dollar rolls of bills and tipped in edibles. I remember watching a woman get fitted for a blue leather catsuit, and the way she laughed into three mirrors when the tailor told her to unhook her bra and bend over. I remember a Greek furrier with slicked-back hair and a camouflage bandanna who shooed a family out, shouting, “I don’t want your money!” He told me they were “Gypsies.” I remember asking a sweet salesgirl with plump hands about parties where people wore two or three furs and tried to sell them through the night.

I remember sitting in what seemed like a storage unit out on a weedy section of Connecticut Route 10, amid unused pizza boxes and a jukebox and blow-up guitars and ten thousand holographic posters of a tiger. The owner was an attorney of uncertain penchants: “In Boston, some Italians got me into garbage law,” he kept telling me. He was trying to get out from pizza and out from music and out from law and into vodka. He looked panicked and vaguely taxidermic. When I asked why he didn’t want to be a furrier, he said he didn’t want to be like his father in any respect.

I remember Fred, out near New London, a town of salt-whipped, faded Victorians that in its whaling days was the richest in America. Women kept coming in with their dead mothers’ coats and being told they were worthless. Fred told me that even if fur were to become popular again, there was simply no one left who knew how to sew it. I remember two Greek brothers in New Britain who’d grown up in a dirt-poor tobacco village. After years of struggle, they’d bought a store with a cherry-red, mid-century marquee, a store that now had trash piled up in front of a sign that read “95 Years! Sorry We’re Closed—Forever!” In an online “Immigrants Hall of Fame” entry, one brother had written about how he had “achieved the American dream as a business owner.” He now worked at a Jos. A. Bank in the Boston suburbs. A little badge on his LinkedIn profile photo read #opentowork. When I asked the other brother about the decline of the fur industry, he looked away and said, “It hurts. It hurts!” When I asked him about my generation, he said, “Good luck!”

I remember a bald Greek man in Adidas track pants with big, naked-looking eyes, like a deepwater creature, who hobbled on his cane. In the dark of the fur freezer, with minks and sables and leopards all around us, a column of light scattered on his round face, he told me that one must learn how to make fur, how to sew for that many hours, as a small, small child because, “After seven, it is difficult to sit in a chair.”

And I remember, now, Pascal’s pensée: “All of man’s misery derives from a single thing: his inability to sit alone in a room.”

***

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Still from unreleased film courtesy Ann Manov.

***

Until a few years ago, the only person I’d ever known who wore fur was a French professor I’d had in college, a woman who showed up to a three-student seminar on surrealism in a dim room in the math building wearing stiletto boots and carrying a Coach handbag and saying that she’d just gotten back from Paris. She chain-smoked Parliaments and put heavy cream in her coffee, and she had red hair and a figure like a woman in a fifties movie who’s going to do something terrible. When the weather hit fifty, she donned a honey-colored mink that went down to her feet, which were always in heels. Everyone in Gainesville, Florida, a town nick-named “the swamp,” swarming with sorority girls and gargantuan flies, seemed utterly perplexed by her. She tended to see men who were two decades younger and owned boats. She was the first adult I’d met who seemed happy to be alive.

During my second year at Yale Law School, two men I had loved in improbable ways died within a week of each other, and I fell sick for two weeks. By the time I emerged, all the leaves had shed from the elm outside my window and the sky was as pale and chill as steel. I bought a $120 mink coat from an eBay seller in Texas. I had gotten through my first two winters in a cold climate with a cheap puffer from a portfolio company of the Authentic Brands Group, but the pocket lining had worn through and I’d lost my keys while riding my bike, and I hated the suffocating feeling of it, the rigidness of the synthetic shell. But while I’d imagined, I guess, that I’d look whimsical and charming in a cropped, dark brown fur, I looked ridiculous with its large shoulder pads, and generally conspicuous amid Yale’s sea of North Face and Canada Goose.

When I looked up where I could get the shoulder pads removed, I was surprised to find that there was a furrier on my block, between the liquor store and the all-natural bakery. It was called Joseph’s Furs of Distinction, and when I called the next morning, a man with a deep voice grunted to come at one o’clock. When I hit the buzzer, a burly man named Tom came to the front. No one else was there, and it didn’t look like anyone had done anything there in a long time.

Tom knew a lot about the coat—he knew that it was prewar, because of the big, square label sewn in the lining; he knew it was from Maine; he knew it was made from female minks—and he refused to take out the shoulder pads. I stood in front of the full-length mirror with him behind me, feeling pathetic. “The whole form will collapse,” he kept saying. “No.” Improbably, an old woman came in and asked, whispering, if he had seal hats. “No,” he bellowed back at her: “No seal, no polecat, no ocelot”—he’d had to dump it all with the “new laws.” I asked him what it was like being a furrier, and he said it was terrible at parties, because of PETA. On the wall was a huge poster of van Gogh’s painting At Eternity’s Gate, the one of the old man crying into his hands.

Tom was kind of scary, but I liked him. He had nothing of the servile, doglike happiness people in service jobs are often required to display, nor the “imposter syndrome” deservedly haunting my peers. Unlike me, he had never had to type into a resume “Skills: Microsoft Office Suite.” He had never had to have a practice interview or go to a career-planning session on how to leverage an unpaid internship. He had never had to question anything, really: he—like most furriers, I imagined—had been born knowing how he would end up, the way a fledgling doesn’t agonize over flying.

So I liked that my fur coat—and Tom, I guess—seemed like a part of the past: a relic of a disappeared world of luxury. In the life I’d soon be graduating into, there were no more three-martini lunches; there was Barry’s Bootcamp—as the refrain went at Yale Law, “It’s a pie-eating contest where the reward is more pie.” The average weekly hours requirement at a corporate law firm is 53 percent higher than what the American Bar Association, in 1962, considered the possible human limit of work. My peers were not, as in the old images of Yale, men in seersucker smoking cigars while the world burned. They were sycophantic. They were box-tickers. They were terrified.

***

Almost a year later, six months into COVID, having quarantined in New York with a boyfriend almost entirely ground down by his corporate law job, and just beginning my own last year at law school, I was afraid that my life was about to end. I impulsively signed up for a film workshop. For my project, I had to choose a “local topic.” I chose furriers.

I found it surprising that furriers still existed at all in New Haven, much less New York, a preposterously high-rent city largely colonized by multinational brands catering to the professional class’s homogenized bohèmitude (Madewell), virtue signaling (Patagonia), and all-abnegating health culture (Lululemon). The fur industry is still really in the hands of tiny business owners, mostly old Greek guys who marry one another’s sisters and are constantly smoking cigarettes on 30th Street and come into work when they want to and have customers whose grandmothers their grandfathers dressed. Even the factory that makes Thom Browne’s and Marc Jacobs’s and The Row’s furs—where they have photos of Mary-Kate Olsen on the wall (“I love her because”—sotto voce—“she doesn’t give a fuck”) is just a couple seamsters with garlic hanging above their sewing machines for good luck.

Though it had been blocked by an unlikely coalition of Black preachers and Hasidic Jews, and then held up by COVID, it seemed inevitable that a fur ban would eventually pass in New York City. On the poorly buffering government stream, I’d watched the seven-hour-long City Council hearing on the ban, during which at least one elderly furrier broke down in tears. The councilman who’d proposed the law, a man who spent much of the hearing sipping water from a Mason jar, was, somehow, the representative of the Fur District. I asked one furrier how that was possible, and he told me that the point was to drive the furriers out of business, raze the buildings—with their annoyingly low rents and their obsolete architecture of storage-factory-showroom stories—and replace them with towering, glassy Jenga sets of Chelsea condos. Fur itself would be replaced with faux fur: a petroleum product that pollutes rivers in China, is sold by gigantic fast-fashion conglomerates, and is thrown out after a season.

When I explained my film to acquaintances who wore understated leather accessories and ate meat without compunction, they were outraged: fur was animal cruelty!

***

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Still from unreleased film courtesy Ann Manov.

***

Unfortunately, I kept wanting the furriers to be something they weren’t. I wanted them to talk to me with compound adjectives about the mystery of the past and the misery of the present; I wanted them to be like a Sebald narrator, like the orphaned first children of “History.” I was grasping at straws. I filmed a gray-haired man in his smock flipping a board of skins, then a burly one in a wifebeater tossing fox skins into piles, his hair stark and thick against his wrists and sternum. When I forgot to hit record, I made one shop owner repeat to me that these were dark black minks, these were medium blacks, and these were light blacks. I couldn’t see the difference.

But really, nothing about furs was quite as impossible as I wanted it to be: I probably could have seen the difference between those furs if I had bothered to shine a flashlight on them. I remember asking one furrier whether it took a long time to stretch the skins before nailing them: “Nah, like a minute.” Well, I asked, how long did it take to make a coat—weeks? “A couple of days. Maybe two.”

The interviews mostly followed the same line: a recitation of filial pieties (“My grandfather was a very honorable man”); the catalogue of types of fur (“Fox is more for taller women”; “Beaver is very warm”; “Sable is the height of luxury!”); the decline since the eighties (“It’s not what it used to be!”). I wanted them to dissertate on the extinction of magic in the crucible of modernization, but what I got were just small-business owners frustrated that they didn’t have employer-provided health care who liked sports and checked their iPhones while I pulled focus. There was one who had gone to law school, and another who had gone to engineering school, before coming back to fur—but their only explanations were: “It’s nice to make a customer smile!”

The only furriers who seemed to think of the film as anything other than the school project of a college kid wanted it to be an infomercial. I was disappointed when a guy with a Long Island accent and a gas-blue suit showed me around, instead of his cousin who spoke bad English and dressed like a hunter, but of course they wanted to look nice on camera. I liked that few furriers used social media, or advertised at all, but everyone wanted me to help them make an Instagram account.

The primary concern of most of my interviewees was that their children be set up well, and since all of those children had left the moribund fur trade to become lawyers or businessmen or doctors or pharmacists, they were, of course, quite pleased.

In a sense, I was disappointed to find out that everyone was fine.

***

After an eight-hour day spent doing interviews at the fur shops, I’d come home to the sterile, ice-white one-bedroom apartment where I lived with a boyfriend who spent seventy hours a week at his AllModern desk with three monitors. He didn’t want children, and enjoyed reading the weekly Times real estate feature The Hunt. So, while my boyfriend worked, I’d stay up all night, blowing off my job and editing my film.

But despite all the B-roll of coats and rabbit-fur kittens and marked-up mannequins that looked like maps of military campaigns, despite the hours and hours of interviews, I was having difficulty piecing everything together. Secretly, I was somewhat disappointed the fur ban hadn’t passed: it meant that I didn’t have a “narrative.” Lying on my stomach on the rug, below the gray AllModern couch that was slightly too shallow to lean on and the AllModern coffee table, I realized that the true story of my film was much more banal than any post–Frankfurt School thesis on the homogenization and loss of mystique in post-Fordist America. The truth, a truth I quailed at as I attended my friends’ weddings, as job interviewers espoused their family-friendly work-life balances, was that I didn’t want to be a furrier. I just didn’t want to be myself.

I thought with sadness of one furrier’s daughter, in her visor and turquoise polo in a lonely senior-condo recreation center, and of her brother, lost in a wasteland of cons and schemes. I didn’t really care how many hours the son said it took to pull the thread out of Persian lamb, or how, the daughter said, those tall, slender ladies, as her father measured them, liked to bend over and kiss his bald head. I was concerned by the eerie unspoken question of why neither of them seemed to know a single person in the world, of the sense that these listless and unsatisfied people, full of recrimination and half-formed regret, truly existed only in a past recalled in improbable and disconnected detail. They were the end of the line.

I thought of another scene, at a fur factory in Astoria. I’d been there for hours, but it was a fruitless day of filming. I’d seen everything already: I knew how fur storage worked, I knew how to make a coat, I knew everyone was Greek and everything was ending. But I didn’t want to go home. The furrier insisted on buying me lunch. As I ate the Caesar salad and Diet Coke he had ordered for me (confidently and without asking), sitting at an aluminum table near a Thom Browne bomber, he started to proselytize on three interrelated topics: the beauty of the Orthodox Church, the importance of family, and when I mumbled something defensive, that if my boyfriend didn’t want to give me children, I needed to leave him.

As I cut away the footage that bored me, there was almost nothing about the fur industry left: just a hoarse-voiced man recounting meeting his wife at a Greek dance in Astoria (“She asked her friend, ‘Who’s the blond?’ And that was that”), grinning as the sun began to fade. A loud, red-nosed man, spilling out of his straining jeans, asked me whether I had children; then, suddenly quiet, he whispered “You’ll be fine … You’ll be fine.” A man so hairless and pale, so shrunken by age that he seemed almost mummified, gasped at me: “Are you marry?”

In that moment, I was shooting the Byzantine icon above his sewing machine: Saints Constantine and Helena, on either side of the True Cross, three golden halos radiating against a greenish sky. I didn’t know what the icon depicted, though; for the furrier, it was a sacred image, one he likely kissed in reverence, but for me it was a mere prop, along with the greasy, flimsy lamp, the rounded steel of the scissors, the half-faded pencil of the order cards. But because I was filming the icon—wrists shaking slightly— you can’t see him in the shot: only two stumpy legs in Adidas, in the corner of the frame, frail arms gripping the sides of his chair, his cane to one side. And because I was intent on filming the icon, and because I was ashamed, you can hear no response from me.

“Oh!” he wailed, after my silence, as if in pain. And he offered to make me a beautiful coat for my wedding.

 

Ann Manov is a writer living in New York.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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