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FASHION : Fur Wearers Are Few, Far Between in Ventura County : Shift in public sentiment has made what was once the ultimate high-fashion statement nearly a rarity.

March 03, 1994|KATHLEEN WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is a story about an endangered species.

Once common in these parts, the fur wearer appears to be dying out, or possibly migrating to the East Coast, where they are known to be indigenous.

We tracked them carefully this season; but sightings were rare. Fur coat owners in Ventura County seem shy and hard to flush out. We decided they had moved on to better territory--unless, of course, they are hibernating.

It's not that we didn't explore likely habitats. We checked out what were once prime mink venues, keeping a low profile, ready to spring should one stroll within interviewing distance. But, there was little action.

For instance, on probably the coldest evening of winter, we were at a sizable church in Newbury Park. There may have been 300 congregants attending Mass, all wearing sweaters, sweat shirts, gabardines, parkas or Windbreakers. No fur. Not so much as a tail on a collar.

And on a blustery afternoon, we were at a gallery opening at Carnegie Museum in Oxnard. Same thing; not a fur in sight.

We spoke with a thirtysomething professional woman in Ventura, who asked that her name not appear in this space. She admitted to having brought a mink jacket with her upon relocating from the East.

"I won't wear fur here--no way. It's too scary," she said, "People might hate me."

Upon arrival, her mink was denned, so to speak. She sold it this winter to a man from somewhere else who promptly hustled it across the state line to present to his wife.

It got us to thinking. We figured if there was fur out there, it might gather at Leisure Village in Camarillo, where traditions count. We spoke to Shirley Kordell, president of Brandeis University National Women's Committee, Ventura chapter.

There are a lot of furs among the residents, she said, but she hasn't seen one in a long while. They are all kept in closets, not worn.

"It's because of the public sentiment; and I agree with the sentiment," she said, "They shouldn't be killing those animals for their furs."

Daunted, we checked with Sandy Bardos of Port Hueneme, for many years a fashion consultant.

"I can't think of anyone who has one," she said. "The people who are hip are not doing it. Fur is ostentatious; it makes a statement--people have stopped wanting to make that statement. It's the same thing as ivory. It makes us think of a healthier planet."

Still on the trail, we reconnoitered at a Brahms-Dvorak gig at the Ventura Symphony--the perfect lure.

Pay dirt! Fur wearers broke cover as curtain time neared, traveling mostly in pairs, or accompanied by cloth-covered male escorts. We counted four jackets, two stoles and one bold, blond coat. The wearers were stately, silver-haired types, easily overtaken.

Two of them spoke with us, anonymously. They had bought their minks many years ago, out of state, they said. One explained it was her first public venture in the coat in a while; it is usually reserved for private parties. The other woman said she was new in town--and clearly thought California reporters were nuts.

These sorties left us wondering: Who buys the coats at the one remaining fur salon in the county--Bullock's of Thousand Oaks?

A spokesman for the store, without being asked, said that fur is a "renewable product that doesn't pollute or cause any environmental damage--such as fake furs do," adding that 90% of Bullock's furs are ranched, not trapped.

Asked how sales are going, he assured us that the salon is still successful. Sales figures are not yet in for 1993, but he thinks they are up. Like fur sales nationally, they dropped for three years, then increased 10% in 1992.

He declined to compare the Thousand Oaks store's receipts with other Bullock's salons, saying this is one of their smaller outlets.

The most popular furs in the store are mink and fox, he told us, and most purchases are of casual, reversible jackets, which have lambskin on the reverse.

Wait a minute--it was starting to come together. Here was the explanation we were looking for. Fur fanciers have found a way to indulge while being socially correct. They are buying furs, and wearing them inside out!

That's it, we decided. Throughout the county, they go about their routines in ho-hum leather; then, when they travel to the frozen north, or wherever, they're ready to flaunt mink.

It's a cinch. One heads out to Oxnard Airport wrapped in lambskin, climbs aboard a plane, and waves farewell to one's unsuspecting friends.

Once alone, it's the old Clark Kent maneuver. The traveler heads to the restroom, and, voila! Moments later, out comes sleek mink, its rich folds rippling with each stride up the aisle.

Of course, she runs the risk of confrontation by her seatmate-- unless that person, too, has a costume change under wraps.

And why not? Privacy in winter garments is only to be expected. It's a sign of the '90s--furtive fur.

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