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Martha's mug warms the hearts of furriers

March 15, 2004|GERALDINE BAUM

Martha Stewart may be a felon, but in what's left of this city's long-suffering Fur District, she was a hero. By early last week, furrier Larry Cowit had heard from not one but two customers who "had to have" that luxe scarf Stewart was wearing after she got the bad news.

Was that chinchilla or rex rabbit framing Martha's sober mug splashed all over television?

"There's a silver lining in every bit of bad news," said Cowit, chuckling.

Martha's lining, it turns out, was dyed chinchilla, and the silver will be going to Cowit and his brother, Steve, the third generation to run Henry Cowit Inc., on West 29th Street.

After two dreadful decades -- years of watching their friends go bust or retire to Florida -- the furriers in this two-block quarter of Manhattan are happy to revel in a few good turns of events: Finally, last year, national retail sales in fur bounced back to 1984's $1.8-billion high. Finally, winter back East is bitter again. Finally, the paint throwers with ethical objections to wearing anything that once had a mother are widening their scope to target animal-research labs, taking heat off furriers.

And most important, finally, the fur is, yes, flying again on the runways. From Paris to New York this spring, designers who could barely afford to put on shows were trimming their fall suits to sports clothes in dyed everything -- rabbit, lamb, pony and, of course, chinchilla.

So guys like Larry and Steve Cowit can maybe take it easier this summer. And play a little golf. "You always gotta worry because we may be looking at 60-degree Januarys again or the economy could go south," cautions Steve, 48. He's the older brother, the expert "matcher" who spends his days in the shop wearing a blue apron and combing clear liquids (peroxide, but don't tell) on a new pelt to age it to repair a sleeve on an old coat.

Larry is the salesman. He's the charmer who tours customers through the un-chic retail showroom, crammed with 2,000 new and used -- rather "pre-owned" -- coats. Larry is the more buoyant brother, but even Steve can't suppress a smile these days: "We're not as reliant as we used to be on the weather or just one type of customer," Steve says. "Fur is everywhere, and the business is totally changed."

The business, the neighborhood -- nothing is as it was when the Cowit brothers started putting on aprons and sales pitches in the 1970s or for that matter when their grandfather Henry started the firm in 1935 and father Jerry took it over in 1955.

Showing me around the Fur District last week, Larry kept hoping to spot a messenger shoving a coat rack along the sidewalk. During the golden years, the streets were jammed with these runners and with cutters and sewers, wearing aprons hazy with fur bits and discussing union business in Yiddish on their way to lunch at Hershey's dairy restaurant.

You could also rely on ladies from Long Island scurrying in packs on Seventh Avenue either to pick up their coats from cold storage or pick out a new black mink that would serve as a reward for a lifetime of marriage.

New York is blanketed by two- and three-block districts devoted to one trade, whether it's toys or cameras, musical instruments or things Brazilian or Korean. They expand as the businesses find an audience. In the case of fur and other textile and clothing manufacturing, it virtually has disappeared as jobs have gone overseas.

"Every building, every loft, every office along here was about fur," says Larry, describing the district at its height from 26th to 30th streets between 6th and 9th avenues. And everyone specialized. There were manufactures, retailers, wholesalers, skin traders, designers, guys who knew only fox or lamb, or how to make scarves or lengthen minis to maxis. The Cowits competed with no fewer than 60 "matchers" remodeling and repairing.

Now, Steve is about the only fur matcher in Manhattan and Hershey's is closed and the fur union long ago merged with the meatpackers, and the businesses, mostly retailers, that remain are as Greek as they once were Jewish. Last week the only person we spotted in a street-sweeping fur was a man wearing a gray mink whose fashion sense seemed more P. Diddy than Joan Collins.

Manufacturers either went out of business when competition with Hong Kong became too stiff or closed their factories and opened retail shops downstairs in their buildings' moving storefronts. From 1979 to 1989, the city's manufacturers fell from 800 to 300. Now the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't keep that statistic. But the worst were the wounds inflicted on furriers by the animal-rights group PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which managed for at least a decade to inhibit some shoppers' tastes.

Super models began declaring they'd rather go naked than wear fur, and a long list of nervous designers, who didn't want PETA splashing paint on their office door logos, dropped their fur licensing agreements.

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