We in Britain have long been much more squeamish about fur than other Europeans. I still well remember the snide comments I would get even in the 1980s when my German mother would collect me from my London school in the fur coats she insisted on wearing. The ocelot number especially raised eyebrows.
The UK’s domestic retail market for fur has always been small. Britain’s half–dozen fur farms were closed when Tony Blair’s government legislated to ban them in 2000. As it was, British manufacturing could never compete with Italy on quality, or with Hong Kong, and then China itself, on price. But the wholesale trade has been a very different matter.
For much of the second half of the 20th century, Garlick Hill in the City of London was the global centre for the fur wholesale trade. Around half the world’s skins went through London. Fur was traditionally a Jewish industry and until the 1930s Leipzig in Germany was the global centre of the trade, with fur traders moving there to escape the anti-Semitism of the Russian empire.
In the late 1930s, fur-trading families moved from Germany to London and New York. Traders bought raw skins at auction, dressed and dyed them and then sold them on to those manufacturing fur coats around the world.
By the late 1980s, the number of fur traders in London had declined to around 30. In the 1990s, they moved to an anonymous, secure office block in Archway to hide from the animal rights militants.
The British wholesale trade is now in steep, probably terminal decline. The government’s Animals Abroad Bill, which will soon ban the fur trade — alongside the importation of foie gras, shark fin and hunting trophies from around 7,000 species — may well kill it off completely.
So what is left of the UK fur trade? Yves Salomon — still a family-owned furrier, initially set up in France in the 1920s by a Jewish emigré from Russia — is the largest player. It sells its coats in Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Harrods even has a separate concession for children: Yves Salomon Enfant. A bluey-grey number speckled with white clouds retails for £1,075.
Until the pandemic, Harrods was one of the largest European retailers of fur in terms of the value of goods sold. Most customers however are not British; foreign visitors come to London, buy a fur coat manufactured in France or Italy and then take it out of the country again.
The fur trade is not about to stop, despite the government’s best efforts. It will merely move on to other European cities, as it always does.
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