Thu Jan 29 2009
In 1887, the Manufacturing Furriers’ Association of New York held its first annual banquet; the main topic of conversation was about furriers taking a more active role in New York politics. Between courses, General James R. O’Beirne was met with laughter when he said, “If we ever have women’s suffrage, the men who sell sealskin sacks and coats will have control of the votes.”
These days, New York furriers are no longer plotting to fill city offices. In fact, the dying industry has been almost entirely outsourced to foreign factories. Irving Feller, who has operated the same fur business in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for the last 56 years, is one of the last New York masters of fur. “There are no young people that know, or try to know, what I know,” Feller says. “It’s sad: We lost an industry.”
Feller, who was born in Astoria, Queens, inherited the fur business from his uncle, who set up shop after emigrating from the Ukraine. (A fur repair shop has stood in this location since 1916, though the Fellers can’t lay claim to it for quite that long.) The walls of his shop’s cluttered front room are covered in spray-painted squiggles and feature eclectic decorations that hint at his life’s adventures. Upon listening to his tales of serving in World War II as a painter of posters warning soldiers about venereal disease, attending art school in Paris, and driving his Chevy to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to trade furs with Native Americans for jewelry, you start to make sense of his shop’s treasure trove of bizarre objects—stuffed deer heads, feather headdresses, large abstract paintings and furs. But these things aren’t there out of nostalgia; everything you see in the shop is for sale, including Feller’s colorful paintings (part Russian Constructivist, part Kandinsky) and the large selection of turquoise jewelry he’s amassed.
Over the years, Feller has worked with every kind of fur, from Russian sable to raccoon. He has fixed fox stoles for Upper East Siders and seen fur so rotted inside that he had to refuse the commission. These days, as Greenpoint is becoming overrun with hipsters, he has a lot more young ladies coming into the shop. “But they don’t know anything about fur,” he says, “and if they bring you a fur, it’s usually the cheapest fur on the market—rabbit! Years ago, your grandmother knew more about fur—good fur—than you.” How times have changed.
Manhattan Furrier, 685 Manhattan Ave between Nassau and Norman Aves, Greenpoint, Brooklyn (718-383-2920)