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The Secret Fur Business - Los Angeles Downtown News - For Everything Downtown L.A.!: News

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The Secret Fur Business

Unbeknownst to Many, Seventh Street’s Collection Building Holds a Bustling Batch of Furriers

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Posted: Friday, November 20, 2009 12:00 am

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - If your 1-year-old just has to have that pink mink coat for her birthday, or if you’ve been going crazy trying to figure out where to get the best deal on a custom-made rabbit scarf and fox earmuffs, don’t worry — the answer is in Downtown Los Angeles. In the center of the Jewelry District, to be exact.

Although the neighborhood is known for its thousands of businesses that buy, sell and manufacture diamonds, gold and other bling, the area also houses a curious concentration of fur retailers.

The Collection Building, at 527 W. Seventh St., is home to a small group of fur wholesalers and manufacturers who have called the neighborhood home for more than 50 years. Although their numbers are dwindling, they continue to stick together.

“We may be competing against each other, but it helps to have a central place where we can all do business,” said Daniel Wachtenheim, owner of Wachtenheim Furs Inc.

Wachtenheim is one of seven furriers in the 13-floor building. While it may not seem like a high concentration compared to the surrounding swarm of jewelers, the Collection Building is the center of the fur business in Los Angeles. It also houses some of the region’s most experienced furriers.

The Downtown furriers sell at wholesale prices but are open to the public. They sell ready-made garments and also design and manufacture custom pieces such as coats, scarves, hats and even slippers. They restyle old fur garments, clean furs and can turn old furs into new items such as pillows and rugs.

“It’s a full service center for anything related to furs,” said Judy Moss, owner of Los Angeles Fur Center, which has been in business since 1982. “We do a lot of custom work. That’s the specialty here and it’s done in the building.”

One of a Kind

In the Los Angeles fur industry, the Collection Building is unique, said Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Fur Information Council of America.

“It’s always been the case in major cities that there have tended to be small fur districts,” said Kaplan. “But there is not another building like the Collection that houses so many.”

In the already unique Collection Building, one figure truly stands out: 94-year-old Alex Meshekow. The owner of Meshekow Bros. Wholesale Manufacturing Furriers is a grandfatherly presence in the building and a walking history lesson.

“Things aren’t like they used to be in the fur business, but I still do it because I love it,” Meshekow said.

Like the other furriers in the building, Meshekow, who started his fur company with his brother in 1937 at the age of 22, spent most of his career headquartered at a building at 635 S. Hill St., which is now the Wholesale Jewelry Exchange building.

For decades much of the city’s fur industry was headquartered there, Meshekow remembered as he flipped through an old photo album. He stopped at one picture he recalled being taken at a party for furriers at the Biltmore Hotel in the 1940s. He said there were more than 100 furriers in the area at the time.

“Those were great days for fur,” he said.

By around 1990, the number of fur retailers at the Hill Street building had dwindled to about 30, said Moss. Many went out of business when manufacturing was outsourced to cheaper locations like China. A 1991 building renovation that added a sprinkler system drove the rest out when, Moss said, the landlord would not rebuild the large vaults necessary to store their furs.

“They didn’t think they would get too many more fur retailers in there and building vaults for the jewelers was much easier,” said Moss.

So seven of the remaining furriers decided to stick together in Downtown and moved into the Collection Building in 1991. Moss said that although they are competitors, they also offer complementary specialties.

While high-end retailers or department stores can offer a more luxurious environment, at the Collection Building, it’s all about business.

The lobby is small and somewhat uninviting, with a few display windows showing old ads for some of the retailers. A loud bell sounds when the elevator button is pressed, and as the door opens visitors are likely to see Nigerian-born Yomi Vincent, who has operated the elevator in the building for six years.

“It can get really busy here sometimes. People know this is where to come to get furs,” Vincent said as he directed the elevator to the seventh floor, where the majority of the fur retailers are located.

The lobby at Wachtenheim Furs, which has been in business since 1955, contains furs from mink, lynx and fox. Some are raw skins ready to be customized into just about any garment a client wants. Coats, scarves and fur-lined jackets also hang in the lobby. Hundreds of other furs are in the vault.

“Prices can vary from things like a $25 scarf to thousands for a coat,” Wachtenheim said. “We also take old furs and make them like new.”

His customers, Wachtenheim said, span the age spectrum — don’t expect only dowdy elderly ladies looking for something to wear to the opera. “We get everybody, people of all ages. Furs are still very popular,” he said.

While the recession has impacted the fur business, the industry has seen a steady resurgence since the 1990s, Kaplan said, with national sales in 2008 reaching $1.3 billion.

Teamwork

Moss, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Downtown, began as a designer creating fur accessories for about 40 furriers before opening her own shop.

Hundreds of hats, scarves and other garments crowd her small space. Black and white glamour shots of young women wearing fur hats and coats adorn her walls.

“These were taken recently,” she said.

Moss’ most unlikely current project is a pink mink coat and hat for a 1-year-old’s birthday. The custom order is an example of the teamwork that takes place in the building.

While Moss took the order from the customer and designed the $1,800 coat, she gave the pattern to Peter Nyrintzas, owner of Panos Fur Couture, who will stretch the skins, cut them to fit the pattern and sew the skins together. It will go to another furrier for “finishing,” which means building up the garment around the neckline, hemline and pockets and installing the inner lining.

“We work a lot closer than most people think,” Moss said.

While they can still make a living with furs, the group may soon get smaller. Many of the furriers are in their 60s and nearing retirement, so for some, their future in the Collection Building is short. They think it is unlikely they will be replaced by a new fur shop.

“I hang on because I love the business, but when I’m done that’ll be it,” Meshekow said. “I’ll be closing for good.”

Contact Richard Guzmán at richard@downtownnews.com.

page 1, 11/23/2009

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