London fashion model Pip Billington wears a 1970s mink coat by Calman Links retailing at £1,350

The end of the skin game

Are Carrie Symonds and Zac Goldsmith in cahoots to ban the retail fur trade?

Features

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


There are are credible reports that Carrie Symonds, Boris Johnson’s partner, and her friend Zac — now Lord — Goldsmith, his animal welfare minister, have been in cahoots to ban the retail fur trade, and seem to have gained the support of the prime minister. So it’s timely to record that it wasn’t hostility, however vociferous and sometimes vicious, and possibly now victorious, that killed off the ancient connection between Jews and the fur trade. These events just happened to coincide.

The story of the fur trade in the UK is barely known to the fellow Britons of the men, mostly Londoners, who have been its heart and soul for generations. They are mostly the descendents of Jews from all over continental Europe. The most colourful of them that I ever met, Jack Zwirn, made flying suits for the RAF in the Second World War, and later ran a succession of fashionable West End fur shops with, serially, his first, second and third wives, only one of them Jewish. He joked that at least he was a better class of Jew than those descended from Bessarabian horse thieves.

My flirtation with their product goes way back. As a boy in the early 1950s, I often read The Young Fur Traders: A Tale of the Far North (1856) by R. M. Ballantyne, who knew whereof he spoke. We had Davy Crockett hats, with a little tail, originally in raccoon. Ours were from Woolworth’s, and in rabbit (possibly from Jack, then “The King of the Rabbits”). A little later, I thrilled to the City and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), as it brought the far north to foggy London. Only when I got to the Arctic on a couple of visits (one sponsored by the fur trade) did I appreciate how rich that end of the fur story was. And I was nearly 70 before I got a picture of the mostly Jewish family fur businesses which once clustered round the HBC.

There are contested explanations for the attraction to so many continental Jews of the fur trade

In the 1950s the British fur trade was recovering from wartime exigencies. The process is demonstrated by two men of very different backgrounds. I wish I had bothered to meet them. The first, Arthur Frayling, born in 1910, joined “The Company” as a boy, as so many of its employees always had. He left for RAF service in the war, returned to the HBC, and in 1949 became the manager of its fur sales department and eventually chairman of the whole outfit. He went on to lead the International Fur Trade Federation (now the IFF) for more than 20 years, earning an OBE. The son of a regimental bandmaster, he married, in 1939, Barbara Imhof, from a German mechanical musical instrument family. They had two boys, both distinguished now: Nicholas, a clergyman, and Christopher, a leader in the arts.

Fur fashions of 1904

The second fur trade figure is Joseph “Joe” Links, born in 1904. His father, a Jewish refugee from Hungary, had founded a firm, Calman Links, working mostly with skunk skins. Joe took the firm upmarket, such that he held a Royal Warrant from our fur-loving monarch. Along the way, he co-wrote thrillers with Dennis Wheatley, and on his own account, a classic guide to Venice and another to Canaletto.

These two men energetically fulfilled large ambitions for the trade. They are also examples of a divide in it. In the countryside, people dealt with fur-bearing animals, and in the city auction houses, with the smelly “raw” skins delivered by the trappers and farmers. In the “upstream” areas there was little Jewish involvement. “Downstream”, it was a different story. It was mostly Jews who bought raw skins at auction, had them “ennobled” (as the German has it), or dressed and dyed (the more prosaic Anglophone version), and then traded them on to garment manufacturers, who sold their wares to retailers. In 1952, Joe Links wrote The Book of Fur (one of the few which tells this story). He remarks, “For some reason the fur trade has always attracted men of the Jewish faith to an entirely disproportionate extent. In every city of the world where there is a fur trade, it is predominately Jewish.”

Links then parenthetically says something I think is true but which I would be nervous to volunteer. “The Jews seem to have a curious inherited skill for measuring things of beauty in terms of trade which is seen by their presence in large numbers among the art dealers, antiques dealers and dealers in precious stones in London and other capitals.” He might have added that Jews have made great agents, promoters and producers for any sort of creative talent. And, of course, they have been astonishingly creative in their own right.

Until the birth of Israel, the push factors of the diaspora were often westward

There are very interesting and contested explanations for the attraction to so many continental Jews of the fur trade. It involved a great deal of deal-making. It also required capital. For centuries, and right until the decline of the last 20 years, the Jewish fur dealer was often selling his goods on credit and thus was a sort of banker. This was typically Jewish. In the 1960s the amiable Jewish landlord of my draughty attic flat in Islington was the area’s tallyman, providing HP for the unbankable.

It isn’t that Jews weren’t country people. Simon Schama came from a line of Lithuanian “wood-schleppers”, who were outdoors men for sure, felling forest trees, and hauling timber by sled and river. The timber would be traded downstream on the Baltic coast, “usually handled by other and grander Jewish timber companies”.

Schama’s picture would have been familiar to Edith Stein, philosopher, nun, and Shoah martyr, whose Jewish mother, a widow, ran a lumber company in what is now Wroclaw, and often took her children on summer picnics to meet her wood-schlepper suppliers. They might have made an image as romantic as Frances Anne Hopkins’s Voyageurs at Dawn (1871), a Canadian scene. (The artist’s husband, like Ballantyne, was an HBC employee but much more senior, and she was familiar with her painting’s riverside bivouacs from travels with him.)

Before he brought his family to Surbiton, to escape the Soviet Revolution, Isaiah Berlin’s father was about the grandest of Riga’s timber merchants and forest-owners. I am not sure that Berlin, the historian of liberalism’s descent into the draconian, would have been on the tolerant side of the fur argument. Schama, likewise. I suspect them of being Hampstead liberals at heart.

The vagaries of oppression — random, varied, but always a possibility — certainly made Jews sharp-witted as well as creative. They often travelled to trade, and maybe thought history showed that mobility was important to their tribe. The Jewish peddler was often an entrepreneurial, restless figure, as the Lehman brothers showed when they moved from cattle-dealing in Bavaria to peddling in the southern US and thence to industrial capitalism.

Until the birth of Israel, the push factors of the diaspora were often westward. There were pull factors, too. It was a feature of maturing industrial capitalism that what had been scattered Jewish trades, undertaken by lone or family operators in villages and market towns, became more urban. The fur trade’s centres became fewer and larger. I have recently recorded the reminiscences of a few of the last generation of London’s fur trade Jews (and one exceptional Armenian gentile member) and known something of a handful more. Their back-stories are often hazy before the mid- or early-nineteenth century. For several, the picture sharpens only when their forefathers arrived in Leipzig, many after a sojourn in pre-revolutionary Moscow.

Leipzig was a city with a long tradition of culture and commerce. The Brühl, a street and area which had been a Jewish centre from the eighteenth century, in the nineteenth became synonymous with the fur trade. Big businesses were built. There remained, however, important features of the trade, unchanged across hundreds of years of European experience. Everyone, from its top to bottom, handled skins.

Whether in their crude state, or ennobled, and whether sable or skunk, furs were, if not worshipped or loved, certainly appreciated. Learning how to grade skins was a standard initiation for the tyro-furrier, however lofty his background or ambition. Furs were like gold, always bankable; garments were far dicier, not least because they risked becoming “so last year” rather quickly.

Furs began to be farmed early in the twentieth century, and noxious treatment processes became less polluting, but no one has ever mechanised the manufacture of fur garments. The trade remained essentially artisanal even as its system of credit and trade became more sophisticated. It remained throughout a trade as clannish as gentlemanly capitalism: as with merchant banking, even the most buccaneering fur dealer knew his most important asset was trust, and his word, or nod or handshake, was a guarantee.

One Brühl family stands out as magnificent. Mary-Kay Wilmers followed some of the threads in her The Eitingons: A twentieth-century family (2009). The book, in part her own memoir, features Max, an associate of Freud, and Leonid, a Soviet agent. She is also an invaluable source on Motty Eitingon, born in 1885, the successor to a family-based fur empire which reached its dizzy apogee a generation before his own. Motty became the leading Eitingon in New York, increasingly London’s great rival in the fur world, at least in manufacturing, because of its huge retail market. He thrived not least because of his mysterious connections with the Soviet Union, whose leaders throughout tolerated and facilitated the fur trade, as a source of dollars.

Pioneer: Motty Eitingon as a young man

His charm and guile are seen most clearly in one of Wilmers’s references: Philip S. Foner’s The Fur and Leather Workers Union: A story of dramatic struggles and achievements (1950). Much of what one imagines of the Teamsters Union has its converse in Foner’s account of Ben Gold, an altruistic and well-paid New York fur-cutter who was determined that his union develop as democratic and socialist in the face of “right-wing” factions and bosses’ sometimes violent tactics. One of Gold’s allies during strikes in the mid-1920s was Motty, who was appreciated as a go-between the workers and the employers, however improbable.

In 1935, 19-year-old Jane Butzner gave, in Vogue, a rare, longish account of the New York fur trade, in the streets south of Manhattan’s garment district. She thrilled to the frenetic traffic of handcarts and racks (the latter flapped with garments or patterns). Even in the 1990s, when I visited briefly, there was an impressive buzz to the area, at once earnest and hilarious.

Butzner’s experiences surely informed her activism, featured in the 2018 hit TV show, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. She had married and as Jane Jacobs wrote her 1961 celebration of neighbourhood vitality, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The denizens of the Brühl, the City of London’s Garlick Hill, or lower Fitzrovia, would have recognised her depictions of New York’s fur trade.

In the 1930s the New York and especially the London fur trade were accommodating an influx of German Jewish refugees. At the beginning of 1940, the Economist reported that these émigrés had brought London a fur trade boom, and that imports of raw skins and exports of finished products had both risen markedly. It is quite likely that for the next 50 years or so, around half the world’s fur-dealing flowed through London.

That’s the Jewish trade that has died. In the UK, the modern fur trade is similarly largely import-for-export, but now it’s whole garments imported and in effect exported in the carrier bags of visiting overseas customers, with only the retail moment providing profits. There are enthusiastic domestic consumers, but theirs is a niche, and may become a samizdat, taste.

By the mid-1980s London’s fur trade began to feel beleaguered. The UK domestic market was thriving, but it was never large, and never the source of the trade’s real success, as the entrepôt for a globalised capitalist business which had, along the way, not yet become corporate. The retail fur trade was experiencing animal rights protests of an increasingly vicious kind, on its shop doorsteps, and worse, at home. The trade did not at first seek publicity for the worst offences, for fear of encouraging them. Besides, the press mostly thought any sort of protest represented free speech, a lazy riff which it has not yet quite outgrown.

The activists met their match in Frank Zilberkweit. His family had arrived in Garlick Hill in the mid-1930s, having lived and operated, in turn, in Lithuania, Moscow and Leipzig. Born and educated in London, this baby boomer made a large success of Polar Furs, his father’s London firm which young Frank (in the manner of Joe Links years before) had felt compelled to join. Aged 20, on his father’s early death, he took on much more responsibility within the business. His uncle was there to guide him, but was disabled and needed Frank to be his legman. The youngster did indeed become the pre-eminent London fur-dealer, but also invested in almost every sector of the fur trade. It was an exercise in vertical integration seldom undertaken.

Innovator: Frank Zilberkweit

By the mid-1970s Frank had developed a Hong Kong office which helped him understand what China was becoming: a manufacturing centre, an important retail customer, and eventually a world-beating force in every aspect of the trade. He had also become, like Arthur Frayling before him, a fur trade politician, anxious to see professionalism thrive alongside craft, canniness and chutzpah. He rose rapidly to be the main figure in the British Fur Trade Association, and nearly as important to the IFF (always and still based in England).

Responding to increasingly vicious and direct action protest, and also to rising City rents, in 1990 he and a small group of fur dealers organised a move out of Garlick Hill to an unglamorous, anonymous, but defensible office block with secure parking, in Archway. It was a sign of several changes that most of the trade’s fur-dealing family firms — their number had shrunk from the hundreds to around 30 — were able to make the move and create a new, unrivalled London centre.

This year marks the informal closure of the Jewish fur trade tradition in the UK

Retailers, and furriers in their homes, remained as open to attack as ever. Frank was determined to mount a legal defence and by good fortune met Janet George, redoubtable press officer of the British Field Sports Society (later, part of the Countryside Alliance). She put Frank on to a pugnacious solicitor-advocate, the late Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden, who had helped strengthen UK anti-stalking law. The Protection from Harassment Act, 1997, which TLC co-wrote, in effect gave the force of criminal law to injunctions which had previously been civil matters.

The burly, athletic TLC, a keen TA officer, horse-rider and committed Christian, thought of himself as a human rights lawyer, and saw the merit of framing laws which facilitated protest but kept it within bounds. Frank’s deployment of  TLC, and court actions, initiated a continuing process which made it a bit safer to be a furrier, animal researcher or defence contractor.

This year marks the informal closure of the Jewish fur trade tradition in the UK. The few remnants of the old firms are shutting their doors and selling off their stock. Not many went bust, and most retired with whatever pile their talents and luck had brought. Even if their old role had been available, there weren’t many sons and daughters willing to succeed their fathers. Few of the young are interested in their family’s trade traditions, and even fewer are excited by skins. Most had the background to be successful in the professions or the creative industries.

The bigger picture is that there is now no need for cash-rich middlemen of the kind who prospered for hundreds of years. Anyone who wants to buy fur skins can operate directly online. Besides, the Chinese can supply almost anything made with fur, and from their own resources.

Fur is part of the culture wars. Once loathed by socialists because of its expense, and then and still excoriated by animal rights activists, it is now under a more snowflake assault, influenced by vegan squeamishness. Opposing them is a “What the hell?” mentality characterised by Argentine-style on-the-bone restaurants. The fur trade is confident it can, like the best of the meat and dairy trades, give a robust account of itself. All three face similar provenance, welfare and transparency issues and opportunities.

There is a slim chance that liberal tolerance will see the merit in people being free to wear fur

Fur will still be prone to zeitgeist vagaries. For centuries, it was subject to sumptuary laws: wearing fur was not only a sign of wealth but of status. In the cinema and in Tatler, people saw glamorous furs. But in the “modom” shops on the High Street, not so much. And now of course, fur or its usurper, faux fur, mostly appear as ratty bits of goodness knows what on cheap-as-chips parkas, or as vintage “fun fur”.

Viewed properly, fur really shouldn’t be fake or fun. It shouldn’t be for the masses or the faint-hearted. It’s expensive, erotic, and fetishistic. Perhaps that is why black rappers are so good at wearing it. Likewise, Wild: Fashion Untamed, a 2004/5 Metropolitan Museum of Art show and attendant book revels in fashion’s uneasy, even shocking, game with what Walter Benjamin in 1928 called man’s “bestial relationship with animals”. That was what John Galliano, in charge of Dior, played to in 1999 when he showed a model topped by a rabbit and fox hat and stole, complete with heads. It was granny’s much mocked tippet, with knobs on.

There is a chance, a slim one, that liberal tolerance and rigour of analysis will see the merit in people being free to express themselves in their fur-wearing. Oddly though, now that it is major brands whose labels adorn most high-end fur, the trade is vulnerable everywhere. Corporations are often tender about their public image. They may sacrifice fur for the greater good of their empires.

Boris himself, and Dominic Cummings, are the real Tribunes of the People

Against that, maybe the success and fighting spirit of the Canada Goose brand is a sign of better things as it stresses ruggedness, glamour and sustainability. So too is the micro-entrepreneurship of some young designers and makers, producing refined fur garments.

Boris’s court is rich in ironies as it seeks virtue signals. The intemperate Carrie is the daughter of Matthew Symonds, one of the founders of the Independent, which promoted tolerant, rigorous liberalism. The strident Zac is the son of James Goldsmith, whose empire was partly built on the Marmite brand, now synonymous with ill-tempered argument. They ought to know how to weigh nuance against partisanship. But Boris himself, and Dominic Cummings, are the real Tribunes of the People. Calculating elite populists, they evoke Cicero’s old enemy Clodius.

The PM may well go for the fur ban, as Blair went for bans on fox-hunting and fur farming, and it will probably do as little real good. UK ban or no, the long-term acceptability of fur in its biggest markets is high on the agenda of bright people. Frank Zilberkweit, a link to the extinct émigré Jewish trade, and one of the IFF’s elder statesmen, is sure that the global fur trade now needs, and deserves, a fair hearing, here and everywhere else.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover