Danish mink industry toasts a Chinese chill
While much of European industry is flatlining or worse, Denmark's mink industry is enjoying a bumper year, as fur is back in vogue and extreme weather in China and Russia is giving an extra boost to the business.
Denmark, home to the world's biggest fur auction house, Kopenhagen Fur, produces about a quarter of the world's mink, and is struggling to keep up with demand from a fast-growing Chinese middle class. Mink now accounts for a third of Danish exports to China.
Kopenhagen Fur opens its doors five times a year, selling skins worth more than 130 million euros in five days, about 1,500 euros per second.
Last week's auction, the first of the season's five, drew record turnout of 500 bidders for the pelts, 85 percent of which were knocked down to Chinese buyers.
"As it looks now, we expect the 2012/2013 season to see record high prices and volume," Kopenhagen Fur's managing director Torben Nielsen said after the December auction.
The auction saw the average price per mink skin rise 12 percent to 582 Danish crowns ($100) compared with the previous auction in September, the highest price the house has ever recorded.
"Fur is so visibly in the high street fashion today. It is overwhelming," Nielsen said. "And we were blessed with wonderful weather ahead of the auction."
For wonderful weather, read unusually cold winters in Russia and China; at the start of November, Moscow witnessed the heaviest November snow in about 50 years, and Beijing residents had to dress for the coldest week in 14 years at the start of December.
"A good winter helps significantly. It is a bit silly to put a fur coat under the Christmas tree in 20 degrees," Nielsen said.
Jens Christensen, of 142-year-old fur maker and fashion house Birger Christensen, said the company briefly felt the chill of the financial crisis in 2008 but is aiming for record turnover this year, exceeding the 117 million crowns achieved in 2007.
"If today's trend continue, we will exceed that level this year," he said.
"My feeling is that the most expensive items go first," he said. "Consumers today will rather buy one very nice item than three to four mediocre items."
Birger Christensen furs start at $3,400, and its top offering, a coat made from 65 Russian sable, a brown-furred marten, commands a price tag of $262,000.
Christensen, who is managing director and the fourth generation to run the family business, sells about two of the top-end coats a year and will typically deliver them himself, along with a pattern cutter and designer to handle any final adjustments.
The making of a luxury fur coat starts with farmers like Knud Vest, who produces about 20,000 mink skins a year at his farm 30 kilometres west of Copenhagen.
Each of the farm's 13,000 cages, arranged in up to 60 metre long rows in 43 sheds, a re shared by two to four mink.
While Chinese mink farmers have now made China as big a producer as Denmark, mink produced in Europe is of a higher quality, according to European and Chinese buyers, thanks to clean water supplies, better feed and higher veterinary standards.
That means fur makers and designers buy sable in Russia and mink primarily in Denmark at premiums of up to 40 percent over Chinese pelts. Eastern Europe is also a big mink producer.
Also Michel Gouzik, a luxury fur maker in Bordeaux whose family has been in the fur market for more than a century, said he only buys mink from Denmark due to the quality.
Hong Kong-based fur skin merchant Timothy Everest, also a board director at the Hong Kong Fur Federation, has travelled to farms in rural China where conditions were poor and access to clean water difficult.
"These animals are very susceptible to contaminated water. If the water is not clean and sterile, the mink will pick up diseases," he said. "They are extremely sensitive creatures and will pick up a cold, just like children."