A Passion for Pelts

The 300-year-plus legacy of Detroit’s fur industry
Illustrations by Jensine Eckwall

You might say that it all started because of that dandy, Louis XIV.

In 1650, the nattily dressed French king demanded a wide-brimmed beaver fur hat. He stomped his purple high-heel shoe and pronounced that superior beaver skins must be obtained from the new land across the water.

Fort Ponchartrain, whose southern border is now Jefferson Avenue, was built in 1701 to accommodate a burgeoning demand for furs the world over. The 37,000-square-foot stockade was the very first structure along the Rivière du Détroit, and the trading of fur skins inside the fort marked the birth of an industry that literally formed this city.

Detroit’s more recent retail fur history is a story of European and Asian immigrants, the baby boomer years, economic ups and downs, cultural protest, and a recent seismic jolt in the industry that is making fur relevant again.

At its peak in the 1950s, more than 100 fur retailers dotted Detroit’s shopping landscape. Today, there are three remaining fur titans in the metro area — Dittrich Furs in Detroit and Bloomfield Hills, Ceresnie & Offen Furs in Birmingham, and Bricker-Tunis Furs in West Bloomfield. All have deep roots going back to those scrappy days of immigration and survival.

At its peak, more than 100 fur retailers dotted Detroit’s shopping landscape. Today, three titans remain: Dittrich Furs, Ceresnie & Offen Furs, and Bricker-Tunis Furs.

Arthur Bricker’s father, the eventual founder of what is now Bricker-Tunis Furs, came here to escape danger. In the early 1900s, the family’s Russian village was terrorized by Cossacks and, fearing peril, the parents cobbled together $40 for two boys (Bricker’s father and a neighbor) for ship’s passage to America. The youngsters slept by day and walked by night 2,000 miles to Rotterdam to catch a ship to New York.

“If you got sick, they threw you overboard,” Bricker says of the harrowing journey his grandfather took across the Atlantic.

Hal Dittrich, owner of 121-year-old Dittrich Furs, tells the story of his great-grandfather who was born in Rawalpindi, India. The elder Dittrich learned the fur trade in Germany and eventually came to Detroit where he traded furs in Trapper’s Alley, and started his retail business on Witherell Street off Woodward Avenue. “They kept an inventory of skins,” Dittrich says of his great-grandfather. “ ‘I need some squirrels,’ customers would say. And he would sell them the skins.”

Detroit’s fur businesses at the turn of the 20th century were born from craftsmanship learned in the Old Country. No business plan or market research were performed. No venture capital invested. Grit and determination were all the business acumen the immigrants possessed.

The industry remained vigorous for 50 years as the city’s infrastructure blossomed around it. By the late 1940s and into the ’50s, more than 100 fur retailers were serving consumers hungry for modern fashion after World War II. Many of the fur shops were small mom and pop operations with a sewing machine or two, and an immigrant family residing upstairs, like Maller Furs on Monroe. The larger fur retailers — Annis Furs on Library Street behind Hudson’s and Robert’s Furs near the Capitol Theatre Building, (torn down in 1994 to make way for today’s Opera House), housed workrooms abuzz with cutters (talented craftsman who “let out” fur skins by making thousands of calculated tiny cuts and then sewing them back together into a luxurious fur “fabric”), and finishers (seamstresses who constructed satin linings and then hand-stitched them to the fur garments, complete with monograms).

But those immigrant furriers never intended for their sons and daughters to carry on in their footsteps. They came to America to propel their children into venerated university careers and not to be, as they felt, mere tailors.

The leaders who hold the reins to today’s three major furriers were never encouraged to take over the helm, and indeed every one of them set out on a different career path.

So why did today’s Detroit fur retail leaders come back into the family fold? A look at the changing world of fashion in the 1960s sheds light on the answer. In his book, Multinationals and Global Capitalism, Harvard professor Geoffrey Jones states:

“World trade barriers were reduced under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) signed in 1947. This process peaked in the 1960s, when the Kennedy Administration in the United States made major efforts to secure radical reductions in tariff rates. During the middle of this decade there was a comprehensive reduction of barriers to trade in manufactured goods.”

This vintage photo from Bricker-Tunis Furs depicts a fur “showroom.” The furs were kept in vaults and customers were only allowed to touch or try on a garment with the assistance of a salesperson.
Arthur Bricker (left)  and George Tunis were partners until Tunis retired.  Bricker now fully owns and operates Bricker-Tunis Furs. // Photographs courtesy of Bricker-Tunis Furs

Combined with the country’s growing population, counterculture revolution, and desire for a wider range of fashion looks, GATT made available raw materials and finished products American-born consumers had not experienced before the 1960s.

The retail fur business was good and about to get much better. One by one Hal Dittrich, the Ceresnie brothers Glenn and Mike, and Arthur Bricker took over for their aging relatives because, in Glenn Ceresnie’s case, he saw the writing on the wall.

“No doubt I would be doing something else if [the fur] business was not booming then,” says Glenn Ceresnie. He has a communications degree from Wayne State University, but the pull of the successful family business lured him back.

Hal Dittrich has an engineering degree and was working for Eli Lilly at the time. And Arthur Bricker was in law school. But their families’ growing fur businesses called them all back.

The best years of Detroit’s fur industry came to a stunning climax in the 1970s and ’80s with a thumping, bumping, 15-year fashion extravaganza. There was the birth of the DIA’s Fash Bash in 1970, the Top of the Pontch, disco, excessive wealth, and indulgent binges in all sectors of Michigan culture. Furs were huge, ostentatious things back then, wrapping the wearer in miles of luxe fox fur thrown over thick shoulder-padded Norma Kamali dresses. The thinking was big. Hair was big. The times were big.

“The ’70s and ’80s were a big boom to the fur industry, where sales tripled during that time period,” says Ceresnie.

Bricker-Tunis Furs reaped the reward of the good times, too. They had the contract to supply the television show Dallas with opulent furs, elevating their stature around the country. Dittrich Furs employed 50 workers at the time, many of them talented tradespeople fashioning garments in the company’s workroom. Indeed most metro area retailers embraced furs during the ’70s and ’80s. Hughes & Hatcher, Chudiks, and even J.C. Penney and Crowley’s had fur departments.

Additionally, cottage industries cropped up in the Detroit area during the ’70s and ’80s. JB Original LTD, started by sisters Beverly Kay and Judy Wakser, manufactured swingy fox fur vests and python jackets in their Oak Park facility. Cynthia Dewolfe, a New York transplant and former head fur designer at Christian Dior, sold her unique reversible furs to Dittrich and Saks. All were made from her home in Union Lake. Design House Inc., a leather and fur accessories manufacturer in Lake Orion, sold novelty fur-trimmed mittens to Jacobsen’s and Ceresnie & Offen. Everyone was getting into the act, because the business climate in Detroit was one of open opportunities. Consumers were buying with a clear-eyed view of “more is better.”

But all good things come to an end, they say. And Detroit’s fur retailers had taken a one-two-three punch in the late ’80s and early ’90s that nearly did them in — and from which they are still recovering.

The first punch occurred Oct. 19, 1987. Now known as Black Monday, the stock market plummeted 500 points, the largest one-day drop in Dow Jones history, and sent investors into a tailspin. In a culmination of junk bond corporate takeovers, trade skirmishes between then-Treasury Secretary James Baker and Germany that made the industrial world jittery, and a questionable stock market procedure dealing with portfolio insurance, Black Monday put a scare into many sectors. Consumer buying habits slowed, and conspicuous consumption was viewed with disdain.

The second punch to the fur industry occurred in 1990 in Colorado, where Aspen’s mayor Bill Stirling proposed a referendum to ban fur sales. It was the first American city where the backlash from over-the-top jet-setting wealth-driven excess had a vivid visual image. And in Aspen, that negative image was fur coats.

Dittrich Furs in Detroit was one of the city’s many fur retail shops. But it’s among a handful of survivors today.

The anti-fur sentiment was set aflame by the news of the referendum, coalescing passionate animal-rights activists across the country. The fur ban in Aspen failed to pass but by then it didn’t matter. Anti-fur advocates got a foothold in the worldwide culture and changed business practices everywhere. Fur became a dirty word.

Demonstrations — both peaceful and violent — were waged against fur retailers across the country. Images in the media of wide-eyed white baby seals spurred emotional response to the movement. All of Detroit’s fur retailers saw demonstrations in front of their businesses, but the disturbances were minor they say and did not evoke much of a response, except in one case where customers themselves drove protesters away.

Ceresnie believes protesters have a constitutional right to free speech. “And as long as they don’t harass my customers — which they never have — I respect their right to protest,” he says.

In a final insult to the oversized days of the 1980s, fashion trends moved toward more casual apparel. Arthur Bricker, 75, dapper in perfectly tailored dress slacks and silk shirt, lamented the passing of the era.

“The people we started with — our main customers — are either dead, in Florida, or in a nursing home. There’s no place to go and be dressy any more. The London Chop House and Caucus Club were the last places where you had to have a jacket and tie to go in. We lost that. That was the problem — we lost that.”

Detroit’s fur retailers endured the financial hardships of the 1990s and early 2000s. Then a funny thing happened on the way to a more energy-efficient world of the 21st century. “Big Oil” took over as the dirty word du jour.

Fake fur (or more specifically fake fur fibers) is a byproduct of petroleum oil production; when a fake fur garment is thrown into a landfill, it takes 50,000 years to degrade. In a turnaround, fake fur is the new bad guy. Real fur is a renewable, sustainable, and green product — when cared for properly, it can last many decades.

Dittrich Furs offers this modern dyed fur vest —available as a custom-made, tailored, special order for the 2014-15 season.

Young designers are discovering fur again. Clothing design schools across the country are adding fur classes to their programs, in part because of Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Fur Information Council of America (FICA). He is an unstoppable juggernaut on a mission to elevate fur’s stature again. The manufacture of fur garments is also one of the last bastions of craftsmanship. The very nature of the unique cut-and-stitch method forms the fabric of fur as an endlessly shapeable medium with infinite textures, lengths, colors, and methods of manipulation.

“Repurposing of vintage is huge,” says Kaplan. “Young designers feel good because it fits in with the green vision. There’s been a complete shift from 10-15 years ago. The innovations and technology — super-sheering, tiling with organza to make it really light, tip-dyeing fur — make it easier to drape and offer more creative flexibility than any other textile.  … Designers just love to play with it. More than 75 percent of designers who showed in Milan, Paris, London, and New York had fur in their collections.”

And the International Fur Federation recently held its 11th annual competition, Remix, whereby 500 new and emerging clothing designers from 22 countries proved their design mettle. It’s all about fur — reimaging, manipulating. And in a no-holds-barred finale called “Pimp My Coat,” they presented edgy fur looks.

Locally the Ceresnie brothers are excited to be training their new hire, a clothing design student moving here from Chicago to inject a young spirit into the Birmingham workroom and showroom. And the next generation, 32-year-old Brian Shapiro, will be taking over when Glenn and Mike retire.

At Dittrich Furs, Shawn and Jason Dittrich are the fifth generation to carry on the family name.

“It’s nice to have the family continuing,” says their father, Hal Dittrich, “because they’re coming up with new ideas.”