I'll tell you what I thought when I saw a guy at the grocery store in a full-length fox-fur coat the other day. I thought: "Anchorage, Alaska, you are awesome." And then I exercised restraint by not taking a photograph of him and posting it on social media.
Maybe I should have posted, though, because a perfectly average professional man, say a real estate agent or an corporate IT guy, in full-length fur at Carrs-Safeway gets at something about this place that you only understand if you live here. That is: Anchorage keeps it real. Fur-coat-in-the-grocery-store real. And this is why I love it.
If you've fallen for this twisted, gritty city like I have, then you know what I mean. To get this place, you have to be wooed by stunning juxtapositions, by the contrast between modern and ancient, picturesque and garish, conventionally corporate and singularly wild. Think the blazing fluorescent lights of a Holiday gas station against the backdrop the Chugach Range at sunrise. Think sled dog races down city streets in Fairview, past the Office Depot and the probation office and the cemetery. Think dude in his fur coat standing in the checkout line with a couple "reduced for quick sale" fryer chickens at Carrs in the Sears Mall. That guy isn't pretentious, even though he's wearing a clothing item favored by rappers and Paris Hilton. That guy is buying some chicken. And getting a good deal on it, too.
It being Fur Rendezvous, I got to thinking about our particular relationship with fur. Anchorage is a city where the wearing of fur -- serious and sometimes very expensive fur -- is totally commonplace and maybe even expected. People wear seal here. They wear vintage polar bear cuffs and wolf ruffs. They wear mink. No one thinks they're trying to send a message about status. No one makes assumptions about their politics. No one judges them for animal rights-y reasons. Why? Because look where we live. Look at that crazy, frozen moonscape out your window right now. You think boiled wool is going to touch that? Go ahead. Wear your little REI get-up in that bitter wind blowing in off the inlet. Give it an hour. Tell me you don't wish you had a beaver-skin hat. (I say this from experience, as someone who wears REI get-ups and does not have a beaver skin hat.)
"I'm a vegan and I have five rescued animals at my house," Ellen Arvold, who owns Second Run consignment store downtown told me this week. "And I have like four fur coats."
Arvold prefers to think of her coats as "rescued" because they are not new. She's squeamish about chinchilla (they are cute), but outside of that, she has got no problems with fur and neither do her customers. It's just practical.
"When I am outside and it's 10 below zero I'm really glad I have on my fur parka," she told me.
(I'm speaking generally now about our locals being mellow about the wearing of fur. That does not mean we're all low-key. There are some outliers. Some self-conscious fur-wearing will occur out on the street this Fur Rondy week. You will see it. Like a pelt-y Halloween. There might even be some people rubbing in the killing of animals like it's some kind of special badge of being Alaskan. But it isn't. Advertising your carnivorousness in a state where a good proportion of people kill their own protein is like a short man buying a truck with novelty mufflers. It's best not to judge, but pretty easy to see through.)
Anyway. My fur curiosity lead me to visit to David Green Master Furrieron Fourth Avenue the other day. I was given a tour by David Green, who is the son of Jerry Green, who is the son of David Green, who founded the business in 1922. Young David and his wife, Shani, run it.
David's grandfather came from New York City, back when Manhattan had an dense and competitive fur district, he told me. It was a different time, before polar fleece and overseas garment factories. Grandfather David Green went west by rail, and then north by steamship, looking to make a name for himself as a furrier. He worked all over the state and settled in Anchorage in 1956. The remnants of his apartment and first fur shop are built into the now much larger anatomy of the modern-day David Green.
Over the years, the shop has outfitted mushers and generals' wives, cardinals, senators, beauty queens and Leonard Nimoy (That's Spock from the original Star Trek, for the youngsters. He is a cousin). They clean fur. They alter fur. They send their furs to customers all over the country and the world. Lately, East Coasters have been calling a lot thanks to the polar vortex. They do about half of their business with locals. The other half are tourists, internet customers and people they meet at hunting conventions Outside.
The company's signature parkas with dog-musher trim are sewn in their shop, other furs are sewn by Outside sub-contractors. A person can get into a new fur jacket starting at around $1,500. Most people spend between $3,000 and $8,000. I saw a blue-black full-length mink valued at $16,000. I touched it. It was smooth as water.
A fur is a significant purchase and it means different things to different customers, David and Shani told me. There was a gathering for an African-American sorority in Anchorage, and some of the women came in to the shop, Shani told me. They were all high-level professional women. Doctors. Lawyers. Judges. They bought furs. It was an Alaskan thing to do, but there was more to it than that.
"To them, it said, 'I've made it,' " Shani said.
Alaska buyers tend to swing toward the practical. They want to be fashionable but they also want to be warm. Shani has sold a number of furs to the mothers of her children's classmates, When they all found themselves picking up kids outside, they saw that she was really warm. The Greens agreed that people wear fur here in a way you don't see anywhere else. David told me a story about going to Baskin-Robbins with his kids. He was wearing sweat pants, Sorels, a ball cap and an land otter car coat. He happened to run into one of his customers who was coming from a show at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. The customer wore a three-piece suit and the same fur coat that Green had on.
"We were wearing the same coat, eating at the same place, yet we're dressed totally different," he said.
That happens in Anchorage, he said.
"Everything goes. There's something really refreshing about that."
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591.
commentBy JULIA O'MALLEY
Alaska Dispatch Publishing