Style & Shopping

To Fur, With Love

How furrier Mano Swartz has defied the odds and stuck around for 123 years.

Several years ago, David Swartz stumbled across an archival story from The Baltimore Sun recounting a brawl between his great grandfather, furrier James Swartz, and a customer who had come into his store to buy a coat for his wife. “The article said there was a disagreement and then an assault,” recounts David. “It said that James Swartz was arrested and the other man was taken out in an ambulance . . . so I guess we know who won.” Sitting by his son’s side, inside the stylish Lutherville-Timonium showroom of Mano Swartz, company president Richard Swartz smiles proudly at the story—not just because David, 23, joined the fifth-generation family business last fall, but because Richard loves family lore.

“There is a thread of strength that runs through many of my family’s stories,” says Richard, his voice thick with a Baltimore accent, the result of living here for most of his 53 years. “Hard times make you strong—hard has wiped out a lot of businesses, but it’s about your interaction with those obstacles that can make you strong.”

Indeed, the “fighting furrier” story is an apt metaphor for a family business—founded in 1889—that, despite the odds and the obstacles, still survives. Through the years, Mano Swartz has battled its way through the Great Depression (James Swartz lost part of the family fortune during that time), two recessions (the 1992 recession led to the business closing for a year), civil-rights opposition (in the ’50s, the store opened its doors to African-Americans—leading to an eventual death threat against James), and, of course, the wrath of animal-rights activists, who question the morality of wearing fur and try to make people feel threatened for choosing to wear it. (Who could forget Vogue’s fur-wearing editor Anna Wintour having a dead raccoon lobbed on her plate during a luncheon at The Four Seasons hotel?)

But 123 years since its founding, Mano Swartz is still going strong, selling upwards of 500 coats a year, remodeling between 600 and 800 coats (a “Mano makeover” they call it), and storing thousands of fur items—including a leopard rug given to James by his friend Winston Churchill—in a climate-controlled warehouse located several miles from the showroom.

Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, and Colt’s Quarterback Johnny Unitas have all been Mano loyalists. (“When I gave Johnny Unitas a price for a coat, he went into a huddle with his wife,” cracks Richard. “Here’s a guy who invented strategy.”) And although the heyday for traditional, full-length furs was back in the glamorous Dynasty era of the ’80s, Mano Swartz, one of four fur retailers remaining in Baltimore (down from 50 or 60, according to Richard), isn’t going away any time soon.

Swartz’s story is a classic tale of survival of the fittest that begins in the late 19th century in Hungary where “Papa”—the original Mano Swartz , that is—worked as a forester (a modern-day park ranger) in Kishvarda, a small city in the northeast.

“My great-grandfather lived in a typical European place where 100 families had all the money, and there was no middle class,” says Richard, who relishes recounting his family’s colorful history. “The government said, ‘What are we going to do with all these [poor] people?’ So they put them in the military for life.”
To escape a lifetime of military service, Mano immigrated to New York City.

“He pursued what he knew well—animals,” says Richard. Like many other Jewish immigrants of the time, he got into the fur business, but he was an entrepreneur and pursued other avenues as well. Family legend has it that at one point, “Papa” headed to Colorado to capitalize on the California Gold Rush, entertaining the miners with his own “dance hall” (i.e. brothel) and even staging a bull fight, but the evening before the event, the animal escaped, so Mano, who had already collected his money, fled back to New York where he continued to work in fur. He eventually headed to Baltimore where he opened his eponymous store, Mano Swartz Furs, and later married Dina Saks (of the Saks Fifth Avenue family).

For decades, Mano Swartz Furs was a Baltimore City fixture, first on Lexington Street and later on Howard Street before moving to York Road in Towson in 1976, The Village of Cross Keys in 1992, and finally to Falls Road in 2006. In the ensuing years, Mano groomed his son, James (who, in turn, groomed his son Mano II, who groomed son, Richard) to take over the business. Entrepreneurship was in the family genes.

“My grandfather [James] was way ahead of his time,” says Richard. “He created the Veteran’s Day sale in Baltimore after the Second World War and offered anyone with honorable discharge papers 10 percent off. There was no discounting in retail back then—this was not done. In one day, he sold 150 coats!”

On a hot summer’s day, when fur is the farthest thing from anyone’s mind (unless you’re a Swartz, that is), Richard reflects on how his small family business (with only seven employees these days) has lasted for more than a century.
“Much of why we have flourished is due to our founding fathers,” explains Richard, noting the early adversity they faced. “My grandfather used to say that if it hadn’t been for the [Great] Depression, he would have been a millionaire many times over. But going through that added an element of conservatism, and, as a result, we never over expanded as so many businesses do once they are successful. Through the years, we have focused on getter better not bigger. And what could be timelier today?”

The family also cites consistency as a key to the company’s success.

“[There’s a certain way] way we answer the phone,” explains David, describing his very detailed training protocol. “This is how you present a coat to the customer after dropping off a delivery. This is how you greet customers and this is how you inspect a coat.”

Chimes in Richard: “We’ve had so many challenges through the years. We are ahead of other boutiques today because we’ve already had to face all these challenges.”

So, for instance, in the late ’90s, when business got tough because of changing tastes and trends, it occurred to Richard that many people had shelled out substantial sums for fur coats that were no longer in style. What if Mano Swartz took those coats and restyled them for contemporary tastes? And with that, the “Mano makeover” was born.
“Why does one business survive and another doesn’t?” asks Richard rhetorically. “It comes down to, how good are they are replacing lost sales? For us, what’s really driven our business is making over coats.”

And when the fur protests became heated in the ’80s, with the founding of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Swartz family took a balanced approach. “Our position all the way through has been that we embrace the freedom to choose not to be involved in furs,” says Richard. “But we also want respect for people who choose to wear fur.”

The naysayers, Richard claims, have quieted down because “they realize that the fur business is completely in sync with nature . . . It’s a renewable resource and all the products are bio-degradable and used responsibly. The protesters have moved on—9/11 changed things. After that, terrorizing people wasn’t okay anymore.”
David adds some trademark family humor to the dialogue. “There’s a joke in our industry that goes, ‘Why do people care about people wearing fur and not about people wearing leather?'” he says, pausing before he answers. “It’s easier to fight old women than bikers.”

Every year, when the mercury drops, the fur—from gloves to shearlings, vests, and coats—flies out of cold-storage and off the racks at Mano’s showroom. In 2011, U.S. fur retail volume hit $1.34 billion, a 3.4 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Fur Information Council of America (FICA). And while Richard doesn’t sell and tell, refusing to discuss profits, he does say that while sales peaked in the 1980s, they “are very steady and strong now—enough [for us] to eat steak every night.”

Richard’s wife, Debbie, also works for the family business (until recently, so did the late, great Teddy, a black miniature poodle who increased the cuteness quotient on the sales floor). A former curator at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, the down-to-earth Debbie—whose primary adornment is a tape measure around her neck—designs, edits, and curates the collection.

“If anyone ever told me I’d be married to a furrier and living below the Mason-Dixon line, I would have laughed,” says Debbie, who hails from New England and works with high-end fur designers such as Prabal Gurung to create exclusive designs. With Feng Shui in mind, Debbie also designed the elegant, well-appointed showroom that includes a pair of antique benches from the swan boats in the Boston Common and the original, stainless-steel vault door from the Lexington Street store. “My goal was to have small collections with some things in the back so you can really see the merchandise and appreciate it,” says Debbie. “I didn’t want, as Salieri [Mozart’s rival] said, ‘Too many notes.'”
While there are still floor-length minks for sale (with price tags ranging between $3,000 and $15,000), this is not your grandmother’s closet. In the showroom, merchandise runs the gamut—from fingerless fur-trimmed gloves and trendy boot toppers (for as little as $99) to chic fur pillows and Debbie’s own line of stylish handmade handbags. Fur is also used in more creative and unexpected ways—a cashmere cape with sable trim or a silver fox scarf that’s been dyed a deep burgundy.

“Mano Swartz has been a retail innovator,” explains Keith Kaplan, executive director of FICA. “[They] continually evolve their retail concept to reflect changing consumer tastes and fur and fashion trends.”

In early fall, longtime Lutherville customer Bernie Cook arrives at the store to pick up her beaver jacket which Debbie has refashioned into a vest. “The winters have been so warm, I wasn’t wearing it,” says Cook as she tries on her reversible silk-lined vest, which she proclaims is “perfect.” After a consultation with Debbie, Cook decides to add to her ever-growing fur collection (one coat, two jackets, two “Mano make-over” vests, among other pieces) and asks Debbie to design a chic French tam with the leftover fur scraps from her jacket. “I’ve never bought a fur anywhere else,” says Cook.

Cook’s first coat was an unexpected purchase. Thirty years ago, unbeknownst to her, Cook’s daughter had dropped out of college.

“When I found out, I went to Chiapparelli’s which was then in Towson, ordered a scotch, told them to save it for me, and went across the street to put $10 down on my first fur—a mink coat,” recalls Cook. “I came back and bought it the next day from the money I was saving on tuition.” Cook has been a customer ever since (and, five years ago, that mink was restyled into a reversible raincoat). “I bought my first coat from Richard’s father,” says Cook. “They’ve always been so great. I love coming here.”

Richard, Debbie, and David know they have a family legacy to live up to. “Richard’s great grandfather used to say, ‘It takes 100 years to grow a tree, and it takes one day to cut it down,'” says Debbie. “We never take our customers for granted. I think he would have been pleased to see that we are still living up to that standard.”