If you ring the bell and get buzzed in at Carl W. Herrmann Furs expecting to see racks of bulky, traditional full-length beaver coats, you’ll be disappointed.
“If you wanted to see one, I would have a hard time showing you one,” said proprietor Carl W. “Guy” Herrmann IV, 59, whose great-grandfather opened the business some 120 years ago.“When I started in the business, everything was big and oversized,” he said. “Now, everything is sleeker and tailored, with highlights of longer furs on the collars and cuffs.”
Today’s fur coats also are easier to walk around in — weighing an average of 2 pounds, down from more than 7 pounds in their classic heyday, Mr. Herrmann said.Besides less bulk, the biggest change in tastes over his nearly 40 years in the business has been a shift away from full-length to top-of-the-knee and mid-thigh styles. Shorter lengths are more practical, he said. “You don’t want a garment that’s just for formal occasions. You want to maximize usage.”
Mr. Herrmann credits his Downtown business’ longevity in large part to keeping up with the latest trends by listening to customers’ needs. In the mid-1990s, for example, he and his father began rethinking their mix of merchandise after hearing more women complain about rarely wearing their long, heavy fur coats.
“They’d say I can’t wear it to work or shopping because I die of the heat, and when I take it off, my arm is killing me,” said Mr. Herrmann, who at 6 feet 7 inches doesn’t need to stretch when plucking a coat from the top level of the store’s two-tiered racks. Mink is the most popular fur, he said. “It’s light and you can manipulate and dye it to create hundreds of looks.”And mink stoles, which had almost disappeared, are in vogue again, he said. “For the first 33 years [in the business], I sold five mink stoles. Now, they’ve come back big time.”
Immigrants from Germany
Some six generations ago, the Herrmanns were fur skin dealers in their native Stuttgart, Germany. The first Carl W. Herrmann settled in the city of Allegheny (now the North Side), working in the men’s suit and fur departments at Boggs & Buhl department store, catering to “millionaires row” on Ridge Avenue.
In 1900, he opened his own shop in the former North Side Bank Building on Federal Street at the urging of the husbands of two customers, who also backed him financially. His three sons later joined him, including Carl Jr. In 1952, Guy Herrmann’s father, Carl W. Herrmann III joined the business, moving the operation a decade later to a bigger space Downtown on the first floor of the Carlton House Hotel on Grant Street. When that building was razed in 1980 to make room for One Mellon Bank Center, the business moved to its current location on Smithfield Street. In the mid-1980s, the store expanded into space next door that opened up when a competitor, Lowenthal Furs, shut down.
Guy Herrmann, who joined the store full time at age 22 in 1982, has seen his biggest competitors go out of business over the years.In addition to Lowenthals, they include Abravanel Furs on Wood Street, which closed in 1995; Saks Fifth Avenue, across the street from Carl Herrmann’s on Smithfield, in 2012; and another Smithfield Street neighbor, Canadian Fur Co., in 2014 after 97 years. Besides being able to keep up with trends, Mr. Herrmann attributes his store’s survival to a robust service business including cleaning and restoration, cold storage, repairs and alterations, restyling, trade-ins and appraisals. “The trickiest thing is the service business. It’s an art to work on fur,” he said. “Very few people work with their hands anymore.”
It also helps to have a younger generation of family members willing to take over the reins. Among Mr. Herrmann’s three children, the youngest — a daughter at Ohio State — is the most likely to be interested, he said. “We’ll see. I’m not pushing it,” he said. “My father didn’t push me.”
The furrier business
Counter to what some believe, the furrier business is not a dying industry, Mr. Herrmann said. U.S. fur production for apparel and accessories has been on the upswing for the last decade, reaching its highest level in 17 years in 2018, according to industry statistics. Fur sales in the U.S. hit $531 million last year, more than double the $219.8 million in 2009.
Still, pressure from animal-rights activists has led a growing number of retailers to stop selling natural fur. Among the latest are Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, which have pledged to discontinue animal fur by 2021. And the state of California will ban the manufacturing and sale of fur starting in 2023, the first state to take such action.
Mr. Herrmann said opponents of real fur “are entitled to their opinion.” Understandably, he doesn’t agree with them. “They think the animals are abused. They are not abused. Are there bad apples in the global world? Sure.” “Every fur we sell is ethically and sustainably made,” the company says on its website.Mr. Herrmann argues that natural fur is more eco-friendly than faux fur, which is an oil-based synthetic product that isn’t biodegradable.
The average price of a fur coat is “a lot less than the average person thinks,” at around $3,000 to $3,500, he said. Overall, prices range from about $400 to $500 for lower-end leather jackets, up to around $12,000 for a chinchilla jacket or mink coat trimmed in sable.
Mr. Herrmann estimates 95% of the garments he sells are for women. Businesswomen who want to treat themselves are a mainstay. When a man and woman shop together, occasionally the man will end up buying something for himself, too, Mr. Herrmann said. The best part of his job, he said, is interacting with customers. “I like the people. And it’s neat knowing that some people saved their pennies to come here.”
Patricia Sabatini: PSabatini@post-gazette.com
First Published December 25, 2019, 4:00am at https://www.post-gazette.com/business/pittsburgh-company-news/2019/12/25/Carl-Herrmann-Furs-Smithfield-Downtown-120-years/stories/201912260027?fbclid=IwAR23wWVvv-yV7HbSp9KhezJVOltK6rDiK4ga9qrqerceT8g3D3VRhmjNmBU