I started in the fur business in 1983, working for famous Melbourne Furrier, Stephen Dattner. Although adept at selling fur and leather garments, I was more interested in the way the pieces were made. I was also aware of what fur did for the people who wore it. How it made them feel and behave. Once you wear one, you realize, it isn't the same as any other sort of clothing. Fur has a magic and romance which I'd never imagined before then, and its' fascination stays with me to this day.
The huge building which housed the Dattner empire was three stories of bustling industry and three centuries of family tradition in Melbourne's Clifton Hill. Here the garments were designed, made and sold direct to the public. Sadly, I didn't realize at the time, that I was witnessing the end of the fur industry in Australia and indeed the beginning of the end for Australian clothing manufacturing.
After leaving Stephen Dattner's in1985, I began working for his furniture maker son Nicholas. I became immersed in the company culture of recycling and re-using timber from old buildings into new furniture. I developed skills as a draftsman and became expert in designs that used reclaimed timber. It challenges and develops your creativity working within the parameters that those materials force upon you. Seventeen years later, I thought it was time I should start my own business, and my partner who was in the recycled clothing trade provided the inspiration. We started LINDA BLACK as a recycled designer clothing business in 2002 on Chapel Street Windsor, specializing in leather garments, handbags and shoes. In those days we had a few old fur stoles, but they were hung out of sight. I still had memories of animal rights protestors shouting slogans from back in the 1980s. People found out that I knew my furs, and began to bring them in to be identified. I also started noticing some very fine furs being sold at auctions and markets. I started buying them because they were so cheap. It seemed that most people no longer valued them, but I remembered the massive amounts of work it took to create them and their original hefty price tags too.
It struck me that over the previous 60 years, millions of fur garments had been made in Australia. Some were imported, but the majority were made here by Furriers in almost every state, city, town and suburb in the country. I believed that the majority of them must still be out there, since most furs held a special place in the hearts of those who owned them. They commemorated life events and special occasions like no other item of clothing possibly could. Even though for various reasons they may never be worn again, they are kept in camphor chests and calico bags in wardrobes all over Australia. So I put a small simple ad in The Age classifieds which read Furs Wanted. Call Jon (phone number). My phone rang for weeks, so I knew I was on to something. I spent weeks travelling the suburbs, visiting the many people who answered my ad. I bought up furs both ancient and modern from attics and spare rooms all over Melbourne.
From there it started to snowball. People started bringing them in and soon I had accumulated quite a few. Then customers started hearing about us and the furs began to sell quite well. Prices were modest, but at least they were selling. (I look back now and think those buyers were getting the bargains of the century!) I soon realized that most customers didn't have a problem with furs, especially the old ones. They were mainly concerned with the imagined disapproval of others. In 1990s Europe, fur was back on the catwalks, it began to appear in European fashion magazines and celebrities were seen wearing them too. Television shows like Sex and the City and Will and Grace had characters wearing vintage furs. These factors encouraged many people get that old fur jacket or stole out of the wardrobe and give it a public airing. Many new fur wearers discovered the experience that only putting on a fur can provide.
I had to find someone who could repair, clean and remodel the furs I found, so I went looking for a Furrier. Back in the 1980s, there were scores of Furriers in Melbourne, but in 2002 the Yellow Pages revealed just six! I approached the one with the best name and reputation I recalled from the old days, and who happened to still be in business. THE HOUSE OF MINKS once occupied an entire 2 storey building in Bay Street North Brighton, but was now reduced to one small upstairs room. The rest of the building was now occupied by a prominent real estate agency. Michael Lalos had bought the business in the late 1960s from retiring Furrier John L (Jack) Hendy. Then in his late 70s, Michael was still working six days per week in his tiny studio, with his wife Teppi doing the finishing (lining etc.) They always seemed to be busy, and recycling fur was what they did every day. Recycling is nothing new in the Fur business. Furs were considered a good investment years ago because a good quality one would last up to 3 generations. Each one remodelling it to suit the fashions of the time. This is essentially what we continue to do today.
When Michael and Teppi wanted to stop working, they decided that I would take over the business from them. Michael gave me all his machines and tools, closed his business and came to the Chapel Street shop to teach me. We set up a workroom upstairs and he started my apprenticeship, just as he must have done so many times before. After 4 years, he decided that I could manage without him, and retired to his Queensland holiday home. Sadly Michael passed away there in 2011. I still think of him every day. Over the years, we became close friends and he was inspirational mentor. Today we continue to operate the business in almost the exact same way as he did. It's very traditional and 'low-tech' (except for the website) since nothing has changed in the best way to hand- make a fur garment in the past 100 years.
In 2011, after 9 years trading in Chapel Street, we moved the business to McKinnon and refocussed it to be based purely around Furs. The McKinnon store was located in a lovely old block of 1920s shops in McKinnon Village, surrounded by other specialized artisan businesses.
Fast-forward to 2020 with the COVID19 pandemic raging and our nine-year lease about to expire, I started to search for larger premises. Somewhere that would accommodate the business and its future growth for at least another nine years. Our new home is a large rambling Victorian building on Burwood Road in Hawthorn’s Auburn Village. Converted to a sprawling office complex in the 1980s, number 563 boasts a glamorous showroom at the front and large separate workspaces and storage beyond.
What we do is very old fashioned, but the way we approach it is very modern. Re-use, recycle and repurpose everything you can.
Fur is the ultimate material from which we can make clothing. Cold cannot pierce natural fur, hence its' being used as man's first clothing. No man-made material can match its' unique ability to insulate us from the cold and comfort its' wearer. It can be remade over and over again, as long as the hides will allow, into whatever is required. If ethically farmed and managed, it is endlessly renewable and environmentally neutral. The animals can be used for meat, their fur fibre for textiles and their skins for fur& leather. In Europe, this creates employment and provides a livelihood for many people. When we use the skins of introduced feral pest animals, we help save our native fauna and flora from hordes of cats, goats, pigs and foxes. When fur is recycled, it has an almost zero carbon foot-print, saves the creation of many new pelts, hence a lot of animals' lives and money too.