Bart Atkins has worked on thousands of fur coats, but he has only ever made one coat for himself, out of long beaver fur. He doesn’t wear it anymore because he didn’t like the attention it got in the grocery store – everyone wants to touch fur when they see it.
Atkins, 64, keeps the coat in a temperature-controlled basement vault filled with thousands of others. The vault adjoins his workshop at Overland Park-based Alaskan Fur, where he’s worked for more than 40 years.
As a furrier, he designs coats and accessories, made to customers’ measurements, out of notoriously difficult and expensive material. He’s done it long enough to call himself a master at the trade.
“How to sew, how to cut, how to design patterns — you can’t just know how to do one thing,” Atkins said. “There’s so many parts of this that you have to learn.”
It’s a rare skill, and getting rarer. He doesn’t like to blow his own horn, but Atkins thinks he’s one of the few people in the U.S. still doing this kind of intensive, custom work with furs. He’s traveled the country to design for customers.
As people buy fewer fur items, much of his work involves repairing or recycling family heirlooms into new clothes, accessories or even teddy bears.
“You can’t put a price on sentimental,” he said. “I think that’s why my business is so good. You wouldn’t believe it, I always have more work than I can do.”
How to make a fur coat
A coat begins with cutting, wetting and stretching furs. Atkins can stretch a six-inch-by-eight-inch mink skin into a strip 51 inches long and two inches wide. The entire process can take two weeks. Wet furs must be stapled to a table, sometimes with thousands of staples that are inserted and later removed by hand.
After that, the strips are sewn together to make a coat. Unlike fabric sewing machines, which hold and sew pieces horizontally, fur sewing machines hold pieces vertically between two wheels. The sewer must move the wheels at the same pace, or the fur will wrinkle.
And unlike cloth, fur pieces require more precision because they must be sewn together at their very edges. Then, the seams must be rubbed by hand until they’re flat.
Atkins says it took him two years to learn to sew fur properly. The workers who help him finish the coats use needles with a triangular point much sharper than those on regular sewing needles. The process is laborious and sometimes dangerous.
“You have to learn to use a thimble so well, or you’ll put that needle straight through your fingers,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of people come here to work that sewed their whole life. They didn’t make it a week because the material that you’re sewing through is very hard.”
Atkins estimates he works on 60 to 120 coats a year, many of them mink. A typical price for his work is $1,600 to $1,800. Many younger people want to transform outdated coats inherited from their grandparents into contemporary pieces. Atkins declines to work on heirlooms that are in complete disrepair.
“If he thinks the coat won’t hold a stitch, he won’t take the job,” said Phil Wang, whose grandfather founded Alaskan Fur almost 100 years ago. “So he has a lot of integrity.”
Instead, Atkins offers to remake worn-out pieces into accessories like cuffs or decorative items like blankets or pillows.
He did the same with a fur coat from his mother, who died 20 years ago.
“She didn’t have much money. She just had a little muskrat coat, but I made a throw and a blanket out of it to go across the couch in my living room,” Atkins said. “It means the world to me. Every time I feel like I need Mom, I can go stick my nose in it, and I still smell Mom.”
Atkins grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, where he currently lives in his childhood home. His mother worked for the Social Security Administration and was one of the few Black women at the time to have a master’s degree. His father ran the Standard Club, where Atkins began mopping the floors at age 9.
“My dad trained me,” he said. “I don’t think I had a childhood because I always worked.”
He went to Kansas City, Kansas Community College, where he trained to be a tailor, but quickly realized he couldn’t make much money sewing. Through the Standard Club, Atkins met an owner of Alaskan Fur, Myer Finkel, who offered him a job in 1981.
Atkins spent his first year as a cleaner before being trained under furriers like Oscar Donahue.
“The only reason why I’m as good as I am today is because the original furriers I worked with were master furriers, and they knew every bit of the business,” Atkins said. “And at that time, it was the most difficult work to do – the big Joan Crawford shoulders, the big puffy sleeves.”
Atkins credits his time at Alaskan Fur with paying off a mountain of medical debt and putting his two daughters through college. He used to work about 70 hours a week for the company because they paid him hourly.
Now, he’s pared that down to a more standard workweek, although he still comes into work around 6 a.m. and leaves in the early afternoon. What kept him going, he said, was the work ethic he learned from his mother.
“My mother always told me, no matter who you work for, you give a hundred percent,” he said. “If you don’t like where you work at, you don’t own the company. Go somewhere else and give a hundred percent.”
A declining industry
There’s not much information about the American fur industry readily available to the public. The country’s leading fur industry group, the American Fur Council, did not respond to interview requests.
But Vogue Business reports that sales of real fur have declined in recent years as faux fur and other vegan products gain popularity. The New York Times reports that many major fashion brands have stopped using fur entirely.
A November 2021 report from market research group IBIS World states the decline is a result of “the public’s concern over the welfare of fur-bearing animals” and “competition from inexpensively produced artificial fur products.” For decades, animal rights activists have called fur garments cruel and unnecessary.
In 2019, there were about 1,500 fur workers remaining in the U.S., with about two-thirds of them in the New York area, said Charlie Ross, general manager of auction house Saga Furs North America. He’s not sure how that number has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Compare that to about 10,000 fur workers in New York alone in the ’80s, when Ross started in the fur business. But the rise of cheap overseas labor during that decade moved most fashion manufacturing abroad, including furs.
Ross estimates the average fur worker is now in their 50s or 60s and is nearing retirement.
“We do regular outreaches to students because we need to bring down the average age of the labor,” he said. “The entire fashion industry is in the same crisis.”
There are very few places in the U.S. for people to learn how to sew and design fur, said Kylee Alexander, a designer and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
At her design company, Alexander has taught people to work with fur, often vintage or repurposed. Some only want to work with fake fur, but that still requires the same tools and skills as working with real fur. Because real fur is both long-lasting and biodegradable, Alexander sees it as more environmentally friendly than man-made fur.
“We think about it as a luxury, but there’s a lot of use for discarded fur garments that can be repurposed,” she said.
Alexander learned fur design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the only school she knows of that still teaches the subject. She says the only other opportunities to learn are directly from working furriers, many of whom have closed up shop in recent years.
“It’s really kind of scary that these traditions aren’t being passed on,” she said. “I think we’re going to see an industry largely disappear.”
In the ’80s, Alaskan Fur had three stores in Kansas City. The vaults were full of customers’ coats. Now, the company has one store in the area and the vaults sit half-empty.
Atkins doesn’t know who will replace him when he retires. Right now, he’s so busy that he doesn’t have time to train someone new.
“I’m in a trade that is a dying trade,” he said. “As long as I stay healthy, I’ll continue to do it because I enjoy it.”
But he has arthritis in both hands. He got COVID-19 in 2020, and he’s worried about getting it again because he works so closely with customers. He wants to play golf and spend more time with his grandchildren.
For now, he’ll stay at Alaskan Fur, because he still loves working with customers and figuring out what makes them happy.
“And that just comes from trial and error,” he said. “I’m no better than anyone else. All the things that I do very well come from just doing it for so long.”
KCUR 89.3 is Kansas City’s NPR affiliate public radio station. You can read and listen to more of their reporting at kcur.org.