RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you live in parts of the U.S. that have been hit with record snowfalls, you might have seen more women wearing fur coats. Until recently, few dared to bare their furs. In a moment, we'll talk to a fashion insider to see if mink is really back. Over in Russia, fur has always been considered essential winter wear. A town in northwest Greece, where mink coats are sewn, has managed to stay afloat largely due to its exports to Russia. But now, with their economy faltering, Joanna Kakissis says the town of Kastoria is facing an uncertain future.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Below the snowcapped Pindus Mountains, on a lake called Orestiada, you'll find people feeding ducks, fishermen netting carp and stores selling the area's main export: fur. Since Byzantine times, the people of this city, known as Kastoria, have been making and exporting fur garments all over the world. Makis Gioras grew up with this tradition.
MAKIS GIORAS: When you're born in this town, in this city, you have something to do with fur. So in the end, you end up with this business.
KAKISSIS: Gioras is the sales manager for his family's business, Soulis Furs. There are more than 1,500 fur businesses in Kastoria. And most people work in the industry.
What's happening here?
GIORAS: Those are the skins.
KAKISSIS: Gioras takes me on a tour of his family's factory, stopping in a room he calls the laboratory. The mink and fox skins here are imported from Canada, the United States and Scandinavia. Workers stitch together coats, shawls and hats.
ILIAS ASNAIS: (Speaking Greek).
KAKISSIS: One of the workers, Ilias Asnais, shows me the dark, brown mink pelts that he's sewing into a hood. It's a coat designed for Russians, who, for the last 20 years, have bought most of Kastoria's furs. The Russians are long-time trading partners of the Greeks. But they revived the Kastorian economy at a critical time in the 1990s. The 1987 stock market crash and a global anti-fur campaign by animal rights activists had wiped out nearly half of the businesses here. John Karavidas of the Hellenic Fur Federation recalls how the Russians helped.
JOHN KARAVIDAS: They were interested in buying furs because in Russia fur is day-to-day wear. It's something that a woman wears every day because of the cold.
KAKISSIS: On a trip to Moscow late last year, I came to understand why Kastorian fur was so popular with Russians. I stopped at the Snow Queen boutique where manager Vlada Ivanyk said she had traveled to Kastoria to buy furs many times in the last few years.
VLADA IVANYK: (Through interpreter) Greek fur-makers are very much quality oriented. The array of furs was very, very wide. These are two reasons why they're so popular.
KAKISSIS: Ivanyk points to a long, black mink coat from Kastoria that cost more than $10,000.
So there's a demand for the furs around Russia?
IVANYK: (Speaking Russian).
KAKISSIS: "Yes, of course," she says. "As long as we have winters in Russia," she laughs, "there will always be demand." But since my trip, the ruble collapsed. And along with it, so has Russian demand for Kastorian fur. At Dita Furs in Kastoria, owner Afrodite Papageorgiadou sits in her show room, surrounded by scores of caramel-colored mink coats she's been unable to sell.
AFRODITE PAPAGEORGIADOU: (Through interpreter) Hardly anyone comes here anymore. I've only seen three or four people in the last couple of months. Before, the Russians used to come in every day in big groups.
KAKISSIS: The loss of Russian business is caring Kastorian furriers, but they say they won't give up. They're now trying to export their fur garments to new markets in China and South Korea. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.
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