DENVER—Repurposing old objects has been a trend that’s luckily determined to stay. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tells us on its website that, “the most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place.” Artists, architects, and designers–professionals and amateurs alike–interested in creating a sustainable lifestyle have taken this to heart. The Facebook community Repurposed Recycled Reused Reclaimed Restored has over a half a million members who share ideas that range from whimsical (sweaters for chickens) to inspired (chandeliers made out of recycled bike parts and broken dishes). With a passion for repurposing and all things mid-20th century, Denver-based interior designer Angie Graham uses her unique talent for giving old things new life to transform vintage fur coats into pillows, hats, scarves and cuffs.
Taking a short break from prepping her home, a mid-century modern gem, for HGTV (a popular North American TV network) to film for a 360-degree tour to be featured on their website, Ms. Graham spoke with she-files about her upcycled fur business, Fur20. It’s a business that started out of a desire to repurpose old furs she found at thrift stores and estate sales that were once somebody’s treasure and now someone else’s trash.
“There’s such an abundance of unused fur,” Ms. Graham said. “Our grandmothers wore furs in the 1940s and 1950s, and the furs kept them very warm. Plus, it was a real status symbol. People will tell me things like, ‘My mom or my grandma got the fur because they were married for 20 years.’ At the time when these [furs] were purchased they were a real celebration.”
The idea for Fur20 evolved from an evening out with girlfriends four years ago. Over dinner, one of Ms. Graham’s close friends shared a story about her own mother’s fur coat. The friend fondly remembered falling asleep on top of the fur coat every Christmas Eve as a young girl. But after her mother had passed away, and she had inherited the coat, she didn’t quite know what to do with it. And so the coat remained unworn, hanging at the back of her closet. The story touched Ms. Graham so much that she went thrifting and purchased her own vintage fur, a black mink, and suggested they wear the coats at their monthly girls’ night out.
After buying her first fur, Ms. Graham started noticing vintage fur coats everywhere. While shopping thrift stores, estate sales, Craigslist and eBay for her interior design work (she finds many of her mid-century pieces that way), she kept coming across old furs, once-upon-a-time heirlooms –often with someone’s initials proudly stitched into the lining— for next to nothing. It struck her as incredibly sad because these coats were once celebrated and loved by real people, and, at the same time, the designer in her noted that it was a complete waste of expensive material. Ms. Graham told she-files that that was the beginning of Fur20. Excited by the idea for her new business, she picked up the phone and called furriers and seamstresses across Denver. But no one was willing to work on the fur coats. “It’s a tricky material to work with,” Ms. Graham said.
Undeterred, she turned to the Internet and found a furrier in Dallas willing to help. As luck would have it, Joel Kaye, a third-generation furrier, happened to be in Denver for a few days, so she tracked him down and was soon shipping her collection of furs to Dallas to be remade into hats. As the business grew, she added scarves, cuffs and, most recently, pillows.
After an article about Fur20 appeared in “Modern in Denver” magazine last year, Ms. Graham, began receiving unsolicited donations of inherited furs. One such donation came from a gentleman whose mother had left him two fur coats that had been in storage at upscale U.S. department store Neiman Marcus for more than 20 years. Ms. Graham met her client, picked up the coats and shipped them to Mr. Kaye who made a hat, a complicated undertaking with fur.
He carefully removed the monogram from the coat’s lining and reattached it to the hat’s lining, preserving a piece of history in the process. It was an emotional experience for Ms. Graham and her client, and something she spoke of with sincere respect, adding that being able to give someone a memento from a deceased loved one that they both treasure and use is gratifying.
Another benefit was that Ms. Graham was able to use the leftover fur for other products since a typical full-length coat yields around six items—three cuffs, a hat, and two pillows. What’s more, that leftover fur was good for something other than Fur20’s bottom line. Not intent with just upcyling a surplus of vintage furs, Ms. Graham also sought out a non-profit organization, Clothes to Kids of Denver, giving approximately one-third of her profits to the charity that allows any child or teenager whose family is in need five outfits, twice a year for free. What started as a desire to give old fur coats a new purpose and to comfort a friend has turned not only into a successful business but one that gives back to the community as well.
Photo Credit: Photos courtesy of Angie Graham.