Our Building Has Furriers

Maisonneuve Magazine, December 2004

Riding the elevator with forty dead foxes

Maisonneuve’s new home, the twelve-storey Gordon Brown building at the corner of Bleury and de Maisonneuve, is inhabited almost entirely by furriers. There are dozens of manufacturers in the massive downtown building, all producing coats, hats and various other fur-lined accoutrements by the thousand. Maisonneuve is one of only a handful of tenants not in the fur business.

There are a number of oddities, and some inconveniences, that come with working in this kind of building. The elevators, for example, are constantly in use, as men transport huge bundles of pelts between floors. A visitor to the magazine stranded on the ground floor waiting for the elevator (5, then 6, back up to 5, then 6) will be confronted with a lobby where a vaguely Soviet aesthetic is at play, where ostentation and brute utility uneasily co-exist. The floor and walls are fake marble, but the space is lit by sterile fluorescent bulbs. The display windows hold mannequins in glossy mink coats, but these mannequins have the Band-Aid complexions and vacant expressions that mark them as products of the seventies.

There was a time when the Gordon Brown building was the centre of the world’s fur industry. According to Angelos Argiriou, one of the four brothers who run Argiriou Furs on the first floor of the Gordon Brown, during its peak in the 1970s, Montreal’s fur industry employed some 3,500 people, all stretching, cutting and sewing furs in a few buildings within a three-block radius of 400 de Maisonneuve. “It was the most knowledgeable place about furs in the world, anywhere in the world,” he says, with not a little nostalgia. “We had the most experts. People came from everywhere to get furs from here.”

Today, the local industry is only a fraction of its former size. The anti-fur movement, combined with the market crash in the late eighties and the ability of countries with cheaper labour costs to make coats for a fraction of the price, dealt the furriers a blow from which many have never recovered. Most of the buildings in the area have either been converted to luxury lofts or sit empty.

The furriers who remain are people like the Argiriou brothers—immigrants or children of immigrants. During the fifties, a number of Greeks came to Canada from Kastoria, a city in the north of Greece named for the kastor, or beaver, which provides the region with the material for its largest industry. These initial immigrants, world-renowned for their expertise, quickly found work in the Montreal fur trade. After a few years, the Greeks began to buy manufacturing rooms of their own. As more Greek immigrants—not all of them from Kastoria—made their way to Montreal, many found their way into the workshops of their countrymen.

Angelos Argiriou came to Montreal in 1971 when he was just sixteen, after his older brother, who had already immigrated, encouraged him to make the move. When I talk to him, he does not seem eager to discuss his business.

“I’ve never heard of your magazine,” he tells me. We’re sitting in a sparsely decorated showroom stuffed with coats. Despite being the president of the business, Argiriou is wearing the white, fur-covered smock that is the uniform of choice for many of the Gordon Brown tenants.

“It’s called Maisonneuve. It’s a general-interest magazine. We’re right here, just on the sixth floor.” I gesture upwards, as if pointing to the spot where the office would be were the ceilings transparent.

“How many do you sell?”

I give him an optimistic estimate. He does not look impressed.

It’s only when he begins to show me the workspace that Angelos becomes enthused. “Every coast you make, it’s very… It’s like painting,” he says. “It’s the kind of a job where even the small decisions make a difference. It’s not like bricklaying. Every skin is different, because every animal is different.”

Making a fur coat is not a simple task. A coat is made out of dozens of skins, each of which is cut up into about 150 quarter-inch slices. Those slices are then meticulously sewn back together: a single mink coat contains about 7,500 seams. The intricacy of the work means that an assembly-line approach can only be taken so far. In the last fifty years, the process has been mechanized as much as possible. Workers now use a staple gun rather than the traditional hammer and tacks when stretching the furs, and machines do some of the cutting, but the difficult sleeves and collars must still be done by hand.

As you’d expect, learning the trade can take years. “There are a million details you have to think about when making a coat,” says Angelos. “You have to decide how you clean the skin, how you’re going to cut it, what line you’re going to take – not only to make the best coat, but also to get the most out of a single skin. It’s difficult, it’s an art.”

It may be a dying art. The last five years have actually been good to Montreal furriers, at least compared to the previous five. Still, talking to Angelos and the building’s other furriers – George, who never takes his eyes of the TV screen as he sits in the showroom with his wife and watches the Athens Olympics, or the charming, slick-haired, open-shirted Perry Harris from Harris Furs – it’s clear that they feel the skills they’ve spent their lives perfecting are becoming irrelevant. There isn’t enough work, and, increasingly, there aren’t enough workers either. The last generation of skilled furriers is getting older, and it is becoming more and more difficult to find people willing to spend years learning a trade that no longer guarantees a job.

On the day I visit Argiriou Furs, there are five operators working in white smocks: four middle-aged men and one younger Asian woman. Tufts of fur fly everywhere, collecting on the windowsills and in the crooks of the swing-arm table lamps; the operators, their sewing machines loudly jigging, simply blow it out of their faces. The men have been there for years, Angelos says, but the young woman is relatively new. “I’m starting her off slow, just showing her a few things,” Angelos tells me. “She has to know how to work wth a few different kinds of furs. Working with mink isn’t the same as working with fox, you know?”

The young woman’s presence, a hopeful sign, may be too little, too late. A few weeks ago, a computer company moved in next door to the Maisonneuve office. They quickly set up a series of cubicles in the open space and brought in plastic office furniture. Like us, they’re exactly the kind of tenants the landlords are looking for. In about ten years, the building that was once at the centre of the world’s fur industry could be entirely furrier-free. The elevator may come more frequently, but the Gordon Brown will have lost something.