Last of the Furriers

Decades removed from its gaudy heyday, one of the world’s preeminent tailors continues crafting coats for New York’s dwindling class of fur-lovers.

Last of the Furriers

The bland Midtown office building is wedged between a Korean restaurant and a Korean bank, and across from a “Fone Shop.” In the equally bland lobby, written in black marker on printer paper taped to a locked door, is a note: “Sorbara customers: call (212) 594-3897 and we will come down to let you in.” Inside this building, on the eleventh floor, sits the showroom of one of the best furriers in the U.S., some say the best in the world: Jerry Sorbara. The man in question has been tailoring furs for over fifty years. You’ve seen his work draped over NBA stars and enveloping actresses on the red carpet, but probably never here, on West 32nd Street in Manhattan’s Koreatown.

I call the number, and Jerry Sorbara’s son, Sal Sorbara, comes down to fetch the photographer and me. We shove our hands in our coat pockets against the cold November wind while we wait. Sal unlocks the door and escorts us to the elevator. The flirting starts as soon as the elevator doors close.

“You both have blue eyes,” he says to us. “You could be sisters! You’re the same size too, so tiny!” At six-foot-six he’s got sixteen inches on us, and at forty-two, more than a few years, too. But he’s handsome and, frankly, something of a charmer.

When the elevator doors open, Sal ushers us into the fur room. It’s tastefully decorated, with marble floors and heavy wooden chairs and desks. On the north wall, built-in cabinetry in dark wood holds racks of fur coats in a rainbow of colors—red, purple, black, white, striped, spotted and brown. Two rolling racks stand against the walls, one holding fur blankets in brown and fuchsia, and the other yet more coats. The showroom is empty and quiet.

Jerry is farther back in the workshop, bent over an ancient fur sewing machine working on a purse of American alligator and sable. The torn canvas covering the bottom of the machine is dirty and oiled, the paint on the arm is worn away. Dust and fur cling to the top. Behind him, sitting atop plywood tables, are several fifty-year-old black metal Singer sewing machines, with scrolled metal foot petals the size of encyclopedias.

Jerry works deliberately as he talks to me, stopping and starting the machine. He runs a seam through two disks that look like smooth-edged gears, stitching lining into the purse.

“I believe in my work,” he says in his thick Italian accent. “If I could design the Brooklyn Bridge in fur, I could sell it. Got that one? Give me five.” He leans over and palms my hand, then turns back to fuss with the purse. “We always like to take our time and get things right. I try to make coats with no excuses. My coats, they have to be the best. And they are the best.”

Jerry and Sal could talk, and do talk, for hours about their clients—who, by all accounts, adore both Sorbaras and the coats they sell. One client bought so many coats, they tell me, she turned a room in her home into the “Jerry Sorbara” gallery, displaying all the coats on mannequins and keeping the room cool for proper storage.  A diplomat’s wife from D.C. wrote a rapturous short story about a vintage Sorbara sable.

Jerry Sorbara in his Koreatown workshop.
Jerry Sorbara in his Koreatown workshop.

Jerry pulls out his smartphone and taps on the screen to bring up a picture of a blond Texan in a purple satin jacket and dress, a big sparkling diamond bracelet on her wrist, carrying a matching purple fur bag. It looks like one of those “about town” pictures you see in society magazines. He closes the picture to show me the text message from her: “I loved carrying your gorgeous fur bag!”

Jerry and Sal Sorbara.
Jerry and Sal Sorbara.

Despite his seventy-three years, Jerry is just as big of a flirt as Sal. “You have a beautiful smile. You make me so nervous, I can’t thread the machine,” he says. He switches seats with me to work at the table, hand-stitching a seam with a thimble on his finger.

Over his half-century tailoring fur for women and men alike, Jerry has seen styles evolve from opulent, fluffy coats to tiny, apologetic vests and jackets that are hardly recognizable as fur.

He pulls a leather book down off the shelf, and opens it. It has rough sketches of coats with measurements and notes beside them. Most are either vests or cropped coats with flared waists. Women now often bring in old-fashioned, to-the-floor coats with long hair and padded shoulders, and he shears them, or even takes the pelts completely apart and puts them back together into something smaller.

It looks like every coat Sorbara has been asked to tailor recently is just being downsized and made less ostentatious. I ask why he thinks women don’t wear as much fur, especially the full coats. He says, “Women didn’t teach their children what is the most beautiful things in life: Furs. Diamonds.”

Girolamo “Jerry” Sorbara was born in 1939 in Calabria, a southern province of Italy, to a brick mason and housewife. He began apprenticing with a local tailor at the age of eight. At fourteen, his family moved to Genoa, where he studied under another tailor, and where he first ran a shop on his own at fifteen, when that tailor went away on a month-long vacation.

Jerry Sorbara hand stitches a garment.
Jerry Sorbara hand stitches a garment.

In 1955, when Jerry was sixteen, he and his father moved to Westchester, New York, and soon after sent for his two brothers, sister and mother. Jerry worked for a custom tailor in Greenwich, Connecticut, then Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue in Westchester. Before long, a father-son furrier team in White Plains heard about his talent, poached him, and taught him how to transfer his skills to fur. He was with them for just a year and a half before he landed a job in Manhattan  with Ben Kahn, a famous furrier who outfitted the likes of Eva Peron and Cher. Jerry was twenty-two years old.

It didn’t take long for him to develop a following among Ben Kahn’s customers. Once they pulled on a coat he had designed for them, they would shower him with ecstatic hugs and kisses. (He often talks about how the tailoring on coats can create a slimming appearance for women, which many of them appreciated.) But Jerry was more than a skilled designer—he was a fur pioneer. In 1962, he convinced Kahn to let him start dying furs. It was a hit with customers at the time and is now seen as a definitive fashion statement of the ’60s.

A colorful array of coats at Sorbara Furs
A colorful array of coats at Sorbara Furs

In 1975, Jerry sat down with the heads of the company and asked to be made a partner, but Kahn’s son-in-law just laughed at him. So Jerry up and left, taking Ben Kahn’s nephew, Ted Kahn; the head cutter; and the head saleswoman, with him. He set up just three floors above Kahn’s showroom, in the same building on Fifth Avenue. When customers found out Jerry was gone, they would head down to the lobby, inquire with the doorman and then take the elevator right back up to the fifteenth floor.

Business boomed. Sorbara furs were soon sold in Neiman Marcus, Saks and Bloomingdale’s. Jerry outfitted Jackie Onassis, Muhammad Ali, Walt Frazier of the New York Knicks, and Elizabeth Taylor. In the 1987 film “No Way Out,” the actress Sean Young wore a Sorbara fur as she cavorted with Kevin Costner. A picture of Anna Nicole Smith shows the late model draped over a chair, pouting inside a massive, fluffy white Sorbara piece.

At its height, Jerry Sorbara Furs employed twenty-eight people. Clients would be greeted by a receptionist and then handed over to one of a team of sales reps. His seven-thousand-square-foot space housed a factory where twelve employees churned out several floor-length coats, jackets, short jackets and capes  a day. The business grossed over five million dollars a year.

Minks were—and still are, to some extent—the staple of Sorbara’s business. They started at $8,000 but could go all the way up to $50,000 for a rare “Black Willow” coat from the famous and hyper-exclusive Utah ranch. Good Russian sable could run into the hundreds of thousands. “Do you know how busy we were?” Jerry says, as we talk in the empty Koreatown showroom. “We had several customers come in every day.”

In 1981, Jerry bought out his two partners. That same year, Neiman Marcus approached him to sign an exclusive contract. It looked like a plum opportunity—Jerry was guaranteed a certain level of sales each year. For about a decade, this worked well. Representatives from Neiman would come take a look at what Jerry had designed and put in orders for their stores across the country. They directed their best customers straight to Jerry to have bespoke furs custom-made.

Sal, who joined the business in 1987 at the age of twenty-two, remembers the time a wealthy Californian woman wanted to buy a coat made from the best Black Willow furs of the year. Neiman Marcus flew her to New York, put her up in a hotel, and treated her to dinner with Jerry. “It was a big production,” Sal says. “The fur business way back when was really exciting and fun. It was probably one of the most prestigious businesses at the time. It was so celebrity-feeling.”

The decline of fur started in the ’90s, when China flooded the market with low-quality mink that sold for just $1,500 a coat. “The imports, they were shit,” Sal says. “Now, it was like everyone could have them. A client’s maid would come in, and she would have a mink coat on.”

At the suggestion of Neiman Marcus, Jerry started having a portion of his furs pieced together in a Hong Kong factory and then shipped to him for finishing, to cut costs.

But while he could change production tactics to compete with China, Jerry couldn’t do much about fur’s declining popularity. When grunge music’s influence began to take over pop culture, what had once seemed glamorous started to look stodgy. Jerry and Sal adapted by designing furs that didn’t look so ostentatiously furry. They sheared and cut diamond and wave patterns into the fur. They made jackets of lightweight knit fur, which comes without the underlying leather and can even be see-through. When they pioneered stretch fur hats, Neiman Marcus ordered three thousand. Jerry produced fur bustiers, which women would wear out to New York nightclubs. He even made fur bikinis on request for a Brazilian client’s fourteen-year-old daughter.

The business granted customers their wishes, odd as some of them were, “but it wasn’t enough,” according to Jerry. The new players in the fur game were “eating each other alive on price,” he says. “There was no pride.”

When the landlord raised the rent on their showroom in 1994, Sal bought the floor where Sorbara Furs is now located, which is half the size of the old space.

Today, Sorbara employs just four people: Jerry does the designing and tailoring; his son Sal runs the business side; Jerry’s daughter Cathy comes in twice a week to balance the books; and a fourth employee, Greg, helps with sales. They contract out to two factories, one in Hong Kong and two in Manhattan’s Garment District.

Jerry Sorbara fitting a customer
Jerry Sorbara fitting a customer

Globally, the fur market has actually boomed in recent years. Worldwide fur sales are now fifteen billion dollars, up from 9.1 billion in 2000, mainly due to expanding wealth in Russia and China. But because of his contract with Neiman, Jerry hasn’t had access to those markets. In 1991, U.S. fur sales were one billion dollars. Now they are at $1.34 billion, but mostly in smaller, shorter pieces and accents for garments instead of the full-length money-makers that Sorbara specializes in. There used to be a Fur Fashion Week; not anymore. Animal rights activists claim their protests made the organizers and attendees nervous. The Fur Information Council of America counters that fur is so popular with designers that it’s integrated into New York Fashion Week and there’s no need for a Fur Week any longer. Fur vests have, indeed, been cited as a trend for winter this year by Elle magazine, and several designers sent fur down the runway for Fall/Winter 2012 in the form of purses and trim on coats. But what got more press was the faux fur trend. None of which helps Jerry sell flowing mink coats.

Sal also blames global warming. “The weather has gotten warmer and warmer,” he says, providing yet another reason for Americans to buy fewer furs.

Sorbara’s remaining customers are mostly older women who have no moral qualms about strutting around in fur. Some weeks, the showroom sees only one client, and they gross less than two million dollars a year in sales—compared to five million dollars at their peak back in the ’80s. After paying for materials, labor, taxes, insurance and other business costs, Jerry and Sal are able to pay themselves what Sal calls a middle class salary.

This past year, Sorbara Furs finally ended its exclusive contract with Neiman Marcus, after three decades. They’ll still sell to Neiman, but now they can sell elsewhere, too. Sal describes the decision as “mutual.” The sales just weren’t there anymore. Now, Sal is trying to get Jerry’s furs into smaller boutiques, including one in China. But they don’t have the manpower to go out and pitch their product to boutiques abroad, or the capital to open their own stores.

Jerry puts down the purse and starts working on a spotted ocelot vest with black leather paneling down the side. I ask him how much it would sell for. Nothing, is his answer. Technically, the purse is valueless. Ocelot is endangered, and he could never legally accept money for it. He can only remodel it for the existing owner. This type of work costs between $750 and $1,000.

“We don’t use any endangered animals,” Jerry says. “We don’t even use Alaskan seal. First of all, it’s not nice. Second, we don’t want to get in trouble with the law.”

Fur farming suffers from the same controversies that plague conventional meat production, with allegations of inhumane conditions and claims that animals aren’t put down before being skinned (with graphic video evidence out of China). A 2006 Humane Society investigation found that dogs and cats were being slaughtered in China and the Czech Republic to be used on fur collars, and the United States banned the sale of dog fur in 2002 when it was revealed to have been used on some parka jacket hoods. Fur farming is now banned in Austria and the United Kingdom altogether, and is being phased out in Croatia. Restrictions are so strict in Switzerland that there are no fur farms there anymore. Norway banned fur from its Oslo Fashion Week in 2011, and, this summer, a bill was introduced in Israel to ban the fur trade completely.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has featured celebrities like Penelope Cruz, Chad Ochocinco, Bethenny Frankel, Pamela Anderson and Kelly Osbourne in anti-fur ads. One of the hottest tickets at the 2011 New York Fashion Week in February was an anti-fur party hosted by Stella McCartney, Olivia Munn and Tim Gunn.

Jerry, not surprisingly, is unmoved. “Everything is made through animal things,” he says. “Either people are a hundred percent vegetarian and they don’t do anything wrong to animals, or they can’t afford fur, or they don’t look good in it…they are too short and fat…”

The fur industry, including the International Fur Trade Federation, the Fur Information Council of America and the Fur Council of Canada, has a new strategy: touting fur as the eco-friendly, biodegradable, renewable and natural option. And it might even work. More and more environmentally-conscious consumers are okay with eating meat as long as they know where it comes from. Similarly, the handmade fur purses hanging around the Sorbara showroom play into the current obsession with all things organic and handmade—they are assembled by Jerry himself, right in the back. And the fur industry’s new “Origin Assured” program lists fur purveyors who sell only fur that “has come from a country where welfare regulations or standards governing fur production are in force.”

But fur isn’t like leather or Jell-O, or even foie gras, for that matter. It is so obviously an animal product; you can imagine the fluffy small creature it came from. And at least so far, today’s generation of pork belly-eating, bone marrow-slurping New Yorkers still aren’t donning fur coats.

We’ve been at Sorbara Furs for a couple of hours, and no clients have come in. Jerry pulls a rainbow-colored, mid-length coat off a rack in the showroom. It has yellow, orange, red, green and purple inch-wide horizontal stripes in knit fur. He insists I hold it by the hanger. It’s lighter than a typical raincoat. “It’s half the cost [of a typical mink coat]. And it’s a climate-conducive coat,” he says, meaning it’s built for warmer winters. A woman from Greenwich bought it in four solid colors, one with sable trim, for about $30,000 total.

New York is the largest fur market in the U.S., and Greenwich and New York City in particular provide the bulk of Sorbara’s remaining customers. Its clientele is made up of the 0.1 percent, the kind of people who can drop the price of a college education on a garment. Clients usually arrive through word-of-mouth, though Sorbara has advertised in the past in The New York TimesTown & Country, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair.

But you don’t have to live in the tri-state area to experience Sorbara customer service. Jerry and Sal will come to you, wherever you are—for the right price. Around the time that Lehman Brothers collapsed, they flew out to Michigan to sell a $375,000 Russian sable to a Neiman Marcus customer.  That’s not even the most expensive coat they’ve ever sold; the honors for that title go to an all-belly Russian mink they sold in Japan in the ’80s, for $425,000.

There are two entrances to the sixty-square-foot fur vault where the Sorbaras safely store client furs over the summer. The doors, leading in from the showroom and from the workshop, are big, black and glossy, with gold lettering, a numbered dial and a large rotating handle in the center. Inside, furs hang from racks that are three rows deep and two high. Mink pelts hang in bundles from the ceiling (mercifully free of paws or heads).

The vault can hold about 1,500 coats, but it’s only half-full during my visit—clients have been taking their coats out for the start of winter. In the hundreds of coats that remain, there’s sable and mink, of course, and chinchilla, red and silver fox, broadtail (a Russian animal in the lamb family), karakul (another type of East Asian lamb), Persian lamb, Mongolian lamb, tanuki (Japanese raccoon, very popular in the ’80s), vintage leopard and jaguar, fisher (an animal from the weasel family) and beaver. I stroke the soft fur of a chinchilla coat—it’s intoxicating. I feel like a kid in her parents’ liquor cabinet, like I really shouldn’t be in here.

The first clients of the day arrive; Sal goes down to fetch them and bring them up via the elevator. It’s a middle-aged woman, Valerie, her husband Peter and her mother, who bought a coat from Jerry in the ’70’s, which she handed down to Valerie. Today they’ve come to have a pair of shearlings altered.

Jerry is polite about it. “I don’t do this here,” he says, “but I have a girl who does shearling.” (Later he will share with me his disdain for shearling—it’s low quality and he won’t work with it personally. He’ll do the pinning, and then hand it over to someone else.) While Jerry circles Peter, tugging at the hem of his coat and pinning with oversized safety pins, Sal flirts with Valerie, pulling mink coats off the rack to let Valerie feel them. She ’s in fits of giggles as he compliments her.

Sal loves to flirt with the clients, and his favorite word to describe coats is “sexy.”  When trying to sell a coat, he’ll say, “I have something really sexy, you want to see it?” He says it with pride. “Who doesn’t want to feel sexy?”

When the fitting is done, Sal offers to show them the vault. Everyone files inside. Valerie emerges wearing a Russian sable coat in dark brown. She looks at herself in the three-way mirror. She smiles, shrugs her shoulders up to her ears and giggles nervously again as she hands it back to Sal—too expensive for her. “Oh, let me show you a reversible, light, beautiful coat,” he says. “This looks like it was made for you.” Again, she bursts into giggles. It’s a velvety red coat, only $2,500.

“Oh, it is beautiful, yes they’re all beautiful,” she says. But it seems like they’re eager to get out of there, before they do something they’ll regret. Their visit only lasts twenty minutes.

Later, Sal tells me he knew from the get-go they wouldn’t buy anything. Not to say he doesn’t know how to make a sale. He speaks with pride about the time he once up-sold a husband from a $35,000 coat to a $65,000 silvery sable—his first independent sale.

The main client of the day finally arrives, an hour and a half late. She’s brought her two nieces, eighteen-year-old Remi and sixteen-year-old Eryn. They’re from Greenwich. Sal tells Eryn she’s beautiful. Eryn blushes.

Sal disappears into the vault and comes out pushing a rolling rack of coats, which he sets up between two three-way mirrors. The rack holds a fraction of the forty coats bequeathed to the aunt by her wealthy mother. Today they’re updating them for her nieces. Sal’s job is to keep everyone entertained and comfortable, while Jerry does the tailoring.

Sal Sorbara
Sal Sorbara

“Look, she went right for the gold,” Sal says as Remi helps herself into a gold Russian sable. “Are you kidding!” the aunt cries in horror. “Get that off!” Remi smiles and shrugs out of the prize coat, putting it on the rack. Remi’s brother and the aunt’s husband arrive. The husband gives Jerry a big hug and sits down in one of the upholstered chairs to observe. Sal talks to the brother about sports.

Remi gasps in delight as Jerry brings out the ocelot vest from the back, its edges still raw. He proposes doing something similar with one of the coats available. She wants something she can wear at college—she’s hoping to get into Boston University. I ask her if she would ever wear a full fur coat. “Yeah. I mean, I dress mature for my age, I guess. But not in my town. People are judgmental.” She pauses, seems to reconsider. “Well, I might.”

Jerry slips a brown fur coat on her. It’s down past her hips, with puffy sleeves. After some discussion, the aunt, Jerry and Remi all come to an agreement on what to do about the sleeves and Jerry pins the ends. He takes the coat from her and walks it to the back room.

Remi wanders over to the inset racks on the north wall and finds a leopard-print coat. “Oh. My. God.” The aunt comes over and they murmur to each other, heads together as they paw through the rest of the coats. Jerry returns. He shows her the shoulder pad he took out of the brown sable coat. She tries it on. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, much better.”

Sal sits down at one of the desks and takes out an order form. Jerry dictates. “Take out shoulder pads. Draw in neckline. Tack cuffs back.”

It helps, when considering whether to buy a $30,000-plus coat, to be in a certain mood—feeling beautiful, risky and almost illicit. This is Sal’s strength, making everyone feel comfortable, and promoting a devil-may-care attitude with his clients.

While Jerry gets back to work helping Remi and her aunt with more coats, Sal flirts with Eryn. “You have two things going for you,” he says. “Well, you have a hundred things going for you. Look at you. But one things is that you blush.” She blushes again, putting her hands to her face.

Remi wanders over and drapes herself on a chair next to Sal’s desk. Sal flirts with her, she flirts back, telling him about her last few boyfriends, all in their twenties. Sal texts his son to tell him he’s got a girl he wants him to meet, and includes Remi’s number. His son texts back to ask how old she is. “Tell him I’m twenty-one,” Remi says.

The rolling rack is growing sparse, as Jerry pins coat after coat for the two girls and the aunt plus a couple of coats for two other nieces, ages eight and thirteen, who aren’t here. The aunt brings out her checkbook. The rolling rack is put away. A late lunch is discussed, coats go back on, and everyone files slowly toward the elevator. They spent $9,000 to get all the coats taken apart, sheared and put back together. But they didn’t buy anything new.

It’s around four p.m. now. Jerry puts on his coat and prepares to head out to catch a train home to Connecticut. Sal walks around the showroom, switching off the lights.

It’s unclear if Sorbara Furs will be able to continue if Jerry retires. Sal doesn’t know the tailoring or designing side of the business. He tried it for a couple of years when he was younger, but stopped to focus on selling. “It was fun, but that’s not my forté,” he admits.

After Ben Kahn retired, a luxury fashion company bought his business and dismantled it.

Jerry, though, doesn’t seem to be frail or tired. Before I leave, I ask him if he plans to retire. “Everybody is asking me that. My wife asked me that when I was seventy years old. I said, ‘Are you out of your cotton-picking mind? You want me to stop making women happy and warm?”