A Kansas City man has dedicated his life to the dying art of fur coats KCUR 89.3

Bart Atkins worked on thousands of fur coats, but he made only one coat for himself from a long beaver skin. He doesn’t wear it anymore because he didn’t like the attention it got at the grocery store—everyone wants to feel skin when they see it.

Atkins, 64, keeps the coat in a temperature-controlled basement filled with thousands of others. The vault is adjacent to his workshop at Overland Park-based Alaskan Fur, where he worked for more than 40 years.

As a furrier, he designs custom-made coats and accessories from a notoriously difficult and expensive material. He’s been doing it long enough to call himself a master of the craft.

“How to sew, how to cut, how to design cuts — you can’t just know how to do one thing,” Atkins said. “There are so many parts of it that you have to learn.”

Thousands of customer furs are stored in Alaskan Fur’s basement.

This is a rare skill and becoming rarer. He doesn’t like to toot his own horn, but Atkins believes he’s one of the few people in the U.S. still doing this kind of intensive custom leather work. He has traveled the country to design for clients.

As people buy fewer leather 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 sentimentality,” 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

The coat begins with cutting, wetting and stretching the fur. Atkins can stretch six-by-eight-inch mink hide into a strip 51 inches long and two inches wide. The whole process can take two weeks. Wet hides must be stapled with a table stapler, sometimes with thousands of staples that are placed and later removed by hand.

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Bart Atkins sews two pieces of mink fur on a specialized fur sewing machine.

The strips are then sewn together to make a coat. Unlike fabric sewing machines, which hold and sew pieces horizontally, leather sewing machines hold pieces vertically between two wheels. The sewer must move the wheels at the same pace or the coat will wrinkle.

And unlike fabric, leather pieces require more precision because they must be sewn together at their very ends. The seams should then be rubbed by hand until they are flat.

Atkins says it took him two years to learn how to properly sew hides. The workers who help him finish the coats use triangular-tipped needles, much sharper than ordinary sewing needles. The process is laborious and sometimes dangerous.

“You have to learn to use a thimble so well or you’ll put the needle right through your fingers,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of people come here to work who have been sewing all their lives. They didn’t make it for a week because the material it’s sewn through is very hard.”

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Bart Atkins uses tweezers to get fur out of the way of a seam as he sews on a machine.

Atkins estimates he works on 60 to 120 coats a year, many of which are mink. A typical price for his work is $1,600 to $1,800. Many younger people want to turn the outdated coats inherited from their grandparents into contemporary pieces. Atkins refuses to work on heirlooms that are in utter disrepair.

“If he thinks the coat won’t last a stitch, he won’t take the job,” said Phil Wang, whose grandfather founded Alaskan Fur nearly 100 years ago. “So he has a lot of integrity.”

Instead, Atkins suggests repurposing worn pieces into accessories like cuffs or decorative pieces 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 it into a wristlet and a blanket to carry over the couch in my living room,” Atkins said. “It means the world to me. Whenever I feel like I need mommy, I can stick my nose in and I can still smell mommy.

Beginnings

Atkins grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, where he currently resides 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 runs the Standard Club, where Atkins began mopping floors at age 9.

“My father trained me,” he said. “I don’t think I had a childhood because I was always working.”

He went to Kansas City, Kansas Community College, where he trained as a tailor, but quickly realized he couldn’t make much money sewing. Through the Standard Club, Atkins met the owner of Alaskan Fur, Myer Finkel, who offered him a job in 1981.

Atkins spent his first year as a cleaner before being trained by furriers such as Oscar Donahue.

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To make a mink coat, six-by-eight-inch mink pelts are stretched into strips 51 inches long and two inches wide. They are then stitched together.

“The only reason I’m as good as I am today is because the original furriers I worked with were master furriers and knew every part of the business,” Atkins said. “And at the time, it was the hardest thing to do—the big Joan Crawford shoulders, the big puffy sleeves.”

Atkins credits her time at Alaskan Fur with paying off a mountain of medical debt and putting her two daughters through college. He worked about 70 hours a week for the company because he was paid hourly.

He has now scaled it back to a more standard work week, although he still comes to work around 6am and leaves in the early afternoon. What kept him going, he said, was the work ethic he learned from his mother.

“My mom always told me that no matter who you work for, you give one hundred percent,” he said. “If you don’t like where you work, you don’t own the company. Go somewhere else and give one hundred percent.

A declining industry

There is not much information about the American leather industry readily available to the public. The country’s leading fur industry group, the American Fur Councildid not respond to interview requests.

But Vogue Business reports that sales of genuine leather have declined in recent years, when faux leather and other vegan products are gaining popularity. The New York Times reports that many major fashion brands have stopped using leather entirely.

A November 2021 report by market research group IBIS World said the decline was a result of “public concern about the welfare of fur-bearing animals” and “competition from cheaply produced faux fur products.” For decades, animal rights activists have called fur clothing cruel and unnecessary.

About 1,500 fur workers remained in the U.S. in 2019, 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 start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Bart Aktins measures Cara Baeres for a coat change. Baeres’ mother works at Alaskan Fur and was a model for the store.

Compare that to about 10,000 fur workers in New York alone in the 1980s when Ross started in the fur business. But the rise of cheap overseas labor in that decade moved most fashion production overseas, including leather.

Ross estimates that the average leather worker is now in his 50s or 60s and nearing retirement.

“We are making regular contact with students because we need to reduce the average age of workers,” he said. “The whole fashion industry is in the same crisis.”

There are very few places in the U.S. where people can learn how to sew and design leather, said Kylie Alexander, a designer and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

At her design company, Alexander taught people to work with leather, often vintage or recycled. Some want to work only with faux leather, but this still requires the same tools and skills as working with real leather. Because real leather is both durable and biodegradable, Alexander sees it as more environmentally friendly than artificial leather.

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The vault at Alaskan Fur also contains old coats that are used to repair or add to clothing.

“We think of it as a luxury, but there’s a lot of value in discarded leather garments that can be repurposed,” she said.

Alexander studied leather design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the only school he 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 shop in recent years.

“It’s really kind of scary that these traditions don’t get passed down,” she said. “I think we’re going to see an industry pretty much disappear.”

Futures

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Bart Atkins in his beaver coat, the only coat he ever made for himself.

In the 1980s, 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 are half empty.

Atkins does not know who will replace him when he retires. He’s so busy right now that he doesn’t have time to train someone new.

“I’m in a dying profession,” he said. “As long as I’m healthy, I’ll keep doing it because I like it.”

But he has arthritis in both hands. He contracted COVID-19 in 2020 and is worried about getting it again because he works so closely with clients. He wants to play golf and spend more time with his grandchildren.

For now, he will stay with Alaskan Fur because he still enjoys working with customers and finding 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 I do very well just come from doing it for so long.

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