New York Apparel Peopling of New York, Spring 2015

New York Apparel


Rabbit Wearing Russian Women

By Ann Privorotskiy

There is an undeniable correlation between Soviet immigrant women and fur coats, or “shubas” as they are called in Russian. The fur comes from many animals including fox, rabbit, chinchilla, sheep, mink, beaver, and even otter. Once the animal is skinned, the pelt then goes through an extensive chemical treatment of soaking and degreasing agents, enzymes, oils, bleaches, dyes, reinforcing agents, and finishing chemicals, so that it can look as fabulous as possible when on the back of a woman. Why is it that the fur coat is a “must-have” item for Russian women all throughout New York City? In heavily Russian populated communities such as Brighton Beach, women can be seen showing off these lavish garments, which can in some cases cost the same as four years’ tuition CUNY. Many Russian women consider a fur coat to be the equivalent of a coming of age tradition: you are not truly considered a woman unless there is a mink or two hanging in your closet. Russian website,, asked event coordinator, Lyudmila Andronova, of her opinion of this trend: she is convinced that “it’s 100% an element of prestige, because even though a fur coat keeps you warm, first and foremost it opens doors to nice places, and that’s why many Russian women wear them.” Women who wear these garments believe that a fur coat will get them an invite to the year’s hottest gala, a date with one of New York’s richest men, and access to every elite social club in the city. While this may be one reason that Russian women are so into fur coats, there are many other probable explanations. Many women find that their wardrobe should be parallel to their pride; you came from a country where you were a poor nobody, and now you’re in America where you’ve turned yourself into a success story, so now you want to share that story through the fox you wear around your shoulders. Every immigrant group feels the need to share their success stories in one way or another- whereas Italians might want to invest in extravagant homes because of their property struggles back in Italy, Russian women choose to display their accomplishments through clothing. Back in their original country, fur was only something that the royals could afford to boast, which left all the other women in envy. Now, here in America, after a woman receives her first big promotion or bonus, it is not unlikely that she will choose to invest it on a shuba.


Kim Kardashian’s daughter, North West, in a fur coat.

Trade in furs is one of the oldest economic activities in Russia. In early times, forests were abundant in animals with valuable fur pelts, which ancient Slavs, who were the ancestors of the Russian people, then naturally exploited. By the ninth century, present-day Russia was a land that had already placed the trade in furs as one of the primary components in their economic life. There was a great influx of Russian immigrants to New York during the second half of the 20th century, which was a time when Russia was under communist rule. My mother recalls how money was scarce back in Ukraine and how there was never a day when she wasn’t extremely aware of how little money her family had. She also recalls how her fur coat was her first grand purchase after she landed her first big job in New York, “it made me feel like I was a new person,” she enthusiastically says. Whereas originally, the fur coat was intended to be an item that only the upper class can afford to wear, nowadays especially in New York, women from various ends of the middle class are also partaking in this fashion choice. There’s a Russian saying that goes “we are not so rich that we can buy cheap merchandise.” People in the middle class have to focus their incomes on paying off their mortgages and sending their kids to college, however, they can’t help but want a taste of luxury. For Russian women, they feel like it’s either go big or go home; either spend several thousands of dollars on one article of clothing that’ll last you for years, or don’t bother spending a cent on anything at all. Fur is glamour, and when you make the first step in life you want a nice car, nice clothing, nice jewelry, and fur is a part of all of that. Generalization is a dangerous thing; however, it is a pretty safe bet that if you see a Russian woman in a fur coat, she wants to show off and be recognized. An interesting phenomenon is the decrease in the fur trend among Russians here from the second or third generation, who stop showing off what they achieve, because they don’t have to. Being born into the middle-class is obviously not something that can parallel the rags to riches stories that many of our immigrant parents experienced firsthand. Being born in America, or coming here at a young age, is a completely different experience from coming here as an adult and having to restart your life. It is understandable why there is this thirst among Russian women to get attention through extravagant garments.


Fashion magazine ad promoting the faux fur trend.

I chose to visit a fur shop not too far from my house, which caters to the large Russian population that surrounds it. As I entered, I immediately felt unwelcome by the three employees who should have been eager to see a visitor in their empty store. “What is she doing here?” I heard one of them say in Russian to the other- “I’ll take care of it,” the other one replied. I was unsure if they just didn’t know I could understand them, or if they didn’t care and wanted to be blatantly rude. The employee approached me and with a fake smile asked, “Can I help you?” I told her I was just looking around and before I could tell her about the purpose of my visit, she immediately said “We don’t allow young people in without a parent.” I understood that since I look very much like a student, the idea was that I’m not in the financial situation to purchase anything in the store, and am therefore just wasting their time. After being shamed for not having the money to purchase anything in the store, I decided to try again at a different store, except this time with the most popular woman on Brighton Beach- my grandmother. Since she knew the storeowner at her local fur shop, I had much more luck actually engaging in conversation with someone who regularly deals with fur obsessed Russian women. When I asked him how he got involved in the business, he told me that he’s been in the fur industry since before he immigrated from Moscow, so it was a pretty smooth transition for him. I thought it was interesting how when I explained that the purpose of my project was to reveal why Russian women are so hooked on fur, he laughed because he thought the answer was so obvious. “Russian women, and women in general, love to be noticed…coming from a Communism regime where individuality was impossible, it’s natural that Russian immigrant women would want to make a statement through their apparel.” He summarized the whole concept of showing off their success through expensive garments, and how the more expensive the fur, the more pride it gives them. When I asked about his clientele base, he told me that a good 90% of people who walk in through his store doors are not New York born. He attributes this to the fact that the younger generation, which is New York born, would rather spend on other lavish designer items such as handbags and shoes. He also highlighted how this past season, the fur image has become very trendy among young adults, however his sales didn’t show a dramatic increase.This is because younger people chose to purchase significantly cheaper faux-fur, which they felt was just as aesthetically pleasing as genuine fur. With faux-fur items pricing at around $50, it is no wonder that New York young adults are choosing it over the real deal.


Russian woman in fur coat, mid-winter on Brighton Beach Avenue.

In addition to interviewing the storeowner, my mother gave me the contact information of one of her good friends, who has a notorious reputation for spending her savings on fur. She has 4 mink coats and came to America at the age of 28- “I had to start from scratch, like the first 28 years of my life were pointless” she recalls. When I asked her why she keeps running back to her fur shop for more, she replied “It reminds me why I came to this country…it makes it all feel worth it. All the blood, sweat, and tears that I put into remaking myself, it was so that I can be the kind of woman who can afford to go out, buy a shuba, and know that I deserve it.” I asked her how she feels when she wears her fur- she laughed, and said “Like how you guys say in America…like a million bucks.” She told me how flattered she feels when she goes out in her fur, and loves the feeling of having strangers looking at her outfit. “I feel like people treat me with respect…a fur coat means I mean business, and when people see me for the first time, they get that right away.”

Originally, fur was something very closely correlated to Russian culture, however, this is no longer the case because recently fur has become a general trend in the fashion industry. In a fashion conscious city like New York, it is not surprising that people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds are representing the animal of their choice on their backs.

Activists of the animal rights group 'People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' (PETA) campaign against fur trade in Moscow November 24, 2008.  REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov  (RUSSIA)

Activists of the animal rights group ‘People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA) campaign against fur trade in Moscow November 24, 2008. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov (RUSSIA)

The fur industry receives many criticisms from organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The primary argument is that animals on fur farms spend their entire lives in confined and cramped cages, and when they are killed, the cheapest and cruelest methods are used. When I asked the fur storeowner what he thought about these issues, he was very puzzled, because he failed to see how it was any of his concern. “What do you mean…? People are going to have a problem with everything…that’s what happens when people get jealous because they can’t afford something- they protest against it,” he reasoned. He then proceeded to tell me lies, which I don’t know if he actually believed or not, about how animals at fur farms are receive nothing short of humane treatment. He changed the subject and started telling me about the happiness that his products bring to his clients, and how for him, that’s all that matters. After ten minutes of trying to sell me a fur coat and telling me how it’ll help me find a rich husband, I escaped the store.

The fur coat turns the Russian woman fearless- it makes her think she can take anything by storm and has the world at the palm of her hand. It is in the Russian mindset to care a lot about what other people think about you, and the fur coat guarantees that people will think you have a lot of money and prestige. Coming from a background where people would have to fight for a loaf of bread, arriving in America and being able to afford your own mink is the ultimate sign of making it.

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