February 8, 2023

Athens News

News in English from Greece

Kastoria: war victims and fur traders

Kyknos Avenue, 32. This is where Nikos Katsanos decided to open his shop. And not without reason. In front of it lies the magnificent lake of Kastoria, and the windows bathe in the rays of the sun.

“Get up. The clients won’t come,” he tells me, greeting me. The Romanian couple who opened the door confronts him. In fluent English, they ask for a black fur coat for their daughter. They look through dozens of different designs – white, grey, beige, some longer, some shorter – but end up leaving empty-handed. An experienced furrier looks at us with a sad look. Even the tourists he counted on as minimal consolation could not help in a year that everyone in Kastoria describes in one word: “disaster”.

At the beginning of 2022, all omens pointed to a very good year for fur producers, which would compensate them for the losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic. “We were ready to launch new collections, we were excited. Customers from Russia were asking for new products,” he says. However, the war that broke out in Ukraine turned everything upside down. The city in Western Macedonia has become a “collateral” victim of the policy of sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union. Fur has been included among the luxury items that are banned from being exported to the country, with a ceiling of €300 in both retail and wholesale. The fur sector suffered the most in Kastoria, which directly or indirectly sold 95% of its production to Russia. “They destroyed an entire industry with one directive,” Mr. Katsanos said. Traces of this destruction are visible immediately after entering the city, where most companies or fur shops are either closed or not working.

The store of Nikos Katsanos is no exception. Under normal circumstances, at this time of year, Mr. Katsanos would be feverishly preparing for the release of the winter collection. Instead, after the war, he “froze” all his activities: the craft workshop was closed, the workers were sent on vacation, and he himself was at an impasse. If this continues for another year, he fears that the profession in Kastoria will be destroyed. Representing the third generation of furriers in his family, he cannot and does not want to imagine such a thing.

Akis Tsukas, President of the Association of Furriers of Kastoria, has only 5 employees. Photo by ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS

In fur workshops
The gray-haired man, like most of his colleagues, was born and raised in the fur workshops that existed in every lane of the city. There they learned the craft from their parents and grandparents. This feeling that fur is now in their DNA makes them stand out on a global level. “Art is not easy to learn, it can only be learned next to a good master. The masters of Kastoria are among the most sought after in the world. We know very well how it works,” he emphasizes.

“This year 1800 [из 4000] craftsmen left to work on the islands for the season. This has never happened before,” says Akis Tsukas, president of the Kastoria Goose Breeders Association, speaking of the unprecedented crisis. Tsukas shows us what this means with his own craft. Of the company’s 52 employees, only five remain. we try to keep good hands here,” he tells me, explaining that a good craftsman needs at least four months of training before he starts working properly.

In the craft shop, which smells of glue and leather, the sight of closed sewing machines and few people is depressing. The only car that beats rhythmically is Olga Shiomu’s, who has been at this job since she was 23 years old. “Back then it was a one-way street,” she tells me, her eyes fixed on the expensive furs she sews. She explains what this art has succeeded in: bringing together disparate areas of skin into a uniform, flawless result. This quality, achieved in the workshops of Kastoria, found a response in various regions of Russia.

“Here we don’t have a fur crisis like we used to. We have an export ban. We can’t work. It’s not fair!”

The opening of Kastoria to Russia took place, as the President of the Association says, in 1993, with favorable results for the economy of the region. In the Russian market, the city has found not only a public willing to pay dearly for quality furs, but also a public that is unlikely to be influenced by the arguments of life-preserving organizations. “We were saved when the Russian market appeared. If Russia did not exist, there would be no fur in Kastoria. In Europe and America, the animal protection movement caused terrible damage. In Russia and China, this will never happen. This is a different world culture. -20°C fur is a survival item, not just a luxury.”

Olga Shiomu, an experienced craftswoman, is one of the few who continue to work with fur. Photo by ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS

In Russia, the lion’s share of the fur industry is occupied by China. However, the Greek product remains of higher quality and twice as expensive. “Those who know and want to get a good product will choose Greek. They are not the majority. But these few were enough, and we had enough,” the president of the association notes.

In addition, “Kastoria” offers another service that has made it attractive to the Russian and other markets: the possibility of making custom-made fur products for any type of figure. Aki Tsukas’ father, Stergios Tsukas, 86, shows us one of his new furs. “It’s the size of a Mercedes. It costs 50,000 euros and has a fabric label sewn into the lining with the name of the customer who will receive it.”

Stergios Tsoukas in front of his company’s furs – some of them cost up to 50,000 euros. Photo by ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS

Second strike

The current crisis is not the first to aggravate the fur industry in Kastoria. In 2014, with the war in Crimea, the industry also received a strong blow, which left room for the creation of domestic production in Russia. But what is happening today is completely different. “We don’t have a fur crisis here like we used to. We have an export ban. We can’t work. It’s not fair!” Tsukas points out. He argues that there is no other alternative for the region. According to the chamber, which he cites, about 35% of the city’s workers are employed in fur products. If industry is eliminated, the city will be empty. In an attempt to turn the tide, the association is holding the 47th International Fur Fair in Kastoria after two years of absence due to the coronavirus. Luxurious pavilions with tall mirrors and huge posters were installed by 64 different exhibitors on an area of ​​13,000 sq.m. It is expected that the event will receive many visitors from different countries – from Algeria and Armenia to Kazakhstan and Japan. “This is a bold undertaking without the Russians. This has never happened before. But we must also move forward.” At the fair’s registration desk, one of the managers checking attendee lists told us that 25 Russian visitors had registered, compared to at least 700 at the previous fair. “The war took us all,” she commented.

The Kastoreni fur masters are among the most sought after in the world. Photo by ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS

From Kyiv
The war, of course, dealt a blow to a much smaller, but existing market in Kastoria – the Ukrainian one. In the Glia family shop, a blonde stands out trying on furs in front of a mirror and then posing for a photo on a cell phone held by her friend. Valeria, 34, managed to get from Kyiv to Kastoria at the height of the war to buy furs, which she would then advertise and sell through her Instagram account. Dina Glia explains to us that she is a regular customer. In good times, she bought 200 furs. Now she can leave the store with 20 or even 50 copies. These, of course, are not Russian buyers, but still …

The exhibition revived, even if only temporarily, the city of Kastoria, which seemed empty just a few days ago. Nikos Katsanos, seeing who will come, fears that there will be merchants who will want to use the situation to their advantage. “I’m afraid that the Turks will come, buy our furs at cost, and then freely sell them to Russia,” he says. However, he is not going to give up easily. Black-and-white photographs of his daughter stand out at his desk. “She already speaks three languages. She also knows Russian. She will be the fourth generation to succeed us.”

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