WARWICK — Val Piasecki knows that what he’s doing might seem a little crazy. He knows it because people will ask him what in the world he’s thinking.
You’re trying to revive a century-old fur apparel business?
In Warwick, Rhode Island?
Yes, yes and yes, said Piasecki, the last man standing at William H. Harris Furs.
“It’s worth saving,” Piasecki said in an interview Tuesday outside the boarded-up building on Bald Hill Road, across from a Chuck E. Cheese. “It’s history — it’s something that isn’t going to go away. There’s always got to be one buggy whip manufacturer out there.”
In trying to save William H. Harris, which dates to 1908, Piasecki, who’s been operating the business for about a decade, has fashioned himself a difficult task.
Animal-rights activists insisting that “fur is dead” have railed against the industry for years. Those in the industry say things aren’t as bad as they might seem, based on the popular perception, but the headlines are grim all the same, such as this one from The Wall Street Journal: “No One Wants Grandma’s Fur Coat.”
Meanwhile, large retailers like Macy’s and designers like Prada are forswearing fur. And lawmakers around the country have implemented or considered bans on selling fur. The Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee had a hearing on a law criminalizing fur sales just Tuesday night.
Decades ago, William H. Harris employees worked full-time just to wrap Christmas presents as a line of customers waited for their $15,000 gifts to be boxed up, Piasecki said.
If you’d gone into the building this past November, though, it would have “looked like hell” after years of failure to invest in the future, he said.
Hell is an unpleasant place to be when you’re wearing a fur coat. But Piasecki is trying to adapt to changing times. The transition has been a challenge, he acknowledged.
The owner, Leonard M. Tax, who took over the company from the Harris family in the early 2000s, sold the Warwick building to a company called Lakewood Realty Trust in January. Lakewood is now renovating the building, and William H. Harris is closed for the season. Harris will reopen in the spring, in a smaller portion of the building as a tenant, Piasecki said.
Tax said by telephone that he was walking away from William H. Harris, but he’d let Piasecki use the name to carry on.
So why is Tax getting out now?
“Lousy business,” Tax said.
That’s difficult to dispute.
“The day of going out and buying your wife a fur coat because you just retired and bought yourself a Cadillac are done,” Piasecki said. “It’s not the iconic piece of status that it was for decades.”
And while fur still sells in places like Scottsdale, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Dallas, it’s struggled here in Rhode Island, said Piasecki, who lives in Boston.
But people who own fur products, like big mink coats, still need services from furriers like William H. Harris. They need places to store them in the hot summer months, someone to restyle them as fashion changes, and someone to clean them in the event of a spilled glass of wine.
Piasecki said he still has thousands of active customers, and he’s keeping people’s items in storage at another vault for now. The state attorney general’s office said it has received a few complaints about the business in January, but has resolved all but one recent one.
“Did we have customers that were panicked in trying to find us? Absolutely. Have we resolved all those issues? No. But we’re going to take care of it, and that’s my job,” Piasecki said.
He’s planning to try to find some space in the building for more limited retail space, but he will also try to sell fur products at off-site events. The products themselves have changed, from the big mink coats to jackets with fur trim and other smaller items.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Piasecki said. “William H. Harris is here to stay. We’re New England’s finest furrier, and we want to keep that tradition going.”
Bald Hill Road is actually home to two furriers in one small stretch of roadway. There’s a history of bad blood between the two.
Northeast Furs is owned and operated by former William H. Harris employees. Their acrimonious split from the company wound up as the subject of a federal lawsuit, with William H. Harris lobbing allegations that they had pilfered its extensive customer list (its Fur Management System, or “FMS”). Harris also sued its former website developer who, it alleged, had set up its website to redirect to Northeast Furs’.
The suit was settled in 2014, according to court records. Northeast Furs denied wrongdoing.
These days, though, Northeast Furs says its fur business is doing well. Last year was its best year since it opened, co-owner Dino Quaglietta said.
It’s true that the full-length coats aren’t the big sellers they once were. But Northeast Furs has been able to adapt and thrive, he said, selling other items as style changes.
“The strong survive,” Quaglietta said. “And people who have it together, and people who adapt and who have the background and experience and intelligence in how to run a business, are still here.”
Mark Oaten, the UK-based chief executive of the International Fur Federation, said the industry has faced challenges, but they have more to do with broader trends — like the coronavirus and the Chinese and Russian economies — than fundamental problems with the business.
In places including America, there are plenty of opportunities if proprietors focus on sustainability, he said.
“Natural fur is sustainable. It lasts generation after generation. It biodegrades,” Oaten said.
The pages of The Providence Journal used to bustle with references to William H. Harris Furs. Ads featured elegant women and irresistible sales. Classifieds urged people to apply for Harris jobs. A story by The Journal’s fashion editor in 1972 touted products available at William H. Harris under the headline: “Furs: Warm, Stylish, Full of Glamor.”
In more recent years, the company’s name comes up periodically in the obituaries section, as people’s loved ones are recalled for their work as monogrammers or secretaries.
The building at 641 Bald Hill Rd., where the company branched out from its Providence origins about 40 years ago, has seen better days. The sign is fading and listing a bit from being hit by cars. Tax wasn’t making investments in the property because it wasn’t making money the way it once did, Piasecki said.
It’s not uncommon in business — a spiral of diminishing profits leading to diminishing investments leading to more diminishing profits. Survival will come by doing things differently, Piasecki said, but survival has always been the name of the game, whether that’s in the fur business or just in fur generally.
“None of us would be here today if it were not for the fur industry,” Piasecki said. “We’ve wrapped ourselves in the hides of beasts since the dawn of time to survive.”
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