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Business never better for Renton’s Blackglama fur

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Joe Morelli imagines a Blackglama store in Shanghai,
China, with 100 people lined up outside. He envisions
women in cities across Korea and Russia draped in
Blackglama fur, and carrying handbags with the Blackglama
label.

“My dream? I want consumers around the world to look at
Blackglama the way they look at Louis Vuitton today,” said
Morelli, the president and CEO of American Legend
Cooperative (ALC), a company that markets and sells mink
fur out of a warehouse in Renton, Wash.

Each year, roughly 3.6 million pelts of North American
mink fur are auctioned off at the facility.

Blackglama is one of two brands sold exclusively by ALC,
and has become one of the most recognizable fur labels in
the world.

The label’s “What Becomes a Legend Most?” campaign has run
nearly every year since 1968. In has featured Hollywood
stars such as Bette Davis, Diana Ross, Lauren Bacall, Cher
and Judy Garland wearing Blackglama fur.

Now, as awareness and popularity of the Blackglama label
grow, the company has set sights on brand-extension and
hopes to evolve beyond fur into a “multi-faceted luxury
brand.” By October, Blackglama will release a line of
fragrances. After that, the Blackglama portfolio will
include jewelry, eyewear, shoes and other accessories.

Morelli, who came to ALC four years ago from Nike, hopes
the product expansion will only strengthen the sale of
Blackglama fur.

A fur that ‘reeks of luxury’

Less than a million pelts of black mink fur each year are
given the Blackglama label; less than two-percent of the
world supply.

“To put it in perspective, think about a farmer raising
his crop. A certain percentage of that crop is going to be
really, really nice and a certain percent isn’t,” Morelli
said.

While a majority of the pelts come from Utah, Wisconsin,
Oregon and Idaho, several thousand mink that will be
branded Blackglama are raised on farms in Washington
state.

“About 45, 50 percent of my mink end up with the
Blackglama label,” said a Western Washington mink farmer.
He asked that his name and location be withheld due to the
potential of retribution by animal rights groups such as
PETA.

He has run the 20-acre farm since 1978, when he took over
the family business.

Roughly 10,000 mink are raised on the land each year at a
cost of roughly $40 an animal. With buyers paying a 20
apercent premium for Blackglama fur, he needs to focus on
the quality of the mink he’ll bring to auction.

A black mink can only get a Blackglama label if it meets
high standards for quality.

“Blackglama has very fine guard hairs, a very nice, plush
underfur. It’s very soft and supple,” Morelli said. “When
you put that into a garment form, it truly is like the
ultimate of luxury.”

A good time to be a mink farmer

According to the American Legend Cooperative, the
company’s revenue has increased three-fold since fiscal
year 2009, driven by growing demand from countries like
China.

“The numbers of new millionaires in China every year is
astounding,” Morelli said. “It’s a status symbol. Young
women are the primary consumer in China.”

But unlike countries such as Russia and Korea,
manufacturers, brokers, and retailers in China have yet to
buy into the Blackglama label. Morelli said they will
increase marketing in China to push the brand there as
well.

“In my four years, the marketing in China has been focused
on quality of North American mink as compared to Chinese
mink or Scandinavian mink,” Morelli said. “Pretty soon,
the marketing in China will be Blackglama, Blackglama,
Blackglama.”

ALC will continue to market Blackglama fur the way it has
for years: using celebrities. The campaign that began in
1968 with Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Barbra
Streisand and Melina Mercouri continues today.

After a six-year hiatus, “What Becomes a Legend Most?” was
revived in 2001 with supermodel Linda Evangelista. Then
came Gisele Bundchen, Cindy Crawford, Elle MacPherson,
Naomi Campbell and Elizabeth Hurley.

Featured in 2010 and 2011, Janet Jackson is the most
recent “legend” featured in the campaign and the only to
appear for two consecutive years.

Morelli said Jackson’s edginess has helped to make fur
more fashionable.

“My farmers don’t always like hearing me say that no one
wants to wear grandma’s fur coat anymore, but that’s the
truth,” he said. “So, we’ve tried to make things way more
fashionable and less the old, traditional fur coat.”

But, regardless of who is photographed wearing it, some
will never see fashion in fur.

“Janet Jackson lost a lot of fans when she decided to take
money to drape herself in fur,” said Danielle Katz, a
manager with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“To promote the cruel fur industry is reprehensible and
frankly, it seems a bit desperate on her part.”

Regardless of demand oversees, Katz said fur as fashion in
the U.S. is about as popular as a “cold sore.”

Still, Morelli said the business has never been better and
points to the success of their Blackglama label as proof.

“I think there’s never been a better time in the world to
be a North American fur farmer,” he said.

Most mink farms in the U.S. have seen four or five
profitable years in a row, he said.

With the expansion of the Blackglama label, Morelli hopes
brand recognition will increase what consumers will spend
for Blackglama mink and bring fur farmers even more
profit.

As the brand extends first into fragrances, a second
Blackglama retail store is scheduled to open in Moscow.

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