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Closer to the winter consumers flock to the the small western Ukrainian town of Tysmenytsya to buy inexpensive fur clothing. Money earned from the fur business feeds most of the 10,000 residents of Tysmenytsya. Weekly.ua learned how the residents of Ukraine’s fur capital are faring today
Tested by furs
Tysmenytsya was founded in the year 1062 on the Vorona River, just 15 km from Ivano-Frankivsk. Tysmenytsia is a recordholder in terms of variety of products. There are more than 50 fur shops in the city. Even a local barber shop bears a sign Fur Shop on the front window. Next door there is a dental clinic also advertising fur coats for sale. There are several large fashionable brand-name stores in town owned by two local factories.
Retail outlets are hidden in the bowels of courtyards, where daily household life make a peculiar combination with the small-time fur business: a bench and a mirror leaned up against a tree… A lady owners with a good sense of consumer psychology and the technology of the fur business. Her dog is running in circles around the fitting room.
There is one rule in Tysmenytsya – either you buy a fur coat or the town will force you out like a useless and uninteresting person. One can feel this after a few hours in town when even the local dogs know that potential customers have arrived.
Four centuries in furs
The history of the town as a fur capital of the country began September 14, 1638, the Galych City Council granted the residents of Tysmenytsya the charter of the craftsmen’s guild upon the permission of the Polish king.
At that time, it was the only guild in the town. The original copy of the document is now preserved in a museum in the city of Wroclaw. The guild regulated the personal and religious lives of its members. After the furrier died, the trade union provided his wife and children financial support in the amount of his salary. Craftsmen that were not members of the guild were forbidden from selling their goods at fairs and on auctions. Ever since then fur trading has been the main business of the town.
Two factories were operating in the 1920s when Tysmenytsya was still a part of Polish territory. One of them was owned by a bank in Lviv and the other belonged to private entrepreneurs Isaac Krainis and Jacob Popper. When business went awry, the Polish government took the strategic object under its trusteeship by conveying its shares to the state.
When the Soviets took control the factories were nationalized and their former managers were sent to labor camps for "exploiting the working class". According to statistics from 1975, the Tysmenytsya enterprise processed 70,000 rabbit skins and more than 1,000 mink skins a day, sewed more than 100 fur coats and 10,000 fur hats, which sold like hotcakes all over the Soviet Union.
Poison from wells
Tysmenytsya is a quaint and tidy provincial town with a population of 9,700 living in one- and two-storey buildings and can simply be described as “a walk in the park”. The town is full of beautiful homes decorated with flower pots like in European countries. Fur workshops and salons are quietly concealed behind high fences.
The town is slowly dying. Today there are around 800 students in the local elementary school. 20 years ago there were nearly twice as many. Many town residents left for Portugal or Spain in the 1990s. Today, many families in Tysmenytsya are developing their furrier business exactly thanks to the financial support of Ukrainians working abroad.
"My daughter left for Italy 10 years ago. She came this summer and gave me money to repair the house," a pensioner named Tetyana recounted. She basically works as a hawker approaching potential buyers at bus stops, offering them advice and escorting them to private showrooms. If they buy something, she earns a commission.
Those resident’s of Tysmenytsia that failed to master the traditional craft go to work in Ivano-Frankivsk every morning as it only takes 20 minutes to get to the city by bus.
Aside from the glory of production and furrier traditions, Tysmenytsya inherited environmental problems from the past. Hundreds of tonnes of waste from skinning furs for ages were dumped in ditches, mixing with chemicals used for processing skin. Years later these land plots were allotted to people for construction. As a result, the underground waters of Tysmenytsya got poisoned and the well waters are not drinkable.
Giants and fur plankton
Late in the morning when all commuting workers departed for Ivano-Frankivsk, the appearance of correspondents of Weekly.ua created quite a furor. One local resident cropped up in front of us from thin air. It turned out he was a hawker for one of the local furrier workshops. “Short coats made of mink or astrakhan fur? Follow me. I will show you places where they won’t slip you a fake!" We followed the persistent fellow named Roman around six showrooms.
"Are these coats still on demand?", I asked pointing to a long fur coat made of nutria. "Totally. Second-hand dealers gladly purchase items, many which have labels with Made in Italy or Made in Greece on them, a shop owner secretly informed. “Naturally, store owners scoop up such items. Ladies buy them to show off in front of their neighbors or go to church on holidays," says the shop’s owner. "You should see our town on Christmas Eve, when fur models from all eras flock in the central square!", she assures.
By the way, men in Tysmenytsya also not above fur apparel. Businessmen wear jackets of sheared mink, order fur linen for their tweed coats. Some even buy car seat covers out of fur.
Two large enterprises – Tykafurlux JV and Tysmenytsya JSC – and several dozens of small private companies - share 12 hectares of land on the territory of the former Soviet fur factory. Tykafurlux is backed by foreign investments and has state-of-the-art equipment and high-quality chemicals for fur processing. Since the mid 1990s, when the fur business almost died out in Ukraine, Tykafurlux purchases most of its raw materials on foreign auctions and only 30% on the Ukrainian market. The enterprise produces goods of a higher price segment and constantly introduces new design innovations. The prices at brandname factory outlets are on the same level as prices in the capital, so neighboring Tysmenytsia is not considered a competitor.
“Only 20% of our production is fur,” admitted Ivan Artemovych, Tysmenytsia Chairman of the Board. “The holding company mainly sews uniforms for the railroad workers and other enterprises.”
In the meantime, the local “fur plankton” peacefully co-exists with large enterprises. Today, there are not very fond memories of the times of privatization and redistribution. Life has changed with a bitter twist of fate.
Today, the descendants of the Tysmenytsya dynasties of furriers carved their own niches. Some work in factories, some in private mini-workshops, others are involved in trading. For example, ex-chief engineer and designer, one of the most respected experts at SoyuzMekhProm Maria Volosovska runs a popular and profitable design studio in Ivano-Frankivsk.
Private enterprises are surviving thanks to lower prices. They buy skins of a cheaper grade from local animal farms that breed rabbits, chinchilla, mink, raccoon, beavers, martens and nutria. There are several such farms throughout the county and prices of such fur are 20-25% cheaper than at fur auctions, while the patterns can be stolen right from the factory.
Practically all private vendors turn in skins for dressing to the Tykaferlux workshop. Its services are cheap: UAH 4.60 for rabbit fur, UAH 16 – mink and UAH 33 – fox. Despite this, there are less and less adventurous traders that are willing to start up a business from scratch because the competition is fierce and capital, craftsmanship and experience are needed for this. "If you want to sew genuine as opposed to fake fur coats, German equipment is required. An entrepreneur will need to buy a sewing machine for EUR 7,000, a cutting machine for EUR 2,000 6,000, German threads, natural silk for lining and lots of other knick-knacks," said the Chairman of the Tysmenytsya Furriers’ Union Bohdan Romanchuk. "One must also take into account the seasonality of demand and while wages must be paid all throughout the year. There are many other factors that make our hand-made products more expensive than cheap Chinese fur goods that floods the local market,” he added. Local manufacturers disapprove of the shady importers that undermine the business by offering cheap but often tacky goods. Traders disagree. "This mink coat is China-made," said Nadiya about a nicely-cut fur coat. "We receive such coats from shuttle traders. We do not cut off their labels because some Chinese entrepreneurs has learned to make fur coats no worse than ours," she added.
Fur coats from China are brought in suitcases and sold from hand to hand, hence there are no taxes paid in this trade chain. The problem is that labor-intensive and hand-made products made by Ukrainian craftsmen are much more expensive and therefore non-competitive. However, "the Chinese issue" is generally speaking relevant for Ukraine’s fur industry.
Waiting for winter
Tysmenytsya was and remains Ukraine’s fur capital. The fur business lives on despite the destitute condition, weakly developed infrastructure and environmental problems and it feeds “soft gold” to more than half the fur boutiques in Kyiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk and other large cities.
"Small business strengthens competition, extends the price scale and makes the town attractive for people in any income bracket. Counting the number of design models cut by local craftsmen and sold in local shops is next to impossible," claims Bohdan Romanchuk.
Tysmenytsya fur can be found in Kyiv – both on markets and Tykafurlux brand stores. The markup in Kyiv is a minimum of 20-30% of prices in Tysmenytsya. For example, we bought a karakul short coat for US $450 after a lengthy and emotional haggling. In a Kyiv showroom it would probably cost a minimum of US $800.
During the New Year holidays skiers traveling to the Bukovel resort drop in the town and usually do not leave empty-handed. Local residents impatiently wait for those days and always hope for a cold and long winter.