BFTA Member of the Month
This month BFTA Member – Robin Karr, RDK Designs , Celebrates 50 Years in the Fur Trade
How did you start out as a furrier?
At sixteen, I took on an apprenticeship with a furrier in New Bond Street. I worked there for three years then my father, also a furrier, asked me to start working with him. Working with parents is not easy, but I quickly started to manage the business and even to manufacture things myself.
My father was a Chamber Master, which means that clients would pay him to make something and he’d get it done. In this time we did do some work for private customers but most was trade.
When I was thirty, I met someone who introduced me to customers all across the country — he was my mentor and he taught me how to deal with trade customers. That’s when I started wholesale. My father retired when I was thirty-nine and at this point I opened RDK Designs, for which I had a shop in Edgware. From a Chamber Master, I became a wholesaler and retailer. While running the shop, I expanded on wholesale and was selling to stores including Harrods and Selfridges. I started working together with an associate to make fur-lined leather garments and wholesale across the country. I had the shop for four or five years, but it was quite expensive to run so I took an opportunity to move to Elthorne Road — the centre of the fur trade in London. I carried on with what I was doing and have enjoyed working there ever since with all my friends and colleagues.
What do you love about working with fur?
I love the diversity of fur. You not only see it, but you can feel it in all the different textures. The fur trade has changed beyond all recognition from what it was in my father’s day. Going into a furrier’s forty to fifty years ago, one would see that there was no choice. A customer would see half a dozen styles and picked the one they liked best from those. True choice between garments started to happen fifteen to twenty years ago when Saga Furs changed the face of the fur trade. They added vivid colours and different textures, they made fur more youthful. Simple up-and-down mink coats became grooved, sheared and dyed; different types of fur were brought together. It became a designer industry where, instead of the six or seven styles seen in the sixties, there were over 500 styles and plenty of different trimmings.
Every job I do is a different problem — and I enjoy problem solving. I love making things. I like to try new things and new ideas, creating something that no ones has done or can do, and fur is the perfect platform for me to do this. The customer’s surprise at what I can do for them when they see the finished product is great.
What does sustainability mean to you?
Fur is a natural product. It is bio-degradable, and you can actually remake garments, alter or remodel them ample times. A fur coat bought twenty-five years ago can be reformed: you can change the shape and the cuffs and make it more interesting. Once you buy a fur coat, it can easily last for life. Today’s society runs on fast-fashion, however. It is a throw-away society, so there’s no longevity.
I like longevity. I like the idea that you can buy something from so many years ago and alter it, reuse it. You are utilising natural produce from this planet so that there is no waste.
What do you see as the challenges?
The climate has always been a problem, and the fur trade has very much become a winter business. People don’t want to spend money until they really have to, so they leave it to the last minute. As a result, the season has shortened drastically. On the one hand, it’s not possible to do everything in three months and, on the other, you have to make a living over the other nine months too.
Finding qualified staff is another challenge and training isn’t easy. It costs a lot to train and to also keep staff going. Costs in Greece and East Asia are much less than in Europe, and you have to try to do the best you can in the shortest space of time. No matter how good someone is, time is always needed to make things beautiful. You can’t change the way you work, and I tend to work in a way that takes longer. This is one of the problems with being a maker. We work long hours to get to the best possible end-product.
I still work in wholesale and do some retail. However, along with this I also do some teaching. I provide one-day courses to design students from university, three to four times a year, and also teach technicians two or three times a year.
Contact RDK Designs for cleaning, cold storage, remodelling, bespoke orders, alterations, repairs and wholesale
A look back at RDK Designs: The image below was taken around 25 years ago in Frankfurt. Models wearing RDK Designs on the catwalk.