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USA Foxx & Furs staying busy under second generation of owners

USA Foxx & Furs co-owners and brothers Adam (left) and Andrew Robarge, stand in the fur vault filled with furs of every kind at the store Friday afternoon. They took over the do-it-all furrier about three and a half years ago from its founder, and business continues to grow. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Jadwiga Dubina (left) sews a new liner into a beaver fur coat, while Renee Bergren prepares an arctic fox border for a silver fox bedspread at USA Foxx & Furs Friday afternoon. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 6
USA Foxx & Furs sells a great variety of fur items including these two coats: Russian sable (left) and chinchilla, the softest of all furs. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 6
USA Foxx & Furs at 29 West Superior Street, has been getting busier and busier with orders from around the country. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Nicole Johnson, office assistant at USA Foxx & Furs, talks with sewer Jadwiga Dubina about measuring a hat for a new lining. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Logan Holly, shipping manager at USA Foxx & Furs, looks over beaver pelts made by trappers for sale at the store. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com6 / 6

Passersby may ponder how that unassuming furrier on Superior Street stays open year-round — well the answer is in the mail.

"We're getting busier and busier," said USA Foxx & Furs co-owner Adam Robarge. "Orders get shipped in from all over the country, from nearly every single state."

The 30-year-old company has become a known commodity among trappers, who send unprocessed pelts to USA Foxx to be handmade, in-house, into coats, hats, mittens, blankets, teddy bears and more.

"That's the majority of our business," Robarge said.

Sales out of the storefront are nearly an afterthought, and Minnesotans and Wisconsinites account for less than 15 percent of orders. It's a national brand in an increasingly niche business, and Robarge said the ability for USA Foxx to handle every step of turning a fur into a product helps the company stand out.

"We're not aware of anyone else who does everything," he said.

Robarge and his brother, Andy, bought out USA Foxx founder Wayne Nurmi in 2013. The two started working for Nurmi during college a decade ago and just never left.

"We didn't know anything about the industry or fur in general," Adam Robarge, 28, said. But having grown up an outdoorsman, it ended up being a fine line of work, and certainly better than the alternative. "We thought we would graduate and end up in the Cities in a cubicle somewhere."

Trapping, long on the decline, is seeing something of a resurgence as trappers who first learned the craft at a young age reach retirement and again head into the forest, Robarge said.

And many of those trappers who normally would sell their furs are faced with low prices — so they're turning their wares into wearables with help from USA Foxx and its skilled crew.

The Fur Information Council of America says retail fur sales hit $1.5 billion in 2014, the most recent year available. The average yearly take for the industry is about $1.3 billion.

FICA stands in opposition to animal rights activists, who have taken a stand against trapping and the use of fur, which they see as inhumane, in sometimes extreme ways — think protesters splashing red paint on someone wearing a fur coat.

Robarge said the controversy has cooled compared to a few decades ago.

"It was more taboo in the late 1980s, early '90s," he said. "With everyone being more green-minded now, fur is sustainable and renewable — and it can be super local."

That's certainly true compared to cotton, a very water-intensive crop, and polyester, made from petroleum.

FICA estimates there are about 100 fur manufacturers in the U.S. and 1,100 retailers; Robarge says that number has fallen off as family-run furriers in small towns have shuttered as owners retire.

"It's a lot like farming today — you're either very big or very small," he said. "Fortunately we're growing every year."

While winter months are obviously busier from a retail perspective, the USA Foxx & Furs storefront at 29 W. Superior St. that doubles as a manufacturing and repair shop will be working through the summer as usual. Robarge said the company averages about 15 employees at a time with some seasonal changes.

With the recent fur prices driving business, it now takes up to seven months to flesh, tan and prepare fur goods. Furs will come in at the end of different states' trapping seasons in the spring and products will be ready by Christmas, opened on chilly mornings across the country.

"We get a ton of furs from Pennsylvania; there must be a ton of tappers out there," Robarge said.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

(218) 723-5329
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