How I transformed a family heirloom and made an old fur coat cool again

Photography by Amanda Grace Vincent

I never got a chance to meet my husband’s grandmother, but her reputation is alive and well. Known for her formidable hosting skills, her show on CBC Television, and the immaculate way she took care of her clothes, the late Pearl Langer also became my style guardian when her mink coat was bestowed upon me earlier this year by my mother-in-law, Sheri.

My husband’s grandmother, Pearl Langer, wearing the original in the mid ’50s

I was honoured. And intimidated. A mink coat is serious business and though the coat fit me well, it was cut in a popular 1950s (read: outdated) shape. I spoke to Sheri about updating the coat, an idea she totally supported. She relayed that her mother was all for using her fine china and crystal every day and she encouraged me to make the coat my own. I wanted to ensure that contemporizing the garment left me with a coat that I’d wear, but honoured the original.

The fix

I brought the coat to Charisma Furs, a Toronto institution run by a charming family (they were with me every moment of the transformation) and known for custom furs.

The first task was to open up the coat to see if the fur could withstand the stress of a redesign. Lovingly cared for and stored, Charisma’s owner, Danny, gave it the green light for a reno. (They have to turn down a few similar requests each month, because the garment won’t endure the process.)

Once we settled on a fit (reshape the sleeves, take the volume out of the shoulders, change the collar and take off some considerable length from the bottom), endless measurements later, Danny cut into the garment to begin the process of reshaping it. I was amazed to see that once the liner was removed, it was a living time capsule. The pattern number and size were marked on the backs of the skins, with remarkable craftsmanship. He confided that in the 1980s, custom furs were common, but an investment fastidiously cared for. Women bought one and cared for it for life. Fast fashion has hit the trade hard, with very few people to carry on the craft.

Once the coat was restyled, it was cleaned (in a drum with sawdust and alcohol—who knew?) and I came back for a final fitting. I was thrilled—the classic mid-thigh car coat length worked perfectly with everything from jeans to a dress. And while jumping on the subway in a mink coat might seem a bit extravagant, what’s more practical than fur during the winter in Canada? Yolo.

The tips

A fur coat is surprisingly easy to care for, especially with these tips from Charisma:

Massage the fur
It should feel soft with no matting or clumps, and have a natural moisture to it

Blow on the fur to look at the skin
The pelt should look healthy and clean, and watch for moth eggs. I know. Gross.

Have it cleaned
Even if the garment looks great, have it professionally cleaned before you take it home. Bringing a garment carrying moth eggs into your home can destroy your entire wardrobe.

Keep it safe
Keep it in a dry and breathable space and have it professionally cleaned every two years.