Donna Salyers' Fabulous Furs Celebrates 25 Years in Covington
"Wow, that is a fabulous fur."
Donna Salyers heard that comment repeatedly as she walked the streets of New York City in the late 1980s. The future businesswoman was in the Big Apple to shoot her syndicated cable television show that focused on sewing and fashion. During her first visit to the city to shoot the show she observed many women on the streets in beautiful fur coats and vowed that when she returned, she, too, would have a fur of her own.
So she made one from synthetic fur and fooled everyone.
"No one would check this coat," she said. "No one wanted to be responsible for it."
It was that fabulous.
Back home, she heard a radio ad that there was a big sale at a furrier in Downtown Cincinnati and with $5,000 put away she was ready to walk in the store and walk out with a proper fur. But then legendary radio host Paul Harvey came on the air with a message that changed Salyers' life.
In Britain, a company was skinning cats for its production of fur teddy bears, Salyers said Harvey told her and the rest of his listeners. She thought, how could anyone do that?
Salyers never entered the furrier and instead entered the business world.
Using the same concept that led to the creation of her faux fur that she paraded around New York City, Salyers began to manufacture and sell kits for ladies to make their own fur coats.
In her first year she saw more than $300,000 in sales and the birth of Fabulous Furs. Eventually the company turned to ready-to-wear faux furs.
Twenty-five years later and millions of dollars in annual sales, Salyers and her faux furs have become a staple of the nation's most prominent glossy magazines that feature the products she and her company make in their Eleventh Street warehouse in Covington.
The furs were just seen in the 2013 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. NBCs The Office featured some of her furs. Kate Moss sported a Sable wrap in a 2011 issue of British Vogue. "Vogue," Salyers says, clutching a framed copy of the Moss photo in her office as if even she could not believe her success.
By now, however, the appearance of a Donna Salyers Fabulous Fur in magazines and TV shows of that stature is a regular occurrence. Jay Leno, Law & Order, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and Good Housekeeping are just a few of the more recent high profile productions to showcase the Covington-made faux furs.
"God looks out for us, that's for sure," Salyers said.
But most of the company's success can be attributed to Salers herself, a go-getter from the beginning when she was growing up in Covington. Her grandmother taught her to sew and by age seven she was making her own clothes. She started work at the age of thirteen in the old Goldsmith's department store on Madison Avenue.
She became skilled at sewing and an expert on fashion. Displeased with the quality of the sewing column in the Cincinnati Enquirer, she wrote the editor and said that she could do better. The editor called her bluff and requested six samples. Salyers sent some in.
She was hired as a regular columnist immediately and in short order was syndicated throughout Gannett-owned publications.
That success landed her words in the Chicago Tribune where she caught the eye of a TV producer looking to syndicate women-oriented program throughout cable systems in America. That's how Salyers landed her first TV gig and her first trip to New York City which would eventually lead to her admiration of fur coats and that fateful trip to Downtown Cincinnati and the warning from Paul Harvey.
And though that message from Harvey led to her business being created in Covington where it still operates, Fabulous Furs clearly has the air of a New York City fashion brand. "People from magazines call and ask, 'Can you send things over?'," Salyers said. "They think we're on Fifth Avenue."
Salyers will be back in New York City later this month to lecture for a few days at Parsons The New School for Design. The Humane Society is sponsoring a design contest and Salyers will teach the students about working with faux fur.
Back here in Covington, a very real renaissance of the city's Downtown is underway and Salyers and her family can take credit for a great deal of that, too.
She and her husband, Jim, own many of the buildings that once housed Downtown Covington's most prominent department stores. She tells the story of how after getting her first job at Goldsmith's she ran across the street to Woolworth's and bought a drink for a woman she didn't know to celebrate with her. Jim remembered that and purchased the Woolworth's building as a gift to his wife. Shortly after, Woolworth's closed.
Unsure of what to do with such a large space long after big retail was thought to be able to thrive there, the Madison Events Center was born.
The Salyers also own the former Goldsmith's building which became the Wedding Mall and will soon be a restaurant connected to the Hotel Covington which is being developed in the current City Hall by the Salyers Group and was previously home to Coppins department store.
Covington City Hall will be moving into a building that was a JC Penney in another life, a building also owned by the Salyers. Fabulous Bridal operates at the corner of Sixth & Madison in a former bank building.
Salyers will have the unique experience of knowing Covington during its shopping heyday of the 1960s, its downtime in the 1980s, and its current revitalization. "I can't believe it," Salyers said. "I'm beyond thrilled. It's a dream. I'm sorry it took this long."
As for her family's direct involvement, "It's a privilege. We're lucky we have the opportunity. I'm so thrilled that we can be part of the positive effect. It's a huge effort and it takes everyone."
"There is no question that it will happen," she said. "We'll be far better than the fifties and sixties."
Fabulous Furs operates on Eleventh Street in a 110,000 square foot warehouse that was once Wadsworth Electric Company. During her peak seasons, Salyers employs roughly eighty people from those who sew to those who answer phones.
Her daughter, Amy, and son-in-law, Guy van Rooyen (CEO of the Salyers Group), who met in Seattle, are also very much involved in the business. Amy oversees the wholesale operation and has helped get Fabulous Furs in Norstrom, W Hotels, and Nieman Marcus, among others.
"To be here twenty-five years later, it's an absolute miracle," Salyers said.
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photos by RCN: