By Christy Scannell | SDUN Reporter
Deanne McGinnis was shopping at Neiman Marcus when she came across a fur blanket.
“I’m always cold and I thought, ‘A fur throw—oh my God, isn’t that wonderful?’” she said.
And then McGinnis remembered the fur coat in her closet she never wore because it was too heavy for her petite frame. Later, she consulted her friend, interior designer Marsha Sewell, who suggested she take it to Millards Fur Service in Hillcrest.
So the downtown resident—she and husband Dan split their time between a bayfront condo and a home in Palm Desert—made her way to Park Boulevard and Robinson Avenue, where she handed over her nutria fur coat to Dee Dee Kiser, Millards’ owner.
In a few weeks, McGinnis will pick up her finished blanket at a cost of $650.
After McGinnis left, Kiser placed the fur on a sewing form, and as she talked began to dismantle the coat.
“The good thing about fur is it’s recyclable,” Kiser said, snipping away the coat’s lining. “[McGinnis] already popped for [the coat] a long time ago and now she sees that blanket that’s probably $1,500 or so, which means the $650 has become a bargain.”
A few minutes passed and soon Kiser had separated the coat’s liner and was holding it up to examine it, a pleased look on her face.
“This is in great shape. I’ll be able to use this for someone else and keep the price down for them,” she said. “I let the person whose stuff I’m working on pay it forward for the next one.”
It’s a philosophy Kiser, 59, knows well. In 1973 she was working at General Dynamics when Millard Winkley agreed to take her as an apprentice in his fur shop, then located in Little Italy. Although her godmother had taught her to sew, Kiser said she knew nothing about furs or making coats—she just wanted to embroider.
“I ended up learning every job they had,” she said. “Every time someone was absent, not doing their job or needed help, I was there.”
Winkley sold the business in the late ’70s, and Kiser moved on to Hemet but returned occasionally to help the new owner. One day in 1985 she was surprised to enter the shop and see Winkley there.
“The [previous owner] had racked up $60,000 in debt so he’d sold it back to him,” she said.
Winkley, now 92, made Kiser a partner; she bought his half a year later. Although Millards (pronounced muh-LARDZ) was the furrier for all the San Diego department stores, one was missing on the list—and that became new owner Kiser’s first order of business.
“I marched into Neiman Marcus, me in this fancy store,” she rolls her eyes, “and told them we could do their fur for them locally so they wouldn’t need to ship it all back to Texas.”
Not only did she get the account for the San Diego store, Kiser was offered the Newport Beach, Las Vegas and Phoenix stores’ fur needs as well.
“I really thank them because they really bought this business for me,” she said.
“Fur departments weren’t generating enough money and were taking up a lot in space in stores so [the stores] started backing out,” Kiser said.
Since then she has relied on word of mouth to generate business. It helps that she is only one of two furriers remaining in San Diego out of about 100 nationally. She calls her local competition, Furs by Graf, “master sellers” while she is a “master craftsman” (she does their monogramming, she points out).
“You have to know what people want,” Kiser said about the technique of working with fur. “You have to see the finished picture in your mind before you jump into it because you’re working from the inside. You have to know when you flip it over that you’ll get what you want. And everything is by hand—there are no fast things in the fur business.”
There are no do-overs and mistakes are forbidden, she said—especially when she is working with coats as rare as, say, a $400,000 Russian lynx.
“I asked [Winkley] one time, ‘When does my anxiety go away?’ and he laughed and said, ‘Never, it’s part of the fright of doing such a high-dollar job,’ ” Kiser said.
She might be apprehensive on the inside but she doesn’t let it show to her customers, many of whom are the well-heeled wives of business leaders, professional sports players and government officials. A compact woman, Kiser works with her hair pinned back and a white smock over her clothes. Blues music is constantly playing in the shop, which is scattered with coats, vests, purses, fur scraps, pins and other paraphernalia.
“I get treated like Ugly Betty because I’m not dressed up and I’m all over the floor, working and pulling and pinning,” she said. “And I get these crazy barracuda women who come in and start bossing me around, telling me how to do what I’ve been doing all these years.
“But the bottom line is the price,” she raises a fist in the air playfully, “and Ugly Betty triumphs.”
Still, Kiser is committed to helping customers find bargains. Her massive walk-in storage room—specially climate controlled to preserve fur—holds more than 750 coats for sale plus racks of furs people pay her to keep for them. Many of those for sale she acquired at bargain prices or even free.
“People come to San Diego and they bring all their cherished things and decide to sell them,” she said. Others leave coats in storage, move away, and then call her to release them for sale. “I have customers who come in and buy furs for pennies on the dollar.”
Kiser nearly closed Millards last year when the economic downturn required her to put money into the business for the first time. But 2010 has been better, she said, and she hopes to hang in there another five years— enough time to train an apprentice to carry on the 62-year tradition.
“I go somewhere and people ask what I do. I tell them I’m a furrier and they think I said ‘farrier’ and ask if I do horseshoes.” She laughs. “And then when I say, ‘No, a furrier,’ they think I’m even crazier to be doing that in San Diego. But I tell them it works because we’re a service. People find us.”