Business is growing at Savidusky’s Furquarters, so it may seem like an odd time to close the store, founded in 1924 as a dry cleaners and a retailer of furs since 1940.
But after 30 years of owning and operating the family business and with none of their four children willing to take it on, Michael and Julie Savidusky are ready to retire and close Madison’s last full-service fur shop, likely by February. The shop will be closed this week to prepare for the going-out-of business sale.
The shop’s closing means coyote vests, lamb jackets from Russia and mink coats from Denmark may be harder to find. Those needing their coats stored in warmer months, cleaned, altered or repaired will likely have to turn to furriers in Milwaukee or beyond.
It also means the Saviduskys will say goodbye to a loyal customer base.
“We sell joy, we sell beauty, we sell happiness,” Michael Savidusky, 68, said. “We make people feel good and we keep them warm.”
According to the Fur Information Council of America, retail fur sales in the U.S. rose from $1 billion in 1991 to $1.8 billion in 2005. By 2012, sales had fallen to $1.27 billion. The FICA reports there are 1,100 retailers and about 100 manufacturers of fur products, about 85 percent of those small, family-run businesses that have been passed from generation to generation.
Savidusky’s was founded by Michael Savidusky’s grandfather, Phillip, who was born in northern Wisconsin to Russian immigrants. In the old country, Phillip’s parents manufactured and maintained fine garments and furs that were rented by the rich and powerful. Phillip Savidusky’s siblings opened dry cleaning businesses in the early 1900s in Eau Claire and Stevens Point while he opened a business in Portage. Phillip and his wife, Florence, later opened Savidusky’s Nulife Cleaners in 1924 in Madison. In 1940, Michael Savidusky’s father, Jack Savidusky, joined his parents and added fur manufacturing. Michael quit his job as an airline pilot and as a real estate agent and bought the business in 1982.
For more than 70 years, the business was located at 827 E. Washington Ave. with other locations on State Street and what is now Martin Luther King Drive.
The satellite dry cleaning stores eventually closed and in 1995, Savidusky further downsized the business getting out of retail sales of furs. In 1998, he moved the operation to a corner of the Northgate Shopping Center at 11911 N. Sherman Ave. It features a small retail space but the majority of the 3,000-square-foot space is crammed with cleaning and repair equipment, including a 1940 Bonis Bros Fur Machine that can sew hidden seams. There’s also a large vault that can hold around 2,000 coats and is kept between 50 and 55 degrees and at 40 percent humidity.
“You can see that we’re busy,” Michael said, looking over crammed work tables filled with garments and the head of the amateur-league baseball Mallards’ mascot, Millie, which was in for repairs. “We’ve had such a great run.”
The Saviduskys’ shop, just three minutes from their Maple Bluff home, was bustling recently with customers picking up coats out of storage for use this winter, asking for alterations and some checking out the sales.
A lamb jacket that retailed for $5,095 was on sale for $2,595, a full-length mink coat that once retailed for $23,995 could be had for $11,995 and an apres-ski jacket with a fox-lined hood was $1,395, down from its original price of $2,795.
“You can go to Macy’s and find a lot of plain stuff, but you can’t find these,” said longtime customer Dana Skillrud of Middleton, as she tried on an $11,000 sheared mink coat. “I like unique.”
In the 1940s, Madison had 14 fur shops. By 1995, after the closure of Furs by Hershleder at 524 E. Washington Ave., Savidusky’s was the lone survivor.
But the fur business may not be over in the city. The Saviduskys are working with Day Furs in Carmel, Ind., which has seven Midwestern stores and has agreed to buy the equipment from Savidusky’s and help sell the remaining inventory. Day will also offer storage, repair and cleaning with customers sending their furs via UPS. Savidusky said Day might consider opening a store here if the company can determine there is a market for it.
About half of Savidusky’s customers live in the Madison area. The remainder can live hundreds of miles away after other fur shops including those in Wausau, La Crosse and Dubuque closed over the years.
A.J. Ugent, located on Capitol Drive near 84th Street in Milwaukee, is one of the few remaining shops in the state. Founded in 1922, it remains — like Savidusky’s — family owned. It also purchased Hershleder’s customer list and counts 500 customers from the Madison area.
Ugent hosts spring and fall sales at the Sheraton Hotel in Madison, including one this Wednesday. The events also allow customers to drop off or pick up their furs from storage.
“We’ve been coming to Madison since (1995) and it’s been being very good for us,” said Rodney Ugent, 64, whose grandfather started the company. “We’ve taken a lot of business from (Savidusky’s). As people go out of business, our pie grows, so we’re getting bigger.”
Ugent said his business has also grown with the Internet, where he sells furs to customers across the country. In the Milwaukee area, there is a fur shop on the city’s south side and in the northern suburb of Mequon, while Boston Store and Macy’s each have fur departments, he said. Ugent has no plans to open a Madison store.
“It doesn’t pay to have a physical location in Madison,” Ugent said. “There’s just not enough business to do it full-time. It’s a seasonal business.”
Savidusky’s business also has grown with the Internet. The store briefly got out of retail in 1995 to focus primarily on service and storage of furs, cleaning and leather repair. But as the company’s name and services spread online, the shop found itself selling furs on consignment.
“Some people we only see twice a year, when they drop something off and pick something up,” said Julie Savidusky, 57. “I’m going to miss them a lot.”
The retirement for Michael Savidusky is right on course. He had a goal of retiring before he was 70, plans to build an amphibious plane, has had three back surgeries and has lost 70 pounds.
“I didn’t do that to look good dying at my work table,” Michael said. “Now I want to have some fun.”