Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Feathers flying

Fashion trend has local retailers crowing

Express Staff Writer

Ahead of the trend: Pro skater Ashley Clark, who teaches at the Sun Valley Ice Rink, said she started gathering feathers for her tresses last year after seeing people in her hometown of Vail, Colo., sporting them. She bought extra and learned how to put them in and now is helping spread the fowl feather fun around the rink. Photo by Willy Cook

"What's the big deal," Devon Peterson asked while having a silky plume woven into her hair. "We're fishergirls and we don't mind using some of the feathers for hair. You can make them into flies when they fall out."

"Yeah," seconded her 7-year-old twin sister, Gracie. "It's like recycling. Everybody wins ... Is it my turn now?"

And the trend of feathers as fashion allures, rather than being reserved for fishing lures, got a little more traction here. Boutiques and hair salons across the valley have hastily taken up plumage and learned how to weave it into gold.

Flies made from genetically glamorous roosters—namely the grizzly hackles, the long, skinny black and tan, single-feather kind—have been sexy to fish for years. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone got a lure tangled and an apologetic fisherman offered, "Wow, that looks pretty in your hair." In reality, the fowl trend is said to have started in a boutique in Boulder back in 2009 when someone took a feather earring and attached it to her locks. Fashionistas are calling the feather the stylists' latest tool.

Today, you can blame it on Miley, Madonna, American Idol's Steven Tyler, or a local chicken farmer. Whoever is responsible, the demand for these increasingly scarce feathers by rock stars and some of the rest of us, from toddlers up to Baby Boomers, has exposed an industry waiting to be tapped, kicking off a coop to coast tug of war between those who wear hip waders and those who are relentlessly hip.

"Up until recently, this had been strictly a fly-fishing product," explained Bobby Foster, who's fielded calls from anglers for the past nine years from his job in the fly-tying department of Silver Creek Outfitters. "And until now, the suppliers have been in the business to supply fly-tying. But with this trend, a majority of our calls lately have been from hair salons."

In spite of the rancor in some circles across the Pacific Northwest where fly fishing is king, around here, the trend is bringing some badly needed product frenzy and the money and spirit boosting that goes with it.

As Lisa Patterson, a jeweler in the Yellow Brick Road cooperative boutique in Hailey put it, "It's everywhere and it's what people want. That's one reason why I make jewelry. No matter how much money women don't have, they are going to spend $40 on a pair of earrings that makes them feel better. It's just that feathers are doing that right now."

"There is this industry rumor that it's a big pain in the butt and it's just ridiculous," said Brad Kane, fly fishing guide with Sturtevants. "I don't think it's causing any real crisis that can't be fixed with another batch of roosters.

"Some of these are exquisite birds raised for their capes and it can cause a short-term supply issue, but we love to have that kind of problem," he said. "Sign us up for that."

Kane said that women of all ages have come to Sturtevant's Hailey store complaining that they can't find the feathers, or that another outfit won't sell them because they are saving them for anglers.

One shopkeep's loss is another one's gain. Kane said when they have a customer willing to pay top dollar for a product, he's going to make sure to have what they want on hand.

"We sell a package of the most sought-after, super high-quality long ones, and they'll pay $60 a package. How cool is that? And they look great in girls' hair."

Online suppliers are selling similar packages for hundreds of dollars and bidding high on Ebay for them as well.

"I do know that fly shops around the West are scrutinizing who is coming to buy these feathers because you can only get so many a year and that fishermen who make their own flies are buying in bulk because the price keeps going up along with the demand," said Matt Sherman, a guide at Ketchum on the Fly. "Anyone who is forward thinking at all can see that with all the girls buying up these feathers for their hair, it's going to make it harder for fly shops to make a margin, but nobody around here is mad about it."

Foster would agree.

"The process of rearing these roosters for the 'super' saddles (10-12 inch tail feathers) takes at least a year and a half. It doesn't lend itself to a robust industry, there's not the structure to accommodate the huge demand. It's helped a lot of supply shops move back stock and some are running out, but I think this trend will come and go pretty fast before there is any real problem."

Fly-fishing feathers are sold individually as hackles, or in groups called saddles. There are two types of flies, dry and wet. Anglers use earth-toned feathers in brown or tan for dry flies because they suspend their bug-imitating flies above water. Wet flies come in a range of colors and patterns, that when sunk, beckon from under water looking like bait fish. The feathers are pliable, and, durable and not prone to fading, unless they are dyed, Foster noted.

Colorado's Whiting Farms, Inc., is one of the world's largest producers of fly-tying feathers. Owner Thomas Whiting has been quoted in various national media saying he has had to suspend taking new accounts because of the clamor.

Whiting produces about 80,000 roosters annually for feathers and his company has perfected specific genetic lines that guarantee the best. He told The New York Times that the birds are raised in individual apartments and live a pampered existence until the day the plumage is irresistible. Then they are euthanized and their bodies used for compost or other animal feed. With the shift in demand today, one-fifth of the feathers from his operation are used for fashion.

It's the same characteristics that anglers appreciate that has hairdressers excited to please their patrons, explained Cari Larsen of Cari's Hair Care Tanning & Day Spa, especially for those looking for fresh ways to change their looks without a huge commitment.

Larsen, who's been in the business for 35 years, got into the game after a spring hair show in May.

"It's the latest and the greatest," she said. "When you finish putting one in someone's hair, their whole demeanor changes. Feathers feel fresh and sexy and they are temporary and affordable."

Because fashion is fickle and must be adaptable to remain affordable, many, like Larsen, have opted to buy less exclusive feathers with added zing through their beauty supply companies, instead of the prized rooster feathers like Whiting sells.

Larsen said she experimented with the originals at first, picking some up from a Sportsman's Warehouse, and wasn't sure she could trust the dye for her clients. The feathers that she uses are popular and she can, for now, offer them at a low cost and still profit.

But cost per feather has already doubled in the past several months.

Frede Trenkle MacAllister got one for her daughter Matti Skye, 6, at Cari's, choosing the popular sparkly feather called "Bling." Mom got one too, "cause I'm cool like that," the flower child jokes. They also have sported mother and daughter streaks and a few other trends, "because my kid is into all things trendy."

Teri Szombathy, whose fashion sense doesn't always match her two daughters, will take a pass.

"I think the feather in the hair is silly and have noticed many people around town wearing them. I also fish and, of course, use these feathers in my flies, but I didn't know that roosters were being killed for these purposes," she said. "I'm not sure why you need to kill a bird for its feathers, just pluck them out. I'm not going to stop using them for fishing, but for the hair, I think it is a quick fad that we shouldn't emphasize too much since there are bigger problems in the world to worry about."

The craze has caught the attention of animal rights activists who find the process akin to the fur trade and are anxious to put an end to it. Message boards on the Global Animal Foundation include a number of stylists urging others to seek out "cruelty-free" synthetic alternatives. Others in the business contend that this is the perfect, organic solution alternative to man-made products. So with the heightened awareness, a dialogue has begun, which can keep the industry honest, or at least individual purveyors conscious of suppliers' practices.

Patterson said she did a lot of research before settling on a private source for her feathers.

"The birds are killed and then used for animal food," she said. "It sounds horrible, but they are roaming free, living as cruelty-free as they can be until then. I'm somewhat torn about it, but in this economy people have to do what they can to survive. Feathers are making money for people and demand is driving the prices up. The birds are being used for their parts and nothing is wasted. In this economy, this a good thing."

Kane agreed.

"This is a very eco-friendly deal, it's a fast turnaround, it's a sustainable process and nothing is wasted. There's a lot worse things happening out there than being raised for your feathers."

And, he added, Sturtevants is able to introduce its offerings to a whole new clientele who might not have come in otherwise. "It's great to see that bridge being made."

"It will be interesting to see how it plays out," said Sherman. "To be quite honest, I think it's just a fad, but it's getting a lot of attention."

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