YF Featured in Northwest Quarterly: Fashion-Forward for Generations: York Furrier Celebrates 90 Years
From its humble beginnings, this Elmhurst-area furrier continues to take pride in its work and its community. And furs? They’re just the beginning of what’s waiting inside.
To celebrate his first Christmas with his wife, John Altstadt took his new father-in-law to Elmhurst to visit York Furrier. Together, they chose a beautiful fur garment as a special gift.
“It was a blue fox coat,” recalls Barbara Altstadt. “To this day, I still have the coat. I take it to York Furrier for repair and storage, and when I pick it up, it always looks beautiful. That was 36 years ago.”
The Altstadts, of Arlington Heights, still are avid supporters of York Furrier, 107 N. York St. In fact, Barbara has 16 YF Collection pieces, including designer furs, cashmere capes and leather jackets, plus unique handbags and clutches.
“They’re all beautiful,” John says, noting he’s purchased leather jackets for himself over the years.
As third-generation owners John and Kathy Rezny celebrate the store’s 90th anniversary this year, it’s easy for the Altstadts to understand how York Furrier has managed to stay a relevant fashion icon for so long.
“I just love going to the store,” Barbara says. “It’s so enjoyable shopping there. They have a huge range of styles and products, not just furs, and I like the atmosphere. It’s just a fun place to go to.”
Perhaps surprisingly, John agrees.
“Guys don’t like to shop with their wives, right?” he says, laughing. “The thing I enjoy is Kathy will pull Barb aside and bring out all of the latest fashions. They’ll peruse the new arrivals for half an hour or 45 minutes, and I get to go to the other section and chat with John. There’s a counter with usually two to three guys there talking about sports or business. It’s a way to kind of catch up on things. We talk current events, we talk sports – it’s just fun.”
For the Reznys, providing the very best furs, outerwear, cashmere, leather, reversible rainwear and accessories goes hand-in-hand with providing great customer service, and they do it all with a tight-knit team whom customers know and love.
“We’re really excited about the 90th anniversary,” Kathy Rezny says. “Being a family business, we’ve weathered lots of storms through the decades, and thankfully we’re still here. We’re excited about turning the corner and arriving at the 100th anniversary.”
Welcome to Luxury
York Furrier has covered the Chicago area with its beautiful furs, fine outerwear, accessories and home decor for decades, but by no means are you going to find Grandma’s old fur coat hanging on the store’s display racks – though it may be in the back work area waiting to be restyled, repurposed or upcycled by the talented York Design Team.
“We have all this fashion here,” says store manager Mark Gordon, who has worked at York Furrier since October 1976. “The styles have changed, and now it’s a little more casual, but I think York Furrier always has been cutting-edge. That’s been their philosophy: to carry high-end high fashion, along with the classics.”
York Furrier’s latest collection reflects the needs of the current shopper.
“Every year, we reinvent ourselves,” Rezny says. “For our 90th anniversary, the theme is more in line with casual luxe. Work and home have blended. We kind of lost a year of being out and about and going to events and galas, plus the theaters and performance venues were closed. Now, we’re looking for places to go and to do things again. Clients need something versatile that will take them from day into evening.”
Sheared mink and sheared beaver fur coats top the list, because they’re easy to pair with denim or an evening dress, Rezny says.
“We were so glam for so long, from the 1980s into the early ’90s,” she adds. “Then, we went almost extreme casual. And now I appreciate the versatility. There are so many women who work. Having a coat that can take you in all different directions is so key, and I’m excited our collection is doing that this year for women and men, too.”
The fashion world is currently in a transitional phase, moving away from fast fashion – inexpensive, cheaply made items – back to slow fashion, or circular, sustainable pieces. That gives the in-house design team at York Furrier an opportunity to shine.
“We’re able to take your mom’s or grandma’s fur coat that has been passed down to the next generation – daughter or granddaughter – and the YF Design Team will restyle it or repurpose it and make it new again,” Rezny says.
Full-length coats can be turned into walking coats, which end at the knee; hooded parkas can become vests; and if the fur is in good – but not great – shape, it still can be refurbished into novelty items like pillows, glove or boot trim, an envelope clutch, baby booties, dog coats and more.
“A friend of mine had a beaver coat that she had gotten in the ’90s from her husband, and York Furrier turned it into a gorgeous throw blanket,” says Sharon Zygmunt of Lombard, who has been a customer for 24 years. “Being able to reuse a fur coat and repurpose it gives credence to its sentimental value. Wear an upcycled fur scarf or craft a pillow or a teddy bear for your kids from an older fur instead of leaving it hanging in the closet.”
Whether it’s a new or repurposed piece, Zygmunt says she appreciates the longevity and environmentally friendly aspect of owning a fur or leather product.
But most of all, she loves the one-of-a-kind experience she gets from shopping at – and wearing – York Furrier pieces.
“My husband has showered me with many things from York Furrier,” she says, noting her first gift was a gorgeous black mink. “They’re always unique and fashionable. You can go anywhere and buy a North Face coat, but not everyone will have the chinchilla-trimmed lamb bolero jacket that I wear. The store’s selection offers a unique, fashion-forward twist. You feel special, and fashion should make you feel good when you wear it.”
York Furrier launched in 1931, founded by Rezny’s grandfather, Joseph Wagner. The German immigrant moved near family in Illinois, and he settled in Elmhurst because “it was a wonderful German town at the time,” Rezny recalls.
Though he spoke very little English at first, Wagner took great pride in becoming an American citizen and served in World War II.
“He was an integral part of the community,” Rezny says. “He had always believed wherever you work, you always serve.”
After opening his store, Wagner also became a mink rancher. In fact, for a time, all of the mink garments he sold were sourced from his ranch in Winfield.
In the mid-1970s, Rezny’s parents, Richard “Dick” and Edith Wagner, took over the store. Rezny joined the team in 1988, and her husband joined in 1989. The couple assumed ownership in early 2000, and the business still resides in its original building on York Street, in the Elmhurst City Centre.
Over the years, York Furrier has acquired the clientele of other area furriers who were retiring, including O’Brien and Sons in West Dundee, Javurek Furs in Berwyn, and Abrahamson’s in Oak Park. Those acquisitions only enhanced the store’s extensive list of loyal clientele.
“I’ve personally assisted clients who have been shopping at the store for multiple decades, and they’ve worked with family members from all three generations that have operated this business,” says Rezny. “Those clients have become like family, and their support is greatly appreciated.”
Gordon, who was hired by Dick Wagner more than 40 years ago, believes the store has reached its 90-year milestone because of its familial presence among staff and customers.
“The funny thing is, we’ve had people who have lived in Elmhurst for 20 years and have never stepped inside our store, and then when they finally do stop in, they say, ‘I had no idea it was like this,’” Gordon says. “I think they thought it was an uptight place. But it’s comfortable. We always have customers talking to each other, ‘Do you like this? What about this?’ and we sit back and let them chat. I believe it’s somewhat of a relaxed atmosphere, and I think the customers feel that, too.”
What Do You Need?
Rezny’s advice for customers – whether they’re stepping into the store for the first time or visiting for the third time in a month – is to think about the purpose of the item they’re interested in.
“Moms with little kids? They’ll need to do the errands, grocery shop, drop the kids off at school and maybe attend a PTA meeting,” Rezny says. “They’re going to need something a little sportier that looks great and provides durable warmth and protection from Chicago’s winter weather.
“A bank manager, she’ll need to look professional – fashionable, though not ostentatious – and look and feel great when she meets with clients,” Rezny adds. “For a socialite, influencer or a fashionista – we have clients who have 20 to 30 YF Collection pieces – they want the newest, latest, most fun – something they don’t already have in their closet.
Men traveling back and forth from the suburbs to downtown Chicago, meanwhile, need something warm that looks polished when they’re visiting clients, she says.
York Furrier has a mix of products that accommodate each profile. The Reznys seasonally curate their collection from global manufacturers and designers, while one-of-a-kind bespoke pieces – the York Exceptional Exclusives – are created in-house by the York Design Team.
Whatever a customer’s needs may be, York Furrier fulfills those requests because they offer all of their services on site, including climate-controlled storage, cleaning and conditioning, repairs, alterations, and restyling or repurposing older fur and outerwear garments.
“Whether a client selects a Zac Posen-designed fox jacket or a York Signature Style sheared mink reversible to rainsilk walking coat, each garment will be personalized and fitted to the wearer for closure placement, sleeve and hemline length, as well as silhouette and shoulder line adjustments,” says Rezny.
Learn from the Pros
It takes hard work and dedication to keep a business thriving for 90 years.
The best advice that Rezny has for small business owners is to be versatile and take everything in stride.
“Plan on wearing a lot of different hats,” she says. “You have to learn something new every day. You have to always be on the front of things. I truly love what I do. Every day is enjoyable. You just dig in, you work hard, and you try to be efficient with it.”
While York Furrier thrives with its brick-and-mortar store, having an online presence is essential – and not just an e-commerce site but also a blog and resources on the latest styles.
“We have a global clientele that purchases from our website, yorkfur.com,” Rezny says. “The online component and having 24/7 shopping capability has provided the opportunity for us to sell and ship product to almost every continent.”
Preparing for the future is another business-savvy trademark, and Rezny not only sits on the national board of the American Fur Council – and chairs the council’s ReMix student design competition – she also created the “FUR … the Future” initiative to mentor college fashion students interested in fur design.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with interns from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the College of DuPage and other Chicagoland schools,” she says. “We talk about what it means to be in the fur business, from merchandising to front-end sales. I pair them up with the York Design Team where they learn how to sew and work with fur. That’s another important aspect of the business – teaching the next generation.”
While philanthropy isn’t necessary to keep a business afloat, for Rezny and the generations before her, giving back to the community is simply part of the business.
“I just really think that you have to give back – that’s what life’s about,” Rezny says. “You can live your life and be very straight and narrow and focus on yourself, but I think you get a lot more out of it when you focus on the outside.”
To that end, the Reznys have served on various nonprofit boards, and York Furrier is involved in dozens of annual charity events and galas, providing products for raffles and participating in fashion shows. The Reznys and York Furrier annually host two to three in-store “FUNdraisers” to help charitable organizations.
“One of the things I love about both Kathy and John is the charity events they hold and how they contribute to helping people,” says Barbara Altstadt. “I just think that’s one of the greatest qualities they both have.”
“You’re buying something, and you know at least part of what you’re buying is going to be used for something that’s helping others,” adds John Altstadt. “And they have such a broad range of charities they support. As a business person myself, I’d say people do it [philanthropy] for the visibility of their business. But both Kathy and John are very giving people – that’s who they are. Barb and I look forward to a continued business and personal relationship with York Furrier and the Reznys, and I hope that we’ll be celebrating the store’s centennial.”