Danny Tabi, furrier
At six yesterday morning, Brick Lane was empty of people but Danny Tabi, the last furrier in Spitalfields was already at work when I arrived at Gale Furs. When Danny started in 1963, hundreds worked in the fur trade and the streets thronged with workers from all the different garment industries making their way to work at six, but now there is just Danny. Others who merely import furs call themselves furriers, but Danny is the only one still working here with a lifetime’s expertise, at an occupation that must surely rate as one of the oldest known to mankind. I sat alone with Danny in the empty workshop at Gale Furs as the sun rose over Whitechapel and he told me his story.
“I was walking down Fournier St looking for a job one day and above the Market Cafe was a furrier, he interviewed me and said could I start on Monday. So I got a job starting the next week. Then, as I came out of there and walked back towards Brick Lane along Fournier St, when I got to Gale furs at number 8, I asked if they had any vacancies. The proprietor, Solly Shamroth, said “yes” and I could start the following day. So I went there rather than the other place and this was how my association started with Gale Furs. If I had turned left rather than right that day in Fournier St, my life would have been different.
I started at the firm, working with a guy called Max Ross, as a nailer. That’s a person that used to shape the furs by stretching them when they were wet. I picked up the nails off the floor and dampened the skins for him, then I used to go downstairs and pick up the needles from between the cracks in the floorboards with a magnet – nothing was wasted. In those days when you started in a firm like that you did everything, swept floors, did errands and got the cheese rolls too. Also on Friday my job was to clean three cars!
I could tell you a million stories of the street and the customers, and all the characters. Everyone had their special way of doing things. Morrie Klass, who taught me how to cut, he turned up for work in detachable collars, immaculately turned out, dapper like a city gent. He read The Guardian and The Times and spoke perfect Queen’s English. Maxie Ross, the nailer, he was a chain smoker always with a cigarette or a cigar. He used to leave a pint of milk on the window sill until it had congealed for a week and drank it sour because he loved it that way. He picked up nails and pieces of string and made use of it. He couldn’t walk past something he could use. One time, he had to go to a funeral but he had no proper black tie, so he wore a bow tie! Maxie was champion ballroom dancer, and he and Morrie won competitions in the ballrooms. That’s where Maxie met his wife, and his son used to play drums for Joe Loss. That was how I got to go to West End clubs because he got complimentary tickets and passed them onto me as a young lad of sixteen and seventeen.
Along the way I learnt all my skills and, as the factory started dwindling in workers, I found myself taking the places of the people who had left. People just retired but no-one came in to the trade, instead they were encouraged to go into office work.When you couldn’t replace them, you had to do certain things yourself. I found myself doing more cutting, making and sewing too. I learnt my trade during the sixties and seventies, then I started using my skills in the late seventies and eighties. During the sixties when there were eighteen people working in the furriers – it was a beautiful thing – turning out coats, collars, cuffs, stoles and hats, you name it we made it. It wasn’t just the work, it was the atmosphere.
Every single time you make a garment, it’s different because fur is a living thing. You work from scratch, one skin at a time, every time – when you match up pieces, the fur has to be same length. It’s definitely an art, you can’t explain what you did from arriving in the morning to going home at night. I’ve enjoyed my work over the years. I made a white collar from fake fur for Princess Diana. I’ve worked for lords and ladies. Katy Price is wearing one of my coats at present, and Kate Moss and Jemima Khan both have pieces of my work. They go to the West End stores to buy stuff but we make them here.
I was born in 136 Brick Lane in the attic in a one room flat, my mother lived there with me and my brother Ray. We weren’t brought up in luxury. At one point we lived in a hostel in Cable St because housing wasn’t available to mixed race families. I’ve worked since I left school, I never claimed benefits and I can count on my two hands the days off. I must be one of the longest-serving people in Brick Lane, I’ve always worked here.
I love walking down Brick Lane at five thirty in the morning, I can hear echoes from the past of when I walked down there suited and booted. I get emotional. People have moved away but I have always been drawn to the area. This used to be the dregs here, but here’s nothing wrong with Brick Lane. I’m pleased to see lots of young people come now. I pop out to get something and there’s crowds of young people. It’s incredible.”
Danny worked for Gale Furs for thirty years before he took it over, and now he is the proprietor and sole employee. Leaving the factory premises at 8 Fournier St in 1994 (it has become a private house now), today Danny works from a small nondescript second floor space on Whitechapel High St. On one side are the rails of coats and other pieces that have come in for renovation and repair, with prime garments displayed upon stands as superlative examples of the furrier’s art, and on the opposite side is the work table, pierced with infinite lines of little holes created when Danny transfers the pattern to the skins. Everywhere, scraps of fur are piled and paper patterns hang in sheaves from the wall.
Danny is justifiably proud of his skill and accomplishments and retains an appealing enthusiasm, shrewd yet bright. I was fascinated to watch Danny work at his cutting table, displaying natural dexterity, confidence and love of what he does, using all the tools that have always been with the company, many of which are a hundred years old or more, but still serviceable and in fact perfectly suited to the job. I felt privileged to be there in this sanctum and to understand that Danny extended his trust and welcome to me.
“It’s going to die a death” he declared without any regret, explaining that the Chinese are now the whole world’s furriers, as he took me through all the various tools of his trade demonstrating the purpose and telling the story for each one. A new world opened to me as Danny outlined the enormous number of processes and techniques that meet in the creation of garments of fur. We kept eye contact, like teacher and pupil, as he took me through what it takes to make a fur coat that might require seven weeks work. Picking up the tools, he mimed how he used them, specifying each of the distinctive requirements of the job and sometimes losing words when there were none to describe the methods of how you work with fur, and I had simply to follow his expert demonstration.
Today, Danny does all the different jobs and possesses all the skills of the eighteen staff that once worked for Gale Furs. He is widely respected for his talent and forty-seven years of experience at the high-end of an exclusive luxury trade. No-one is learning from Danny and, irrespective of your feelings about the origin of fur, there is an undeniable poignancy about the culture of the furrier which is an intricate refined expression of a certain vein of human ingenuity, with its own language, history and tools, and of which Danny is now the last exponent in a place where once so many people pursued this ancient trade.
The tool at the top is for stretching skins. Danny has used these scissors his entire career, they have a perfect balance and silken movement, and are over a hundred years old.
These irons which Danny uses as weights are over a century old too.
Newly acquired rolls of the highest quality silk lining, dated last day of December 1948.
Danny uses this machine from the Fournier St factory, the cloth with pins on it has been there since before he started in the trade. Note the Bishopsgate phone number carved into the wooden base on the right.
The tool on the left is a homemade device for snapping a razor into two triangular blades, it works perfectly. The other two are stretching blocks for stretching skins into shape, the one in the centre is marked with its owner’s initials.
An old weaver’s stool of traditional design that Danny uses when he sits at his sewing machine.
The magnet Danny used to pick up pins from the floor when he started work at Gale Furs in Fournier St in 1963.