Jacques Kaplan, 83, Bold Furrier, Dies
July 22, 2008
It was a memorable meeting between high art and animal hides in 1963. Frank Stella had painted black and yellow stripes on fur garments. Richard Anuszkiewicz had devised a bold geometric arrangement of white dots on a calfskin coat.
The smiling impresario behind this promotion, and many more stunts to come, was Jacques Kaplan, an absurdist furrier and art gallery owner who died on Wednesday at his home in Kent, Conn., at the age of 83. His son, Pascal, said the cause was cancer of the esophagus.
To the staid world of the mink stole, Mr. Kaplan brought a sense of mischief that appalled his conservative father, Georges, the owner of the family’s fur salon on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. But it attracted a new generation of less formal but still style-conscious customers.
“We have taken the trauma out of buying fur,” Mr. Kaplan announced triumphantly. “The wilder they are, the faster they sell.”
Eager to reach younger shoppers, and to amuse himself, Mr. Kaplan designed lower-priced garments in less-expensive material, like wolf and rabbit, creating a new category known as fun fur. He also introduced bizarre furs like zorino, jaguar, wildebeest and gayal, and came up with new uses for them.
He designed fur furniture, commissioned fur art and hired artists like Stella and Anuszkiewicz to help promote his bolder designs. Babe Paley, wife of the CBS chairman William S. Paley, had Mr. Kaplan carpet her bathroom floor in Indian lamb’s wool. A boutique the salon owned across the street sold fur by the yard, which inventive customers used to upholster car seats or line closets.
“He found ways to make the business fun and exciting and attract a new clientele,” Pascal Kaplan said. “He liked to create what he called ‘noise.’ ”
Mr. Kaplan, who pronounced his last name ka-PLAHN, in the French manner, was born in Paris in 1924, surrounded by an extended family of furriers. The business had been founded by his maternal grandfather, a Russian émigré, and his father conducted it with a sure, if unadventurous, hand.
As the Nazis overran France, the family fled to Antibes, where Jacques joined a resistance group. In 1942, his father took the family to New York and re-established the fur business on Fifth Avenue, but Jacques soon left for Britain to train as an officer with the Free French Army at St. Cyr, the French military academy, which had been moved to London.
Mr. Kaplan served as a liaison officer with the Fifth Armed Division, which was part of the Seventh Army in North Africa. He took part in the landing in the South of France and, after experiencing combat in Alsace, finished the war in Austria. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre for sneaking across German lines to warn American forces that the town in the Vosges that they occupied was about to be encircled.
Mr. Kaplan studied at the Sorbonne, with plans to teach philosophy, but the family business won out after he married Claude Puiforcat, a member of the famed family of French silversmiths. The couple moved to New York, where Mr. Kaplan joined his father in the fur salon. The couple had a son, Pascal (named after the philosopher Blaise Pascal), and a daughter, Laurence. The marriage ended in divorce in 1956, the year Mr. Kaplan took over as director and designer of the fur salon.
One day in the late 1950s, Mr. Kaplan wandered by chance into an art gallery near the fur salon and became so entranced by a painting there that he traded a fur for it. This flamboyant gesture brought him entrée into the New York art world, where he felt right at home.
A gregarious teetotaler, he gave lavish parties at his Upper East Side apartment for his Bohemian friends, disappearing as the evening wore on and checking into the Westbury Hotel to enjoy a good night’s rest. “I turned into a sort of East Village beatnik on Fifth Avenue,” he later recalled.
Art and fur marched hand in hand from then on. Dead set on enjoying a profession that, frankly, left him cold, he gave fancy free rein. While quietly dealing in mainstays like full-length mink coats, he experimented with novelties like shirred mink, from which he made raincoats. Inspired by geometric art, he created a square mink coat. In an idle moment, he came up with a piece of kinetic art that involved spinning wheels of monkey fur.
In the late 1960s, distressed by the dwindling population of rare animals, Mr. Kaplan swore off the use of leopard and cheetah, infuriating rival furriers and earning the praise of the World Wildlife Fund. Soon after, he displayed a coat ornamented with the skins of imported alley cats, a rare public relations gaffe.
In 1969, Mr. Kaplan sold the fur business to the Kenton Corporation, a company owned by Meshulam Riklis, who closed the store in 1972. Mr. Kaplan, in the meantime, relied on his extensive art world connections to set himself up as a broker, arranging deals among collectors, artists and galleries.
Besides his son, Pascal, of Walnut Creek, Calif., Mr. Kaplan is survived by his daughter, Laurence, of Berkeley, Calif.; his wife, Violaine Bachelier, of Kent; his first wife, the former Ms. Puiforcat; two sisters, Monique Winsten of Scarsdale, N.Y., and Nicole Alenick of Livingston, N.J.; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
In the early 1980s, Mr. Kaplan bought a house in Kent, which he decided should become the art capital of Connecticut. In 1984, in a caboose near the town’s old railroad station, he created the Paris New York Kent Gallery, where he put on exhibitions of his favorite artists and showed works from his extensive collection. He also persuaded others to open galleries, which he helped support.
“My aim in life is to be as happy as possible, and make as happy as possible the people I like,” he once said. “That is the only kind of social mission.”