GT Pulse: A Life of Grit and Glamour as a Furrier
“Fridrich is my middle name, Michael’s Furs sounds like a hobby shop,” Michael Henke said to me while we sat in the middle of fluffy fur coats and hats at his store, Fridrich Furs.
The store is located inside of The Village at Grand Traverse Commons and Micahel sells all kinds of fur coats, hats, gloves and more.
Michael has been the proud owner of Fridrich Furs since opening up shop in 2010. Being a furrier isn’t a common skill, and it’s not one the Michael sought out on his own. Michael is a third-generation furrier.
“My dad’s a furrier, he’s 85 and still doing this. My grandmother was a furrier in Walled Lake, Michigan and my grandfather was a fox farmer. You gotta know someone on the business.”
Michael’s fur education began when he was a kid. He had to wet skins, count skins and mark them. He used to go with his father to Trapper’s Alley in Greektown Detroit to buy skins.
“That’s where trappers used to bring their furs and furriers like me would buy the raw skins, send them out and get them tanned. There were tanneries on the Detroit River.”
Although Michael has fond childhood memories of helping his father with furs, it was not optional.
“It was part of my chores growing up. It was apart of my chores because I was around it. I never wanted to do it because, I liked the fashion part but it’s very cyclical, it’s seasonal. Furs ebb and flow through the times. Man has been wearing furs since the beginning of time.”
Micahel was well dressed in slacks that were tailored perfectly, a crisp polo button down. His love of fashion is presented well through his own style and that love helps him with selling furs, but he hasn’t sold furs his entire life. At several different points in his life, Michael worked very far away from fashion.
Michael grew up on farmland in Flint, Michigan. He learned many valuable skills throughout his childhood that pertained to maintaining land. He could dig ditches, drive a tractor, learned carpentry and learned how to rebuild engines.
“I’m an American. I’m a Michigan kind of guy. I go to work every day.”
Michael started working at General Motors at 19 years old and bought a house in Flint close enough that he could walk to work. He got a job welding, a skill that he already had, and enjoyed his time working for GM until he got laid off after working for four years. Before the hammer came down Michael started moonlighting with his father, who was still working as a furrier. He got another job working in a warehouse that ultimately led him to becoming the plant supervisor until fur started to become wildly popular again in the 80s.
“I was still working for my dad and he got a call about someone asking if he knew a furrier. I only heard half the conversation and asked, ‘who is that?’ and he told me who it was. So when I was working in the warehouse I called this guy Carl Reed in Grand Rapids and they were looking for a furrier for Monroe Center Furs.”
Michael continued to work in the fur business in Grand Rapids throughout most of the 1980s until the stock market crash in 1987. He moved to Farmington, Michigan where he bought his first fur business at 27, Butcher Furs. Like all stories of success, there was a challenge that tested Michael’s perseverance. He waited for business to pick back up, but it didn’t happen.
He had to walk away from the business and was going through a divorce at the time. He spent the beginning of the 90s working as a carpenter and didn’t pick back up with fur until taking a job in the fur department at the Palmer House in Chicago. He met his second wife while living there. With the erratic nature of furs going in and out of popularity, Michael ended up in carpentry again and opened up his own construction business. He and his wife decided they wanted to retire to Traverse City. They moved to Traverse City in 2007 where Michael continued to work in carpentry. The clients he was working for were well off and many times the homes Michael was working on was a third or fourth home for a client.
“Plasma TVs and keg taps downstairs and I thought, ‘those are my customers. Those are fur customers.’ I asked the kids about that asylum place and they said that’s where all the rich-y people go. I looked around and half of those storefronts were empty still. I wanted this space, right next door was a winery, Stella’s down the hall.”
When Michael first started Fridrich Furs almost all of the pieces were made by him. He has pieces now from all over the world, but he still makes many custom fur pieces from commissions. His personal favorite fur?
“Muskrat. First thing I ever made was out of muskrat. I thought about naming the place The Rat Pack but then I’d have to wear black pants, and a white shirt and a little narrow tie. When I came up with this I said, ‘hey dad do you mind if I use your name Furs by Fritz?’ he said he’d think about it.”
His father may not have let him use the original family business name, but Michael is carrying on the family legacy with Fridrich Furs.