December 15, 2017
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Fashion trend drives demand for feathers through the roof

By Aislinn Sarnacki and John Holyoke, BDN Staff

On the surface, your curmudgeonly neighbor (you know, the guy who spends his winters in his den, hunched over a vise, tying fishing flies that he’ll use all summer) would seem to have little in common with rock star Steven Tyler, pop star Ke$ha, or beauty salon owners in California, New York and Colorado.

But make no mistake about it: Whether he knows it yet, he does.

Fly tiers depend upon feathers, you see. They covet long, narrow ones with bold, barred patterns that are required materials for a number of flies.

But those feathers are also the ones that look fabulous dangling from the stylish locks of Tyler, Ke$ha and a generation of fashion-consumed young women.

And that’s the catch: There simply aren’t enough suitable chickens alive in the U.S. to fully provide the demand that has erupted in recent months. As a result, there’s an odd bidding war going on that is pitting anglers against salon owners in competition for a finite number of feathers.

Which side you favor in this good-natured battle depends on how you answer the following questions: Are you about fishing? Or are you about fashion?

Ron McKusick runs an Internet-based fly and tying-supply business, Featherside Flies, in Corinna. He has been in business since 1976, and says he’s never seen anything like the recent boom in demand for full “saddles,” which are patches of feathers that come from the back of a rooster.

The rapid increase in demand stunned McKusick, who learned of the fashion trend back in November when salons made a run on all the lavender-dyed saddles that he had in stock.

“In early January I got as many of the [long-feathered] Euro-rooster saddles as I could get, and they were gone in two weeks. Now when I buy the rooster saddle in the [Colorado-based] Whiting Farms] Hebert line, in the Whiting line, they’re gone within two or three days. Gone,” McKusick said.

And as demand has exploded, so has the price: McKusick said that Whiting Farms has hiked prices steadily since feathers became fashion pieces rather than simply essential ingredients in a particular fly pattern.

“The Euro-rooster saddle has been such a high demand for Whiting that they’ve gone from retailing them for $40 for a complete saddle in November to retailing them for $75 in January,” McKusick said. “Now [two months later] they’re no longer selling the Euro-rooster saddle on the skin. They’re pulling 16 feathers out and retailing 16 feathers for 20 bucks. I’m not kidding.”

A typical high-quality saddle has dozens of those long, coveted feathers.

In February Whiting Farms sent a memo to fly shops that it supplies, explaining that it would no longer sell full saddles of its Euro-hackle in order to meet the tremendous demand for the product by spreading its stock among various consumers.

Alvin Theriault, who raises chickens specifically for fly-tying and owns Theriault Flies in Stacyville, said he didn’t really hear about what was happening in the fashion world until three weeks ago. Then the calls started coming in, and they haven’t slowed since.

“I’m the one who’s supplying [the salons] now because I’m the only one who has any left,” Theriault said with a laugh. “I’ve been selling the ‘select’ [high-grade saddle] for $16.95. I’m one of the lowest prices on the market. [One salon-owner] offered to pay $40 to $50 and buy ‘em all, and I said, ‘No, I’m not doing that.’”

Another salon-owner, who lives in California, called and wanted to buy 4,000 saddles from Theriault, who explained that during peak years he only raises 1,000 chickens, and of those, perhaps one in 50 might produce a select-grade saddle.

Theriault says he wants to keep fly-tiers happy and also hopes to use this opportunity  to cement his brand in the conscience of salon-owners. Thus, he’s spreading the feathers around and trying to keep as many consumers as happy as he can.

“What amazed me was the price [salon-owners] would pay for the feathers, and the amount of feathers that these people were going through,” Theriault said.

The rise in the price of feathers might not faze salon owners because fashion-forward people in big cities, especially on the West Coast, will pay big bucks to have the latest trend: feather hair extensions — foot-long, glamorous feathers that remain bound to hair for months at a time.

“We got [the feather extensions] in the salon probably at the beginning of the year. It’s a very new thing,” said Yadira Ihmud, hair stylist at Advance Hair Concepts in San Diego.

A bundle of three feathers, which hair stylists recommend for a noticeable accessory, costs a client $25. One feather is $10. Stylists take about 10 minutes to bind them to a small clump of hair in strategic locations. Then they’re in there for the next two or three months, unless you lose your feathers without noticing. The small tragedy is rare, but happens, according to Ihmud.

“Regularly, we have at least three people a day come ask for feather extensions,” Ihmud said.

The salon’s supplier, Featherlocks, offers feathers in more than 40 colors and patterns, 8 to 16 inches long. Those with extensions must be careful with a comb. Otherwise, the feathers can be shampooed, blown dry and even curled.

“I think it’s just fun, you know, a little accessory for your hair,” said Ihmud. “If you can’t afford highlights and or maybe don’t want to go through the maintenance of highlights, you put a feather in your hair and have something different.”

Several Maine hair salons said the trend hasn’t caught on here just yet. A request for feather hair extensions at Scissor Excitement in Hampden received the answer, “We’ve done hair extensions, but we’ve never done feathers.” Hair Excitement, which has 21 salons in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, gave a similar answer. Heather Diko, owner of Revival Salon in Belfast, has heard of the long-lasting feather extensions, but thinks it’s impractical for people living in this region.

If you ask around, though, some Maine salons do have experience with feathers. Deja Vu Hair Salon in Bangor doesn’t carry feathers in the salon, but clients can special order them and their stylists will be happy to work them into their look.

If you’re among those who hadn’t heard about feather hair extensions, there’s a good reason: Until recent years it would have been difficult to find the feathers that stylists rely on today.

“We’ve never had that kind of [feather] before. That’s why it never happened,” said Theriault, who has spent the last 30 years studying poultry genetics and cross-breeding birds that would produce longer, thinner feathers. “The reason that [the demand] has never materialized before is because we’ve never had hackle [feathers] this long before. The hackle has to be at least eight inches long and that’s without the fluff. And it has to be a fine hackle.”

Theriault said he has sent saddle hackle, or patches of the long feathers, to salons in New York, Ohio, Pennyslvania, Florida, California, Colorado and Oregon.

He said that large material suppliers such as Whiting Farms were a few years ahead of him in developing chickens that would produce the feathers that fly-tiers (and, eventually, hair stylists) really wanted.

The key: He and other suppliers had to “build” a bigger bird. Success, after 30 years of selective breeding, finally came for him about three years ago, he said.

“The reason they’ve never had [the feathers that exist now] is that the birds were too short,” Theriault said. “So they never had a very long saddle. We’ve been cross-breeding for a taller bird because we realized that we had to have a taller bird in order to get longer saddles.”

Theriault’s reasoning may sound odd, but here’s the reality: A chicken’s saddle feathers hang low and reach the ground. Short-legged birds will stomp on those long feathers and ruin them. Long-legged birds have much more … well … legroom. And the feathers flourish.

In fashion terms, picture how wrinkled and messy your favorite dress would be if you put it on a hanger that was two feet off the floor. Raise it another foot or two, and it would remain fresh. And that’s the same thing that breeding taller chickens has done for those high-end feathers: It has allowed them to grow longer before they’re forced to bend, drag in the mud or fall off.

And after producing a taller bird, Theriault crossed them with some that had beautiful, narrow feathers, with very little fluff at the butt end. Those feathers are the ones you’ll see on Ke$ha and Tyler and in salons across the country … if those salons can get their hands on any without getting their hackles up.

Theriault said he’s nearly out of his own stock of select feathers that are coveted by stylists, and it will take him time to replenish that supply. It is, after all, all about the chickens.

“From what I can see, when I run out of these feathers — probably in another week I’ll be out of these very select feathers — I won’t have any more available until next February,” Theriault said. “We have to hatch the chicks this spring, and it takes nine months [to grow the chickens].”

Theriault said he anticipates raising the price of the select feathers next year, which will allow him to return to raising 1,000 chickens a year. This year, unaware of the impending boom and holding a significant inventory, he reduced his flock to just 400 birds because feed was too expensive.

Theriault said he doesn’t expect the feather boom to die down any time soon. “I think [the long, sought-after] feathers are going to become really rare,” Theriault said. “There’s still going to be a few salons that have some, but it’s going to be really rare. So the demand’s going to stay there because it’s going to go from something that’s very rare until the next feathers are ready. So I expect [the trend] is going to be several years, anyway.”

The elaborate hair trend might not be hitting Maine the way it has California, but feathers have certainly moved from the tackle box to the jewelry box in the past few years, which increases the demand on the shorter feathers.

“It’s really popular at my school. Girls wear big peacock earrings dyed in rainbow colors and just the generic peacock,” said Hannah Billings, 17, of George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill. “At the semi-formal last month, a girl had a peach dress and it was just feathers. It was really pretty.”

Billing’s classmates are well aware that the pop icons Ke$ha, Lady Ga Ga and Katy Perry have donned feathers in recent media appearances.

“It’s definitely a risky style,” she said. “I go to a small school so people who take risks like that are looked up to.”

When the weather’s good, Billings wears her blue, green and purple feather earrings and feather headband, but when it rains, she leaves them at home.

In the fashion world, water ruins feathers.

In the fishing world, however, water is just the most essential part of the equation.

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