Growing up in Covington in the 1950s, Donna Salyers learned to sew out of necessity. Little did she know that this skill would turn into a lifelong profession and give her celebrity status across the country and abroad.
Her products are even one of Oprah’s Favorite Things. How’s that for celebrity?
It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen fairly quickly.
Salyers had sewn practically her entire life and had a talent with a needle. She and her husband, Jim, and two kids lived in Cincinnati. Salyers was a stay-at-home mom, and Jim was a real estate investor.
The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a regular sewing article, and Salyers didn’t think it was a good column. So she wrote to the editor to express her opinion, and the editor replied, suggesting maybe she could submit a few columns that were an improvement over the previous ones. One thing led to another, and Salyers’ column in the Enquirer became popular, was syndicated and ran for 17 years. Eventually, she became host of a television show about sewing and traveled regularly to New York City for tapings.
“What I realized in New York City is that it is cold, and it seemed like every woman there had a full-length mink coat,” she said. “Except me.”
At that point, Salyers had numerous connections in the fabric business, so she got some faux fur that resembled fox fur and made herself a coat.
“No one knew, and I didn’t tell,” she said.
The coat served her well for about five years, but she still wished for a full-length mink like all those women in New York City.
“So I saved up about $5,000 and was headed to a fur salon in Cincinnati to purchase my dream coat,” Salyers said. “And on the way, I heard Paul Harvey on the radio telling a story about a toy company that would skin cats alive and make teddy bears out of their fur.”
Horrified, Salyers began thinking of fur in a whole new way.
She did not go to the fur salon. Instead, she took her $5,000 and created a business selling coat-sewing kits for making coats similar to the one she had made herself all those years ago.
In 1989, her first year in business, Donna Salyers’ Fabulous-Furs made $300,000.
Meanwhile, Jim, who owned real estate all over the greater Cincinnati area, decided he wanted to consolidate and focus on owning property in one place. The couple chose Covington, where Salyers had grown up. The Fabulous-Furs headquarters is in the former Wadsworth Electric Building at 20 West 11th Street, housing the sewing workroom, call center, offices and distribution center. While Fabulous-Furs also has a showroom there, most of the retail business is conducted through its website, fabulousfurs.com.
Donna and Jim also purchased the former Woolworth’s building on the corner of Madison Avenue and 7th Street in the mid-1980s. Woolworth’s had been part of Covington history for more than 70 years, and Donna had fond memories of going to the soda fountain there as a teen. After having no luck in finding a tenant, they decided to revamp the space into an upscale banquet and events center. The building was gutted and transformed into The Madison, which includes four ballrooms—perfect for stunning wedding receptions.
The faux-fur business bloomed, with Salyers’ creations appearing at red-carpet events, on soap operas and in magazines. But she continued to have a hand in the workings of The Madison.
“What we found was when brides came in to see our venue for their reception, when we would ask them about their dress, they would burst into tears,” Salyers said. “They had terrible stories about their search for the right dress. We realized that shopping for a gown should be part of the fairy tale, too. We knew we could make it a joyous occasion."
And so Donna Salyers’ Fabulous-Bridal was born in 2005. Located on Madison Avenue a block from The Madison, the bridal shop carries designer gowns in all sizes and price points and offers individualized customer service, making the bridal gown purchase a good experience for everyone involved.
Meanwhile, Salyers realized that people loved Fabulous-Furs but were not interested in creating one themselves, so the business quickly evolved from a sewing-kit company to a ready-to-wear company. While these sumptuous faux-fur jackets, throws, bags and coats are ordered by the rich and famous, they also are affordable for others. In addition to Salyers’ website, the furs are found in high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, and have been featured in the iconic Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog for several years. And, of course, in 2012 Oprah Winfrey added the faux-fur coats to her classic list of Favorite Things, which automatically resulted in a sales surge.
Salyers’ company does not produce the fabric but partners with some of the finest fabric makers in the world. She employs 50-60 people, with her workforce swelling to about 100 in late summer and early fall, and they stay busy sewing, filling orders and taking customer calls.
Salyers, 71, is intensely loyal to Covington and northern Kentucky.
“Our businesses work so well here because of the huge source of nice, smart, hard-working people that live here,” she said.
Son-in-law Guy van Rooyen, president and CEO of the Salyers Group, says that Salyers epitomizes the saying: “Find your passion and success will follow.”
“She created an entire niche industry in faux fur, simply because she believed in it,” he said. “Donna is the brains and energy behind our entire operation.”
The luxurious faux-fur pieces can fool most anyone and continue to be featured in fashion magazines and on television shows and movies. Fabulous-Furs has been asked to design a faux-fur bikini for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition; Salyers’ faux-fur pillows were seen in the movie You’ve Got Mail; and the producers of the television show The Office ordered seven identical coats to be used in the taping of a messy episode.
Another fun request was from the Cincinnati Zoo, which asked the company to create faux-fur vests to be worn by zookeepers as they acted as surrogate moms to care for an abandoned baby gorilla.
Although Salyers had no idea her business would take off in so many incredible directions, she credits her success to her knowledge of sewing—and timing.
“Around the time I went into business, people were beginning to ask themselves, ‘Why kill 100 small animals just to make one coat?’ ” she said.
She calls the purchase of a faux-fur coat the intelligent choice, as well as a better decision financially: a full-length sable coat retails for about $50,000, and the faux version is priced at about $599.
There also are care issues. Salyers said animal fur must be placed in cold storage when out of season, and the wearer is warned not to carry a shoulder-strap bag or sit in it. The faux coat can be machine washed, requires no special care, and is just as warm as its real counterpart.
Salyers’ love of her businesses is almost as deep as her love of Covington.
“This is our home,” she said. “Our hearts are here.”
The business, now in its 28th year and going strong, has come a long way from its humble beginnings in Salyers’ basement.
“People would ask me about my business plan, and I would tell them I did not know what a business plan was,” she said. “Honestly, no one could be more surprised than me at this success.”