On the very day in January 1988 that Donna Salyers decided to replace her faux fur coat with the real deal, she happened to be listening to radio commentator Paul Harvey in her car. “He was talking about a toymaker who would take a litter of unwanted kittens from an animal shelter and say he would give them a home,” recalls Salyers, who at the time owned four cats. “But in reality he skinned them, then passed the fur off as mink for the company’s teddy bears! I was horrified.”
Suddenly the black faux-fox coat Salyers had sewn for herself a few years earlier—the one everyone thought was real anyway—was looking pretty good. Even better, she knew she could make more. “I thought, ‘I bet a lot of people feel this way. I should start a business,’ ” says Salyers, 56, who at the time wrote a nationally syndicated sewing column. Her hunch was on the money. Fourteen years later Donna Salyers’ Fabulous-Furs is a $4 million-a-year catalog and Internet company (www.fabulousfurs.com) that ships lush—and affordable—faux furs, including her best-selling $529 sable shawl-collar coat, worldwide.
“These coats,” says former Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, who owns several of Salyers’s creations, “are lighter than marshmallow. I never go near my real furs anymore.” As for Melina Kanakaredes, she wraps herself in a coat made from Salyers’s fake fur on NBC’s Providence. Designer Philippe Starck, meanwhile, uses Salyers’s faux-fur pillows ($49) and throws (up to $299) in some of the trendy hotels he decorates for Ian Schrager—including the Delano in Miami Beach.
Such attention is heady stuff for Salyers. Born in working-class Covington, Ky., to Don Houston, a maintenance worker, and beautician Dottie (both now deceased), Salyers learned to sew by age 6. “I made everything I wore,” she says. She passed up a college scholarship to work as a secretary and in 1965 married real estate developer Jim Salyers, now 59, whom she met at a picnic.
By 1975 Salyers was a stay-at-home mom to Amanda, now 29, and Scott, 28, when she wrote to The Cincinnati Enquirer complaining that the paper’s sewing column was by-the-numbers. After an editor challenged her to do better, she submitted five sample pieces and got hired. “Sewing, Etc.” became so successful that Salyers parlayed it into a weekly show on the Christian Broadcast Network for two years.
Then came her pro-faux epiphany. Using $5,000 from her savings, she started a business in her basement selling do-it-yourself coat kits, including patterns and the synthetic fur from which to stitch them. But it wasn’t until 1991, when Salyers says actress Loretta Swit called after reading about her in a California newspaper, that Fabulous-Furs’ ready-to-wear line was born. “She said, ‘I want one of your coats,’ ” says Salyers, ” ‘but I don’t know how to sew!’ ” Salyers stitched the cloak herself, and soon after, her furs took off in PC-prone Hollywood.
These days, Salyers still designs and sews many prototypes herself, including the sheared-raccoon throw that accents the two-bedroom Newport, Ky., condo she shares with husband Jim. But she doesn’t think of the 65 hours she clocks each week at her nearby offices where she oversees 20 employees as work. “Somebody like me had so little potential,” she says. “My parents didn’t even think I should go to college. I definitely exceeded all expectations.”
Lauren Comander in Covington