By Johnny D. Boggs
Gail Orrick didn’t know what to expect. Here she was, debuting a new line of furs at the Cody High Style fashion show in Cody, Wyoming, in 2010. She was such a newcomer she had to ask one of her first customers to loan back a scarf she had designed so she would have enough items for the runway that night.
Besides, Orrick’s furs weren’t mink, but coyote – or coyot’- the official pronunciation for Orrick and her partner Sam Chambers, who supplies the furs. “Free-range, organic” coyote, sure, but coyote nonetheless; an animal usually shot on sight by cowboys, ranchers and predator hunters.
Orrick is still amazed by the crowd’s reaction that night at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, now the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
“When my collection came out on the runway at the museum that evening, the cowboy hats that flew up in the air were unbelievable,” Orrick says. “Nobody had really seen anything with coyot’ in fashion, the way I was highlighting the hide.”
Less than 10 years later, Orrick’s Aspen, Colorado-based Coyote Couture (CoyoteCoutureColorado.com) keeps impressing clients and critics by offering fur accessories such as capes, scarfs, stoles, wraps and vests, with clients across the country ranging from ages 20 to 92. Orrick might be best known for her coyote chinks. “I’m pretty sure there’s no other in the world,” she says. “They’re pretty spectacular.”
Yet, how Coyote Couture came to be is almost as amazing as its products (prices ranging from $875 to $2,400).
Orrick “grew up in Malibu with the Beach Boys,” but came to Aspen in 1972 as a single mother, thinking the Colorado Rockies would be a good place to raise her daughter. Although she had always loved fashion and studied interior design, she ran her own company that provided financial support for a variety of businesses until Coyote Couture came along.
The back story began in 2006, when she met Chambers, her neighbor whom she describes as “the ultimate mountain guy, doesn’t want to be around very many people, not very talkative, but loves to hunt.”
“Yeah,” Chambers agrees.
Chambers had left central Wisconsin in 1987. “The Midwest is cold and dreary and gray,” he says, “and I’m not really a big fan of dreary and gray all winter long.” Besides, Colorado offered more opportunities for someone interested in home construction and hunting…especially predator hunting.
“I’ve always hunted everything I could,” he says. “Big-game seasons are over by the middle of November and after that all you’ve got left are rabbits, and that’s about it. So unless you’re hunting coyot’s and bobcats, the season’s over pretty early.”
Under Colorado wildlife regulations, coyotes and other fur-bearing mammals can be hunted, with proper licenses, year round with an unlimited bag limit.
“Sam hunts the coyot’s with a rifle,” Orrick points out. “He doesn’t trap. People get a little apprehensive about fur in general, but these are predators that are killing baby calves, baby deer, baby elk. This type of hunting will go on regardless of my business. We’re doing something to help that whole circle happen. Otherwise the hide would get thrown away.”
Chambers likes hunting coyotes for another reason.
“Predators are lot more fun,” he says. “It’s pretty challenging. Coyot’s are pretty damn smart. They’re not the easiest things to hunt. It takes some skill.”
One day in 2009, Chambers dropped by Orrick’s home to show off some coyotes he had killed, and Orrick had a brainstorm. She asked if she could have one of the hides to make a scarf.
“One, I love coyot’ fur,” Orrick says. “And two, I wanted something warm around my neck in the mornings and evenings when I’d go feed my horses.”
Chambers agreed, Orrick selected a coyote and when the fur came back from a tannery, Orrick sent the hide to a seamstress.
“It’s super simple,” Orrick says. “Just the hide, which is sewn together so that it’s a cylinder with a slit in one end. You slide the other end through and cinch it up around the neck.”
One evening, while entertaining girlfriends, Orrick was going to feed her horses and threw on her coyote scarf and Carhartt jacket. One of her friends stopped her, said the scarf was gorgeous and that she wanted one.
“I was surprised,” Orrick said. “I said, ‘Sure. I’ll make you one.’”
It might have ended with that, two coyote hides turned into two scarfs, but a few weeks later Chambers and Orrick went on a pheasant-hunting trip in Kansas.
“Once again,” Orrick says, “Carhartt jacket, fur around my neck, we’re hunting with a couple from New York City and his wife goes, ‘That’s gorgeous. I want one.’”
“While we were having lunch,” Chambers adds, “I went out and shot a coyot’.”
Chambers isn’t joking.
“That’s the coyot’ we used for her scarf,” Orrick says.
Well, there’s no closed season or limit on coyote hunting in Kansas either, although a hunting license is required to hunt and sell. Besides, they were also at the ranch to hunt coyotes.
Encouraged by a friend, Orrick applied for the Cody fashion show the next year and – “to my surprise” – was accepted. Those results exceeded Orrick’s expectations, but Cody High Style was just the beginning.
Her furs have been paired with famed couturier Frank Agostino’s evening gowns for a charity fashion show in Philadelphia. Orrick’s designs have also been shown at the Western Design Conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the Santa Fe (New Mexico) Fashion Week, and Designers at the Essex House in New York. She is also the invited designer to show at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, during the annual art auction benefit; she can be seen at Cowboy Christmas during the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas and did a trunk show for the 2017 Christmas grand opening of fashion mogul (and star of CNBC’s reality show The Profit) Marcus Lemonis’s store in Aspen.
“My clients are from all over the country, and they have said, ‘When I walk into the room, I want to make a statement,’” Orrick says. “And that’s exactly what my furs do on the runaway.
“People are shocked when they see the fur. It’s so beautiful. I can say that the furs from the animals Sam hunts are some of the most beautiful in the country. I get compliments all the time from people who are knowledgeable about fur, about how beautiful the fur is and the variation of color – they can have more red tones, which I happen to prefer. A lot of coyot’s, you’re going to just have the gray and a stripe going down the middle of the back. Our coyot’s are completely different. I would love to buy furs like we have, but it’s impossible. I’ve actually asked. They say, ‘We want to buy your furs.’”
The reaction has surprised Chambers, too.
“What most people think of fur is what I grew up around in Wisconsin,” he says. “I had friends who would trap mink and otter and muskrat, stuff like that. That’s what people typically think of for fur, maybe some bobcat. Most people don’t think of coyot’ as something worth keeping.”
The biggest challenge for Orrick is finding skilled workers in fur and leather. Currently, she sends her hides to a leather master or a fur specialist. “It allows more versatility,” Orrick says, “and it also allows me to get the top person to get my leather work and the top person to do my fur.”
Her designs continue to evolve.
“I’m constantly thinking what I can make out of coyot’ fur,” she says. “I think about what would look good on a runway. I continue to lean toward high fashion. It looks beautiful with an evening gown or cocktail dress.”
She has even introduced cross fox and silver fox into her lines. “I needed to bring in something different, and the cross fox is red and black and a really gorgeous fur,” Orrick says. “I’m surprised more designers don’t use it in their collections. Silver fox is black with silver tips, a lot of white around the neck. The foxes I use are unique and interesting.”
Orrick concedes that Chambers is better at determining which hide will look better after tanning. “But once they come back, I see all of the beautiful colors in the hide. I can’t see that when it’s the middle of winter.”
Chambers knows why. “I see them on the animal. She sees them when they’re wadded up in a grocery bag before they go into the freezer.”
You can probably picture the expression on Orrick’s face after Chambers’s explanation. “Being around Sam,” Orrick says, “is an adventure.”
The adventure at Coyote Couture continues. Where can it go?
“It’s fashion,” Orrick says. “It’s unlimited.”