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A desperate partisan on the run from the Nazis. A workshop humming with some of the world’s most talented furriers. Overnight orders from Russian tourists in search of the perfect coat. An audience with the Vatican. A welcoming Shabbos table that satiates body and soul. They’re all part of the Liska story — three generations that take pride in their “coats with a soul”
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Nestled amongst the most exclusive designer shops on Vienna’s Graben Square in the city center is a narrow-doored boutique. Inside, spread over 600 square meters, are rows upon rows of handcrafted fur coats and luxury fashion items. The ceilings are high, the lighting bright, and the collection beckons. This is the flagship store of the Liska family's fur empire, a label that's achieved an international following among the well-heeled and fashion-forward.
But the prologue to this glitzy story transpired far away from the world of haute couture. Michael Fuchs was 27 years old when he jumped off a cattle car leading from his hometown near Chust to Auschwitz. Using a small saw that he'd managed to smuggle on board, he cut open the window bars and together with about 20 other men, leapt from the speeding train. Only a handful survived the jump. Michael then joined a band of partisans and spent the rest of the war years living in the forest, doing his best to hinder the Nazi war effort. A family legacy — let alone a thriving business — was the furthest thing from his mind, in the darkened forest where getting through the day was the only goal, and throwing a wrench in the Nazi war machine the closest thing to sweet victory.
Over the ensuring decades, "Fuchs" has become "Liska," the desperate partisan a pillar of Vienna's Jewish community, and the family business — six shops and a global following — a testament not only to the family's keen financial smarts and golden hands, but also to a work ethic that emphasizes personal relationships in a fiercely competitive corporate arena.
A Coat with a Soul
When Aron Liska was a little boy growing up in Vienna, his favorite part of the day was after school, when he'd visit the family workshop and play with the scraps of fur littering the cutting floor. His father Robert, known fondly to all as "Robbie," had joined his own father Michael in what was fast becoming a thriving business, and the little boy loved to sit among the fragments, soaking in his grandfather’s fusion of artistic talent and business savvy.
"When I was eight years old, Opa called me over," he says. "'Listen, Aron,' he told me. 'One day the name of this company will be changed from M. Liska to A. Liska.' I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, but my grandfather must have seen that I shared his passion, and hoped I would someday join the business.”
Aron first followed a typical yeshivish track, traveling to Israel to learn in Yeshivas Chevron. He then pursued an academic degree in England, where he settled and worked after his marriage. But the pull of those little fur scraps proved stronger than the London bank where he'd found employment. Soon enough, he returned to Vienna with his family and joined the fur business. Seven years in, he still can't match his father's skills at sewing an entire coat from scratch, but he loves creating small pieces of clothing or accessories in his spare time. And his passion for the business more than matches that of his father.
“Lots of stores sell coats. We include a soul,” says Aron. “We aim not just to meet the market demands, but to transcend them. When a customer wants to buy a fur coat, they know that they'll find exactly what they're seeking in our shop. And if they don’t find it, we’ll make it.”
“We’ll go to any length to make our customers happy," Robert agrees. Every coat they make is a unique piece, measured to the customer, and personalized to make it distinctively theirs. Some customers make the trip to Vienna for just for a few hours with the sole intention of purchasing a coat. Russian tourists come overnight, because they know that the Liska furriers will have a coat ready for them by the morning. “We’ve sent designers to London or Moscow to take measurements for customers," Robert says. "It’s part of our service, even though we don’t really make any money on those coats.”
Many rebbes are among their loyal customers. Robert recalls fondly how Reb Moishe Hager, brother of the previous Seret-Vizhnitz Rebbe, would come to Vienna to personally pick out fur for his coats and bekeshes and for his children’s caps. Only the best materials and handiwork would do.
A Czech detour is responsible for Michael Fuchs’s name change to Liska, the Czech word for Fuchs (literally "fox"). After the Holocaust, Michael settled in Prague, where he joined an acquaintance dealing in the animal skin trade. In 1948, when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia, they allowed Liska and his partner to remain in business, but demanded the keys to their store and offices. Michael realized that the time had come to move on. He relocated to Vienna and once again, started anew. Using his old contacts and slowly making new ones in Austria, he grew his fur business from the bottom up.
The new location came with blessed mazel. There were thousands of furriers all over Austria, and many started buying from Michael Liska, who gained a name for high-quality merchandise and reputable dealings. Local women would buy fur directly from Michael, then take it to a furrier to have coats made.
As Michael and his wife Edith built a family, he integrated his business into their schedule; family vacations and outings always coincided with skin-buying trips. And he allowed himself to dream again: of bringing his children and grandchildren into the business. Still, the survivor never pressured his children to follow his path. Having never been educated himself, it was of utmost importance to him that his children receive a top-notch education. He encouraged his son Robert to pursue a doctorate in law. It was only after Robert completed his studies that he joined his father at work.
In the 80s fur was a booming business. Virtually every local woman owned a fur coat, for warmth as much as for the requisite status statement. Michael Liska, reading the business map, decided to hire his own furriers and seamstresses to meet the demand. On his regular travels from city to city to sell skins, he started offering coats as well. People were so impressed with the quality and craftsmanship of his goods that the first batch quickly sold out.
“The same principle still holds true today,” says Aron. “The most important aspect of our business is good design and quality. But first and foremost is service — your customer can sense that you want the best for them."
Aron traces that ethic back to his grandfather, who listened patiently to his customers and developed longstanding personal relationships with them. "Some of our customers still talk about my grandfather; five or six generations later, they're still coming back to us for their coats." It's a legacy the family makes an effort to uphold; no matter what one’s position is in the company, every member will spend time on the sales floor. If the store is busy, and a customer wants a different shade jacket, Aron or Robert Liska will take the time to bring out the item.
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