A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

People of NKY: Donna Salyers celebrating 30 years of success (and faux fur hats for THE Queen’s Guard)

By Ginger Dawson
NKyTribune Reporter

Being engaged Northern Kentuckians, we all know that Donna Salyers is the driving force behind Fabulous Furs, the international fashion house purveying high-end faux furs and fashion located right here in Covington.

Donna’s book, Sewing, Etc., which came out during her newspaper column and TV show years.

Her’s is quite a story, and proof that the direction of a life can change with one event.

Donna Salyers headed toward this unknown change in direction in an ambitious and motivated, yet logical, path. Each step forward was seemingly built on the shoulders of the previous accomplishment.

She was a stay-at-home mom with two kids. Like many people who were young in the second half of the 20th Century, she was knowledgable about the home arts and was particularly proficient at sewing.

Donna liked to sew, was good at it and had parlayed this talent into a newspaper column in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Sewing, Etc. developed quite a following, went into national syndication and ran for 17 years. This was the first indication that Donna had an ambition and passion for hard work.

A book appeared, and then, on to television! After a few guest appearances on a few different shows, she ended up hosting her own, also named Sewing, Etc. This took her to New York City for the taping of episodes.

Each step lead to greater success and a higher profile.

Donna with the samples of a long-term project — the contract to provide faux bear fur hats for the Queens Guard at Buckingham Palace. Queen Elizabeth II has sworn off wearing fur and Donna is ready to accommodate.

New York City in the 1980s was deep in the throes of Thomas Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and conspicuous consumption was in high feather. At that time, there were probably more fur coats marauding the streets of Manhattan than at any time before or since.

Donna, being very fashion-conscious (naturally), wanted a fur coat, too. But, this was not in the household budget.

She got by with one that she made for herself out of faux fur that was so good, so attractive; compliments came as if it were the real thing.

I’ll bet you think this is how Fabulous Furs came to be. Not so fast.

She still wanted a real fur coat. And, finally, she had saved enough money for this treat. It was a covert operation. Her husband had no idea about this secret stash. She would surprise him.

On the journey to the fur salon, she was listening to a Paul Harvey broadcast on the radio. It was an account about how a London toy manufacturer was skinning live kittens to make “mink” teddy bears! Now there’s an image to mull over. Ew.

Her quest to own a real fur coat ended in that instant.

It not only ended her quest to own a real fur, it galvanized her to try and turn the tide against others doing it as well, not by shaming, but by offering an alternative that was not just as good, but in fact, better.  

Kate Moss in a Fabulous Fur

Sourcing very high-quality faux fur was the key. If you couldn’t tell the difference between real and fake, why not save an animal as well as save quite a bit of money? Donna knew this could be done as a result of her own front-line testing of her own first faux fur.
Fabulous Furs started out as a one-woman operation, in the home basement, with Donna literally doing everything herself. It has grown to a world-class business that boasts 4,000 wholesale accounts in 46 countries. Fabulous Furs provides jobs for 60 to 70 people, depending on the season.

Jim, Donna’s husband of 54 years, had his own things going on too.  

About the same time Donna was exploring faux fur, Jim, who was a commercial real estate agent in Cincinnati, was lured to Covington by a good deal that looked like a great opportunity.

The Woolworth Building at the corner of Madison and 7th St. came on the market. It was a great price and he just couldn’t resist — even though, in the mid-80s, Covington was on the skids in just about every way you could think of.

Oprah in a Fabulous Fur. It’s one of her favorite things.

Shortly thereafter, in 1990, the Woolworth Company gasped its last breath and announced its departure. Jim was left with a huge, vacant 40,000 square foot building.

Finding a tenant to move into this enormous space proved to be impossible. A decision to occupy the building himself, with his own business, was arrived at.
Jim established a banquet and event business. Through hard work and smart growth, The Madison Event Center has turned into a thriving business over these last 30 years.  

In a lovely synchronicity, Fabulous Furs’ business was exploding right around that time, as well. Needing the space, the business moved to the second and third floors in 1992.  

Jim and Donna rounded out the use of the building by occupying a 4000 sq. ft. loft on part of the third floor.

Ultimately, both businesses grew to the point that Fabulous Furs had to move so that both businesses could have the space they needed.

Fabulous Furs headquarters in the Wadsworth Electric MFG Co. building in Covington.

Fabulous Furs relocated to another Covington landmark, the Wadsworth Electric Manufacturing Building on West 11th. St. in 2003, where they are to this day.

As The Madison continued to thrive, the Salyers’ had begun renting the parking garage for their customers behind the old Coppin Building at 7th and Madison. Coincidentally, the Coppin Building had been purchased by the City of Covington in 1988 and had housed its city offices since around that time.

By 2014, after years of plummeting economic opportunity and mismanagement, the City of Covington was in deep trouble. It was on the verge of bankruptcy.  

Scrambling to keep things going, the city had outsourced the management of the parking garage to a distant absentee investor. This proved to be an entirely unworkable arrangement. It was a mechanical thing.

The turnstile that let people out of the garage was cranky. Sometimes it decided to not work with tons of cars trying to leave!

The Madison was taking heat for this mess and it had to stop.

The Salyers offered to buy the parking garage from the city to gain control of its operation.

The fabulous Hotel Covington — formerly city hall and now Covington’s living room.

They discovered that the city could not sell the garage apart from the Coppin Building.

The situation forced their hand. They had to buy the whole thing whether they wanted to or not. And then what?

A family member was called in. Guy van Rooyen, married to Donna and Jim’s daughter Amanda, had the business chops and tenacity to research options and came upon the possibility of the Coppin Building being turned into a boutique hotel. This was a revolutionary idea.

And, The Hotel Covington was viewed as a terrifically high-risk proposition. This turned out to be a test of Guy’s perseverance, at least as far as dealing with banks. The FORTY-FIFTH bank he approached agreed to finance the project. It took three years.

In the meantime, the City of Covington was scrambling with relocation. As an element of this transaction and what became a part of a rescue from financial ruin, the Salyers’ were able to provide the city with a new home.

Son Scott, skilled in larger-sized building renovation was able to put something together for the city in the old JCPenney Building that fit the time-frame and budget.

An historic footprint preserved over one of the doors of The Madison Event Center.

Donna and Jim Salyers, through their family, time, talents and resources were a part of the effort that truly came to the rescue.

Looking back over the past 30 years, we can take heart over Donna’s initial concern and worry over those little skinned kittens and realize that Covington was another skinned kitten that needed rescuing as well, albeit a very large one. It just takes one thing sometimes to trigger a series of events that no one can predict the direction and outcome of.

On November 21st, Donna and Jim Salyers are celebrating this outcome. 30 & THREE, a 30th & 3rd Anniversary celebration is being held at Hotel Covington for friends and family.

The celebration of 30 years of the success of Fabulous Furs and The Madison Event Center and the three-year anniversary of Hotel Covington is a celebration, not just for the Salyers’, but for all of Covington.

Thank-you Donna and Jim Salyers! 

Ginger Dawson writes about people — the neighbors you need to know and people you need to meet and understand. If you have ideas for subjects please share them with Ginger at ginger@fuse.net.

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  1. Barbara adams says:

    I adore your fabulous career and especially your furs. I have a couple of beautiful real furs but do not wear. I have become educated. Thanks .
    I adore your fur ball cap. A weekender!

  2. Rebecca Jones says:

    Wonderful article covering a visionary couple/family. Thank you Ginger Dawson for composing and thank you Saylers family for your efforts to make Covington KY a better place in which to live and play.

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