Donna Salyers is eyeing those 18-inch high furry helmets perched atop the straight-faced, straight-laced regiments of the British queen’s Foot Guards, especially with the London 2012 Summer Olympics on the calendar. After all, if Salyers’ faux Fabulous-Furs are tony enough for Saks Fifth Avenue’s website and hot enough to be included in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editions, why not “all the Queen’s men” too?

The British Ministry of Defense has been searching for a faux substitute for the Canadian black bear fur now used in the towering helmets that became part of the guard uniforms in 1815. Animal rights groups continue clamoring for a substitute, and the Brits have already replaced other wild animal skins, such as leopards, used in uniforms. The government buys 50 to 100 pelts a year. It takes a single pelt for each hat, costing $1,218 (some say much more) and lasting 20 to 40 years, according to an Associated Press story in 2005.

“The hats are back on the front burner,” says Salyers, after initial discussions with the ministry in 2008 petered out. “I expect it’ll happen in 2012 when the spotlight will be on London. Needless to say, we can do it for considerably less.”

But her 2012 sights are set on business horizons thousands of miles farther east, as she expects her luxe creations in high-end stores in China and on their version of a QVC-type TV show.

“They have a great affinity for made-in-the-USA merchandise, high-quality products, and that’s what we do,” she says, also excitedly reporting that Saks placed two re-orders within days of this year’s Fabulous-Furs Sept. 8 debut on its website, their foray into faux.

Her coats, hats and wraps for men, women and children, are made of a petroleum-based product that can be made to look like any fur from mink to chinchilla, Russian lynx and coyote — without the weight and heavy price tag. They’ve turned up on soap operas, in high-fashion mags including Vogue and on the arms of royalty. In 2006, the Boston Globe reported that Queen Silvia of Sweden was detained by customs believing her faux fur was an animal product lacking documentation. They even ended up as part of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition several times as accessories and once as a starring faux fur bikini.

Though the catalog is 90 percent of the business with its faux lines of clothes, shoes, accessories and home products, the Fabulous-Furs throws and clothes are increasingly found in luxury spots that emphasize indulgence, including W Hotels, Ian Schrager Hotels, as well as posh ski shops in Aspen, Vail, Park City and Sundance. Gorsuch, a kind of Saks for the ski crowd, just started carrying Fabulous-Furs merchandise out West.

The Right Fit

“We fit right in,” says Salyers, a surprise considering she stitched her first coat in the mid-’80s because she couldn’t afford the $20,000 a real fur would cost at the time. Versed in the intricacies of the needle-and-thread by her grandmother who worked in alterations at Giddings — a long-gone, blue-blood Cincinnati department store — she began making her own clothes at the age of seven. Her sewing smarts got her work writing a sewing column and working on scripting and concepting for a New York TV show called “Selling Etc.” in the mid-’80s, the years of power suits and shoulder pads in the fashion world. “Everyone had a fur coat, and I wanted one but couldn’t afford it. But I knew who to call for fabric, a company that made Care Bear fur. I said, ‘Do you have anything authentic?’ and bought a few yards of what looked like black fox.”

She wore that coat “to death. It felt like that maternity dress that you can’t bear to look at after awhile. I wore it everywhere, and people would ask me all the time to try it on. Thousands must have tried it on.”

Just the Thought

In 1988, she thought she’d go for the real thing. But on the way to a fur salon the radio’s inimitable Paul Harvey interrupted her thoughts with the harrowing tale of a London toy maker who was collecting litters of kitten and skinning them to make “mink” Teddy bears.

“I was horrified. We had four cats. I thought I’d walk out of a store wearing a kitty coat. Then I thought others would feel the same way, and eventually I thought I’d start a company making kits for those who wanted to make their own faux furs.”

It took about a year in her White Oak basement, working on her own and “grabbing anyone who would stand still” to help. Her pattern was on the cover of Sew News magazine, and she did $300,000 that first year. Her husband, James, was shocked.

“I really didn’t know where to go with it,” she says, having no business plan or real business experience. “It was just a project at first, like the sewing column, the TV show; everything was temporary.”

She credits James, in commercial real estate, “a most patient and wonderful partner and guide,” with finding a bigger spot in Forest Park that she quickly outgrew and the final move to Covington.

He invested in downtown Covington, buying the old Woolworth’s store in 1990 and other nearby property for expanding event venues, The Madison and The Madison South. They sold their “idyllic suburban house in White Oak” when their son and daughter left for college and moved to the second floor of the former five-and-dime at Seventh and Madison, where she could “go to work in pajamas if I wanted.”

Growing and Growing

That didn’t last, though, when she found she had to hire a staff of about 10 in the early ’90s to keep up. The company moved again to a location along Robbins and 11th streets, today’s headquarters for the products they manufacture here (about 60 percent of the merchandise, coats and faux products), an on-site store, shipping and other business functions.

In 2010, just 21 years after the official start, Fabulous-Furs revenue was $12.6 million. The transformation from one of “Donna’s projects” to today’s big business was “definitely training on-the-job for me,” she says.

Learning Along the Way

“I knew zero about business. And there were many times it almost went under.” In the early ’90s, a company they had hired to do an infomercial went bankrupt, leaving them with an overload of freshly stocked merchandise and extra employees hired to help with the expected increase.

A later-CEO’s plan to delve into the home accessories business was ill-advised, and 9/11 was a setback, as the company was to just about all catalog and retail businesses. “We had just mailed a million catalogs. And like so many businesses, things just went flat,” says Salyers.

But it has survived, doing 90 percent of its business from catalog and the rest from wholesale. And the the couple has become Covington cheerleaders. James Salyers’ Madison event business is now in two buildings along Madison.

Because a large part of that business is weddings, with more than 400 a year, opening a bridal shop in 2005 was a double play — refreshing the tired streetscape by transforming four floors of an 1850s bank building into Fabulous-Bridal — and providing a cornerstone for the “wedding district” along Madison that now includes photography, bakery, DJ, limo, stationery, beauty and other wedding-related retailers.

Fabulous-Bridal is “very much a specialty market,” says Salyers, and one where she admits no expertise.

But that never stopped her before. She solved the problem by hiring an expert staff with a passion for bridal. “The people who run the store do a fabulous job designing, merchandising and knowing what brides want. We have an in-house designer, Kristen Bolt, a DAAP grad (UC’s college of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning) and we are developing our own private label for brides and bridesmaids as well as a catalog. “It’s definitely here to stay,” she says, now employing 25 to 30 people with “revenues up 98 percent from that first year.”

Lovely, Fun Business

“It’s a lovely, fun, happy business. We greet brides with champagne and want it to be a fabulous experience for them.”

“Donna Salyers’ Fabulous-Furs story is remarkable in that it has put Northern Kentucky on the map,” says Steve Stevens, president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. “From its humble beginnings, literally by word of mouth, the company transformed itself into a global enterprise catering to the biggest names in entertainment, the rich, the famous…but affordable to even normal consumers.”

“People here are so supportive and welcoming,” says Salyers describing the Northern Kentucky community.

“It’s a little different because it has a small-town feel, but that doesn’t mean people can’t have sophisticated tastes. In the chamber, everyone’s rooting for their fellow business neighbors. It’s not a place where people won’t talk about numbers. Everyone wants the other to succeed. There’s camaraderie here, a feeling that if one does well, then others will do well, too.” ■