When you get an email offering you an opportunity to interview the “fashion world’s favorite taxidermist,” you don’t ignore it. I mean, maybe some people do, but I didn’t... and I think I’m glad.
Frank Zitz, from what I’ve gathered, is one of the best, most in-demand taxidermists around and primarily does work for museums. He works out of a studio in Rhinebeck, NY and, thanks in part to his proximity to Manhattan, works with a lot of fashion brands and designers making--or sculpting, as he describes it--taxidermied animals to decorate their store interiors and windows.
The holidays are a particularly busy time for Zitz. “I did some stuff for Louis Vuitton--a large fabricated tiger. We did something for Lord & Taylor--we do their windows every year... Baccarat...” He also made a snow leopard, a polar bear, and a wolf for the very hip Dream Downtown Hotel’s new holiday decor theme, which was designed by Amanda Beatrix Buck and Eric Reinhard Wernecke.
“It’s completely different from what we normally do and a completely different audience,” he says of his more fashion-related work. “When I was training, I was doing museum quality, which would be very accurate. The animal’s anatomy has to be very exact and fitted, it’s about making sure all the proportions are done correctly from a sculptural standpoint.”
The animals he fabricates for a store window--though they may look pretty lifelike--aren’t quite the real thing. "A lot of the fabricated animals we do--you look at them next to what we usually make and of course they look a little artificial because they are; they’re not quite real" he says. "Once [the decorators] go through and do what they do and you put the animals in place, it’s amazing how much more interesting it looks, but that’s a decorator thing. Most of the time those people tell us what they need and we just try to make sure it fits all their specifications.”
He’s also worked with Ralph Lauren, but he’s perhaps best known (at least among fashion people) for his work with Alexis Bittar, for whom he’s fabricated everything from a peacock to a giraffe/horse hybrid. Bittar is an example of a client whose demands are very different from that of, say, a museum. “They’re looking for something a little different; they’re just trying to get people to walk into their store,” he explained. “We started out doing beautiful large natural sculptures like lions, leopards, and animals like that; then we went to doing small animals, and then we went to doing large collections of birds for the stores--and then they decided this was starting to get too repetitive, and so we came up with the idea of doing these hybrids.” Zitz calls it “novelty taxidermy.”
They're definitely attention-grabbers but I wondered: Is that attention ever negative? Has he ever inspired the ire of the oh-so-easily angered PETA people?
Not so much anymore, says Zitz. “Fur is back in now, but like 10 years ago, it was a big problem,” he explained. “It's strange how that has become accepted now. When Alexis started doing this three or four years ago, a lot of these animals we would put in their windows...they’re not controversial from a legality standpoint, but they’re controversial just because of people’s thoughts on things. People think, ‘Oh they’re an endangered species,’ and it’s not really true. If you look at it from a legal standpoint, they have to go through U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Dept of Agriculture; some of them are from zoos that just die of old age.”
Still, Zitz thought it was “brazen” of Bittar to put taxidermy in his stores, and that “they did get some comments that were negative,” for which Zitz tried to prepare the store’s employees. “When you look at the men and women who work in those stores, they’re not really cut out to... like, what would they say if someone walks in the store and has a really negative opinion about it? In the beginning, I coached them and said, ‘This is the background on this particular lion. This lion died in the zoo of old age and was 18 years old.’” Apparently, zoos are a common source of taxidermy materials. While some destroy the remains of passed animals, other will send it off to someone like Zitz.
Taxidermy: Trend-driven and kind of sustainable. Who would’ve thought? See below for more of Zitz’s work, including a super cool time lapse video of the Dream Downton holiday installation coming together.