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Last updated January 1, 2014

Getting Under Their Skin

Sue Reid, The Sunday Times (London), 16 February 1997


Reptiles are all the rage: their skins are on everything from coats to handbags. Animal lovers are hissing mad.

It took an hour and 41 minutes for the alligator to die, lying in a gutter at an American reptile farm that specialises in such slaughters. The struggling creature was held down to receive seven mighty blows on the back of its head, followed by a three-inch incision in the same spot to allow it slowly to bleed to death. So this two-year-old, 4ft-long animal met its tortured end. Its skin was sold to make handbags for the smartest shops of Europe and the United States.

This scene was witnessed by Clifford Warwick, a British scientist and trustee of the Reptile Protection Trust. He has watched thousands of alligators die in the same way. "If you think that is cruel, it's nothing compared to the way most reptiles meet their end," he says. "On a busy day, farmed alligators are simply skinned alive. They can survive like that for two hours. A wild rattlesnake fares worse. Even at the official slaughterhouses of Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, its head is put on a meat hook and it is disembowelled before its skin is pulled off."

Warwick's tales of horror come as the skins of snakes, alligators, crocodiles and lizards enjoy a fashion renaissance. Last month, the Givenchy couture show in Paris featured full-length coats rendered in snake. The Italian label Prada makes shoes, handbags, belts and jackets in various reptile skins, including python. Patrick Cox, the shoe designer, is selling snakeskin sandals. Ralph Lauren has designed some real croc shoes and belts in classic browns, blacks and tans for this season: they are selling like fury.

At the Louis Vuitton shop in London's Bond Street, a new Precious Leathers collection, featuring an alligator clutch bag for 3,820 Pounds and a lizard-covered diary for 205 Pounds, has proved so popular that it sold out before it was even launched. The company now has a waiting list for the range, produced in glorious colours such as emerald green and cherry red.

All the designers deny that any cruelty is involved. "All the skins come from proper farms that are extremely reputable," insists David Duncan-Smith, the UK managing director of Louis Vuitton. "It is important to us that everything is controlled according to international rules."

His company is certainly not alone in its use of exotic skins for accessories this spring. "There is definitely a trend towards the use of super-luxurious fabrics of all kinds for accessories at the moment," says Kate Reardon, Tatler magazine's fashion director. "People want to show off their money more than at any time in the last five years."

Lisa Armstrong, an associate editor of Vogue, agrees. "We are talking about the return of the status symbol, coupled wit a backlash against political correctness," she says. "The public is getting fed up with PC and perhaps that's why they want bags made from croc and lizard. Accessories, in particular, are doing really well because they enable you to show you're fashionable, whatever your shape or size. Anyone can carry a bag, but they cannot always fit into a pair of hipsters."

As a result of the activities of the animal rights lobby, the fur industry in Britain has, despite an attempted comeback last winter, suffered numerous setbacks. Exotic skins, however, seem to have avoided the same stigma. The alligator-hide business quadrupled between 1987 and 1995, says the Fish and Wildlife Service of the United States, where scores of farms flourish. More than 200,000 hides were produced in 1995; an impressive number, particularly since the creature was on a list of endangered species two decades ago.

In the same year, Britain imported at least 453 alligator skins; although the number could be higher, since the official figures have not yet been compiled. While this is less than the 1990 peak of 816, it is considerably more than in 1986, when no alligator entered the country at all. "To be honest, most of the reptile skins arriving here are imported legally," says John Caldwell, the senior research officer at the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Unit in Cambridge. Generally, it is only illegal to import reptiles that are caught in the wild, rather than farmed.

Even so, the high-profile People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), with a membership that includes Paul McCartney and Kim Basinger, has made exotic skins a priority for action this year.

"Alligators may not be the most cuddly animals, but when people find out how they are farmed and horribly mutilated, they will find it offensive," says Dan Mathews, the director of Peta, who has asked Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton's newly appointed artistic director, to stop using skins. Another Peta member is the model-turned-actress Twiggy Lawson, who recently penned a letter to top designers such as Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, protesting at the "extreme suffering exotic animals endure before being made into handbags".

"Alligators are clubbed to death after being pulled from filthy pits at gator farms," she wrote. "Documentary footage from Asia shows that snakes and lizards are often skinned alive because dealers believe this practice makes the skin more supple. They can suffer for days before dying. Fashion is supposed to be fun, but there's nothing amusing about killing animals in hideous ways. We hope you will agree that exotic animals need their skins."

The fashion-conscious, however, disagree. They feel they need the skins too. And this summer, many of them will think nothing of shelling out several thousand pounds for a lizard or snakeskin handbag. Especially one that is made, as Louis Vuitton boasts, with "exceptional savoir-faire in order to transform the untreated skins into noble and precious leathers".

Just over a century ago, in 1892, when Louis Vuitton first introduced exotic-skin travelling bags and rigid suitcases, the story was much the same. "To fulfil the desires of his most eccentric clients, Louis Vuitton designed products in crocodile, shagreen and ostrich, lining them with sealskin and even snakeskin," says the publicity blurb for the company's latest range. The desires of the world's fashionable men and women have not, it seems, changed much at all in 100 years.

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