Call it the stealth wealth effect. With the excessive use of designer logos deemed a tacky exercise in showiness, exotic skins – with their unique markings and textures absent in cowhide – have risen in popularity as signifiers of luxury, no branding required. Including non-cattle leathers derived from animals ranging from alligators to anacondas, exotic skins have long been synonymous with sought-after accessories. One such notable accoutrement is the Hermes croc-skin Birkin bag, famous for having years-long waiting lists and fetching record-breaking, six-digit prices at auctions.
On the flip side, its iconic status made the Birkin an obvious, evocative target in a recent uproar over alleged animal cruelty involving two crocodile and alligator farms in Texas and Zimbabwe, both of which supply tanneries used by Hermes. Subsequently, the French luxury fashion house released a press statement, maintaining that it “imposes on its partners the highest standards in the ethical treatment of crocodiles”.
Ensuring the humane and sustainable farming of exotic skins has taken on added importance as the demand for them shows little sign of abating. Pointing out that the exotic-skin trade is strictly regulated by bodies such as Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), Hughes Low – the leather craftsman pictured on these pages – notes: “Humans have been using animal skins since the dawn of time. Exotic skins are very durable. It’s not something that we’re just going to use and throw away.”
The difference between alligator and crocodile, and other things to know about popular skins.
2. PYTHON: Slightly lifted scales – with elongated scales that contrast with smaller, rounded ones – give python skin its signature texture. While plenty of reticulated python and Burmese python skins are legally exported from South-east Asia each year, a massive illegal trade exists. In 2013, luxury group Kering entered a conservation partnership to “contribute to the improved sustainability of the python trade”.
3. ALLIGATOR: Together with caimans and gharials, alligators and crocodiles belong to the crocodilian family. While similar in appearance, alligator and crocodile skins differ in a couple of key ways. Derived from the American alligator, the former has more regular, squarish scales as compared to croc skin. Alligator skins also feature a prominent umbilical scar, a small triangular cluster of irregular scales.
4. OSTRICH: As one would imagine, an ostrich hide can be pretty sizeable – but only one-third of it is usually used on high-end accessories. The skin on the back of the ostrich where neck and body meet, this portion is called the crown, which is where the characteristic bumps of ostrich skin are found. While they look like the signs of an ostrich left out in the cold, those bumps are feather quill follicles.
5. CROCODILE: Apart from the differences in scale shape, another way to tell if a skin is crocodile (and not alligator) is to watch out for tiny dots near the edges of each scale. These sensory pores enable crocodiles to detect changes in water pressure and capture their prey. While Nile crocodile skin is popular, the priciest variety comes from the saltwater Porosus crocodile, a larger species with more symmetrical scales.
6. LIZARD: Common lizard leather sources include the water monitor of Asia and the Tegu lizard of South America. While they are relatively large (water monitors can grow up to 2m in length), their skins have small, rounded scales. Low explains: “For items like the strap of a small vintage watch, lizard skin offers a refined look.”
SPINS ON SKINS
Designers are using uncommon leathers in unusual ways for autumn.
A thick, slouchy long-sleeved top, the sweatshirt has a few popular associations – among them, American collegiate culture and Silicon Valley whiz kids. With her “crocodile-chiffon” sweatshirt, Hermes menswear designer Veronique Nichanian takes a staple of scholastic hallways to the runway. Extra credit, of course, goes to the fabric boffins at the French brand’s atelier, who are behind the ultra-lightweight croc-skin fabric that has also been used for that other epitome of casualness – the T-shirt.
Patchwork is a big trend for autumn. Sure, one could choose to create a jumble of patterns by using different types of cloth. But an approach such as this is probably too prosaic for the design team of Billionaire Couture, a brand hardly known for its retiring style. Instead, panels of sunbeam snakeskin have been stitched together to create a checkerboard effect on a bomber jacket – with matching accessories such as a baseball cap to round off that not-quite-so-casual look.
A bright yellow mac usually isn’t cause for a second glance. But one made from ostrich skin? You’d be hard-pressed to look away. Exotic skin is the last material one would expect in a garment that’s meant to shelter its wearer from the rain, but, look, we don’t know many people who take their five-digit divers’ watches on underwater explorations either. With this whimsical take on a high-end leather, it’s hardly surprising to know that creative director Pablo Coppola sought inspiration in the playfully surreal works of film director Wes Anderson.
“A fairy tale made up of fantasy and creativity”. To weave such a storybook scenario for Salvatore Ferragamo’s Fall/Winter 2015/16 collection, Massimiliano Giornetti turned to a series of “unusual combinations and unexpected pairings”. A menagerie of “animals” skulked down the runway – a flamingo on a sleeve here, a flock of birds on a coat there – and they occasionally did so in very subtle ways. Only on close inspection might one realise that the horns and snout of a woolly bison visage were made out of pieces of python skin.
ON THE COVERS:
A specialist in exotic-skin watch straps and accessories. Hughes Low of Hughes Handcrafted tells us more about his trade.
Why choose to work with exotic leathers?
One reason is that I have convenient access to them. I get a lot of my skins from local tannery Heng Long (which is now partially owned by luxury group LVMH). I can easily get skins of different colours, finishings and varieties. I have French and German suppliers as well, but it’s harder to be sure of what I’m buying when looking at samples onscreen.
What’s your favourite skin to use?
Alligator. The scale patterns vary, and two skins can look very different. Also, the grooves between alligator skin scales are more even compared to those of crocodiles, so it’s easier to thin their skins, which is necessary for items like wrap-around watch straps.
Are exotic skins tougher to work with than regular leather?
Definitely. Everything I do is hand-stitched. Cow leather is always flat and it’s a very simple canvas to work with. Exotic skins have bumps and ridges, which makes it harder to create straight seams. With cowhide, it’s very easy to achieve perfect-looking stitches.
Our top tips for looking after exotic-leather goods.
STAY FOCUSED: Use conditioners made specifically for these skins, not regular leather. Leather artisan Hughes Low likes Reptan by Saphir. And don’t overdo it. Says Low: “It’s humid here, so too much moisturiser can be bad.”
FOLLOW DIRECTION: Of snakeskin scales, that is. Apply conditioner in, not against, the direction of growth of the scales. You don’t want your python bags to start moulting on you.
KEEP DRY: Reptiles spend a good amount of time in the water, but the same does not apply to reptile skins. Retail manager of Uomo Group Singapore recommends water- and weather-proofing items that are frequently exposed to the elements.
DRY GENTLY: If an exotic-leather item gets wet, don’t rush to turn your hairdryer on it. Low advises: “Use tissue to blot out as much water as you can, then let it dry naturally.”
USE THE DARN THING: When not in use, store each item in a dust bag with some silica gel, which absorbs moisture. But the easiest way to prevent mould is this – don’t sock those accessories away, use them.