Inside Fashion’s Exotic Handbags Trade

Inside Fashion’s Exotic Handbags Trade

In March of 2019, Paola Soto and three other travellers boarded a flight from Colombia to Miami International Airport. In their luggage were nearly 30 designer tote bags and purses crafted from exotic animal skins.

Soto worked for the designer Nancy Gonzalez, who was sentenced to 18 months in jail last week for illegally smuggling hundreds of luxury handbags made from caiman and python skins into the US between 2016 and 2019.

Though trade in both species is permitted, it is regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement designed to ensure the commercial sale of wild animals and plants doesn’t threaten their survival.

Gonzalez, whose handbags have been worn by celebrities including Britney Spears and Victoria Beckham and featured in “Sex and the City” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” conscripted employees like Soto, relatives and friends to fly millions of dollars of products into the US without the proper documents and permissions to prove they had not come from illicit or endangered sources, according to prosecutors.

Gonzalez pled guilty to the charges in November, though her attorney characterised her crime as an administrative one. The designer simply failed to obtain the correct paperwork in a rush to get samples (worth far less than prosecutors estimated) to buyers on tight deadlines; less than 1 percent of the bags Gonzalez imported into the US lacked the proper documentation; and all were made using skin from farm-raised reptiles, rather than protected species, he argued.

The case shone a rare public spotlight on a controversial trade in exotic skins and the luxury fashion goods they’re often turned into. When properly managed, advocates say the market can play a vital role in supporting animal conservation efforts; luxury players have invested millions to try and ensure they source responsibly. But the murkiness of global supply chains that have been linked to corruption, criminality and concerns about animal welfare continue to stoke controversy.

“Demand is high and enforcement is low,” said Liliana Jauregui Bordones, a senior expert for environmental justice at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Tracing skins back to their source is extremely difficult.”

A Controversial Trade

Handbags, shoes and clothes made from exotic skins, like crocodile, snake and lizard, are among the world’s most costly and coveted luxury goods. Their market share, while limited, is not inconsequential, accounting for between 5 and 10 percent of total leather goods sales in 2021, according to consultancy Bain & Company. They offer higher profit margins than more common leather goods and can be effective tools for elevating brand perception.

Animal rights groups have long attacked the trade claiming that farmed reptiles are subject to cruel treatment and abusive conditions, and that skins are often sourced illegally, endangering species and wild populations.

But advocates for the sector, including a prominent faction of conservationists, argue that the trade creates economic incentives for local communities to protect vulnerable species and ecosystems. Issues of criminality represent a tiny fraction of the overall trade, and most species used in fashion aren’t endangered anyway, they say.

“The ironic thing with exotic skins is they do get a lot of air time for a lot of species that are super common for which there’s no conservation risk,” said Daniel Natusch, a conservation biologist and member of several reptile specialist groups at the IUCN. “If someone is putting a bunch of snake skins in their bag — I’m not condoning illegal trade… — but from a conservation perspective, I don’t care.”

The trade fuelled by luxury’s biggest brands has helped bring Australia’s saltwater crocodile population back from the brink, according to researchers. And after American alligator numbers in Louisiana dropped below 100,000 in the 1950s and and 1960s, a state-run ranching programme that linked Louisiana’s bayous to French and Italian ateliers was credited with restoring them into the millions.

But conservation is a complicated topic beset by competing priorities. Loro Piana’s vicuña supply chain, another frequently cited example of the positive potential created by fusing commerce and conservation, has lately come under fire for failing to benefit local communities. The brand has denied the allegations, parent company LVMH said.

In Colombia, millions of illegal wild-caught caiman skins were passed off as farm-raised from the 1990s through the 2000s, tainting some 30 percent of exports from the country, according to estimates from the IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group. The problem has now largely been addressed by the introduction of an effective tagging system for skins, according to Natusch.

Skins and other reptile parts accounted for 10 percent of CITES-listed wildlife seizures in the EU in 2022, according to a report compiled for the European Commission by Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network. The US Fish and Wildlife Service seized nearly 200 reptile shipments between 2016 and the end of 2021, mostly leather goods from luxury fashion companies including Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Gucci, according to a BoF analysis of trade data.

The data doesn’t indicate why the shipments were impounded and each brand was only subject to a handful of infractions. The companies did not comment.

The fact that the shipments were caught is a positive sign efforts to monitor trade are working and don’t necessarily have any negative bearing on conservation efforts, supporters of the trade argue. But critics say inspections capture only a fraction of the illegal commerce actually taking place and the shipments that are caught highlight loopholes that persist, despite the layers of controls high-end brands say they have put in place.

“The question is, when you see exotic skins in fashion products, what is the backstory to them, and were they actually sustainably harvested, legal, and all of that?” said Monique Sosnowski, a wildlife crime and security analyst and assistant professor in the department of criminal justice at New York’s Farmingdale State College. “There needs to be better traceability and work around documentation.”


Large luxury fashion companies say they are committed to ensuring robust and responsible supply chains for exotic leathers.

LVMH, Kering and Hermès have all invested in reptile farms and tanning facilities in recent years, an effort to both secure access to high-quality skins and address criticism with improved monitoring and control capabilities. They’ve coupled this increased traceability with new certification schemes and tightened animal welfare policies.

“All the brands I’ve worked with know 100 percent where their skins come from,” said Natusch. “They own facilities, they have RFID and QR codes and apps. From my perspective, it’s overkill.”

Nonetheless, animal rights groups still routinely publish investigations alleging cruel and inhumane treatment of reptiles in big bands’ supply chains. And while alligator handbags and snakeskin boots still don’t carry the same taboo as fur, controversies around the materials have prompted some in the fashion sector to ditch them altogether.

For companies without strong links to the market, the calculus is clear: abandoning the material can lead to positive publicity, particularly among socially conscious young consumers, without taking much of a toll on the bottom line.

When Chanel stopped using exotic skins in 2018, the company said the decision came down to difficulties establishing ethical supply chains. But it also reflected the fact that snakeskin and crocodile-leather products made up a relatively small proportion of the brand’s business and it had not invested sufficiently to secure high-quality supply.

Others have followed suit, including Burberry, Selfridges and Copenhagen Fashion Week. Global bank Standard Chartered will stop providing direct financing for the production, manufacture or trade in exotic leathers later this year.

The largely luxury players that do still sell products made from reptile skins are navigating a complicated topic at a time when consumers and regulators are increasingly looking for assurances that businesses are operating responsibly.

A recent report into the global trade in wildlife by CITES highlighted the benefits the market could bring to both animal populations and communities, but also acknowledged that monitoring wild populations is challenging, outcomes vary across communities and species and reporting is limited.

“It’s hard work building sustainable or even positive-outcome supply chains,” said Helen Crowley, a global expert on business and biodiversity and former head of sustainable sourcing and nature initiatives at Kering. New technologies are making traceability easier and new regulations are making it more imperative. “Companies have to put the effort in to make sure everything is squeaky clean.”

Disclosure: LVMH is part of a group of investors who, together, hold a minority interest in The Business of Fashion. All investors have signed shareholders’ documentation guaranteeing BoF’s complete editorial independence.

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