Cold-blooded vanity as skins become en vogue again
No skin off our backs: Fashion rebels are breaking taboos all over again - this time by bringing skin back
You may not realise it yet, but the ultimate fashion backlash is under way. While most of us are queuing up to buy M&S Fair Trade T-shirts and Stella McCartney's latest "eco" range, a small but highly influential breed of shopper is determined to buck the trend for all things ethical.
According to fashion insiders, it was only a matter of time. As one leading fashion editor puts it: "It no longer makes you unique to shop at People Tree. Wearing something highly controversial, verging on taboo, is what gets you noticed."
The rare or exotic animal skin fits in perfectly with this new rationale and is having a serious fashion renaissance on catwalks and stores across Europe.
At Paris Fashion Week this year, Christian Dior unveiled a dazzling collection of python and ostrich skin coats with fox sleeves, while Calvin Klein's spring collection featured alligator jackets, and Celine championed a white python skirt suit that was met with applause as it emerged on the runway.
On the High Street, fashionistas are desperate to buy into the trend. Jimmy Choo's snakeskin sandals and Ferragamo's spring/summer collection of alligator footwear have been a huge hit.
Fashion bible Style.com has even made a pair of python platforms, by designer Proenza Schouler, its top fashion pick, while Nike commemorated the 25th anniversary of its Air Force 1 range this spring with a saltwater crocodile shoe - on sale in its flagship stores around the world, including London - for £1,400. Made from one of the most expensive and sought after exotic skins, it immediately became a collector's item on Ebay.
'Exotic skins are hot right now, there's a real buzz, says legendary designer Roberto Cavalli, whose creations have graced the bodies of the most beautiful women on the planet from Kate Moss to Sharon Stone.
"I love to use reptile skins because it excites me to take a material that is seen as 'wild' and mix it with a look that shouts glamour and sophistication. Exotic skin - alligator, crocodile and snake - also gives the impression of being superluxurious and expensive, a look women are into at the moment."
The steadily increasing divide between the middle-class shopper and the superrich is evident on High Streets across Europe. Never before has there been such a transparently two-tiered system dictated by the huge income gap between the "haves" and the "have millions".
We are now in an age where one-bedroom flats in London's premier streets top the £2million mark and wives think nothing of blowing £5,000 of their husbands' £1million City bonus on the latest "It-bag".
Is it really a surprise then, that the Italian-made Zagliani crocodile skin handbag - which comes injected with Botox to keep it soft - is this year's fashion must have?
Joanna Jeffreyes, fashion manager at Harvey Nichols says: "Many of our customers are looking for something new and aren't afraid to spend money on things they feel are their little secret. They want something they won't see on anyone else."
Back in the Forties and Fifties, crocodile and snakeskin bags and shoes were the ultimate in luxury for millionaires and Hollywood starlets. But with many reptiles close to extinction by the Seventies they became deeply unfashionable.
Today, a surge in super-rich internationals, from Russian oligarchs to Middle-Eastern oil tycoons with homes in Europe, has meant the desire for "status accessories" has never been higher.
"For men it's cars. For women it's bags, shoes and belts now," says Roberto Cavalli. "A rich woman wants her bag to do the talking. It's the most sophisticated way to say you have money. Exotic skin is the ultimate. Everyone knows it is expensive."
But last week conservationists decided enough was enough. One hundred and seventy one member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) held a 12-day conference in Holland to consider how to tackle Europe and America's collective thirst for exotic and increasingly endangered skins and furs.
Animal rights campaigners were quick to point to a silent backlash against "politically correct clothes" that has gathered increasing momentum.
Fur made a huge return to the catwalk last winter, but while many women still find the idea of killing baby minks or rabbits for their fur distasteful, they think nothing of buying a clutch bag made from the skin of less-than-cuddly pythons.
Yet all these animals are commonly skinned alive to protect their skins and it can take a crocodile more than two hours to die after its skin has been ripped off.
Environmentalists fear that while top designers use animals farmed from legal stocks, it fuels popular demand for similar items in those who cannot get their hands on a designer version. Instead, they inevitably turn to the internet where less reputable outlets are hungry for business.
Last week, the Mail was able to place orders for a number of endangered items online from ivory jewellery to rare breed alligator handbags. There was no guarantee they did not come from poachers hunting in the wild.
"In today's market where status accessories are everything, there is a growing niche of wealthy customers willing to pay up to £15,000 for a single bag," says Yvonne Taylor, a campaigner for PETA, (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) which counts Paul McCartney and Kim Basinger among its supporters.
"Many breeds of crocodile, alligator and other reptiles have been hunted to the brink of extinction. Sickeningly, the rarer they become as a result of poaching, the more desirable they are. The knock-on effect is terrifying." Scroll down for more ...
Second skins: On the catwalk, left to right, from Hermes, Christian Dior and Celine
The International Foundation for Animal Welfare recently seized a shipment containing thousands of handbags made from the skins of the endangered South American caiman reptile, bound for Europe.
Between 2000 and 2005, it is estimated that 3.4 million lizard, 2.9million crocodile and 3.4 million snake skins were imported into the EU, mostly to make handbags and shoes.
Billions of reptile skins are exported, imported, or smuggled every year, and much of this trade is in contravention of international agreements protecting endangered species.
After weapons and drugs, traffic in live and dead exotic animals is the third largest black market in the world. The animals illegally hunted in the wild, and, increasingly legally farmed, are coming from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, India, China, and the Philippines. They are being shipped through Mexico, Singapore, Japan, and Taiwan on their way to the large manufacturing markets of the U.S., EU, Canada, and China.
"Demand makes poaching for wild animals a highly lucrative activity," says Robbie Marsland, director of International Foundation for Animal Welfare. "And the effects go even further than the animals themselves. It has devastating effects on fragile eco-systems.
"Hunters kill the strongest, fittest individuals, but these are the ones most important to the survival of the group in the wild. The loss of a dominant male in many species will result in the killing of that male's offspring by his replacement, so his healthy genes disappear."
While most of the leading designers follow strict codes ensuring the animal skins and fur they use comes from reputable sources and are legally farmed, the past decade has seen Gucci, Chanel, Fendi and Saks Fifth Avenue all receive fines for trading in crocodile skins that have turned out to be from illegal sources.
Experts explain that it is difficult to monitor all aspects of a trade that covers several continents. Italy and France are the highest importers, with fashion houses hand-finishing crocodile, alligator, lizard and snakeskins imported from Asia and labelling them as made in their own.
CITES is currently revising the international list of 30,000 endangered species, everything from reptiles to wild dogs and cats, in a desperate bid to extend its protection to thousands more animals in countries such as China, India and parts of Africa, where poaching is rife.
Last week represented a huge breakthrough when Ebay, the primary market place for sales in ivory from elephants already endangered - declared that there would be no more trade in elephant tusks across its international sites. This followed an investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare which revealed that 94 per cent of elephant ivory for sale on Ebay was potentially illegal.
Most animal welfare groups agree it is almost impossible to tell whether skins have been farmed or poached from the wild. Critics say that the move doesn't go far enough and products from several endangered species are still available on the site, such as crocodile, elephant, ostrich, snake and stingray.
"Environment ministers who met at the convention in The Hague this week, know its vital to have the legal controls in place to limit trade in endangered species," says Barry Gardiner, the government minister for biodiversity.
"But the best legislation is no use without proper enforcement, so we need to track down and prosecute the international criminal gangs that are profiting at the expense of some of the rarest species on earth."
However, campaigners say it starts with the fashion industry. "If animal skins cease to be status symbols, then demand will plummet and consumers need not worry about checking the label to make sure their garment has been farmed legally," says Yvonne Taylor of PETA.
Cold-blooded vanity as skins become en vogue again | the Daily Mail