Last month, at the 30th anniversary auction by Christie’s in Hong Kong, a 12-inch Himalayan crocodile Hermès Birkin bag with white-gold hardware set with 245 F-colour diamonds weighing almost 10 carats sold for $300,168 (roughly Rs.2 crore). This price was more than the bag’s standard retail price of $280,000. Called “the most valuable handbag in the world”, it fetched more than a hanging scroll belonging to Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing dynasty as well as a rare solar-powered dome clock by Patek Philippe.
The cult status of the Birkin is old hat. Especially the Himalayan with subtle colouration done in Niloticus crocodile meant to evoke images of the Himalayan mountains. But isn’t it old hat and archaic to bid hundreds and thousands of dollars for a product whose rarity owes itself—besides those blinding diamonds—to the skin of a cruelly bludgeoned reptile? Just as it is primitive for leading art businesses such as Christie’s to continue to auction exotic skin handbags as “art”. Ditto for luxury brands to continue to list such products among their marquee pieces. As for the celebrities, rich and famous men and women who carry these products on their arms like badges of wealth and status, they should be booed, not “followed”, on social media.
In this age of scientific research on animal ecology, advanced studies of liberal arts and surging exigencies created by environmental erosion, this baffling craze for fashion items made from exotic skins persists. The Himalayan crocodile Hermès Birkin sits on top of the heap but Christie’s, a global leader in the handbag auction market, has been auctioning such bags also from Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and Chanel for years.
Generating outrage by referring to the slaying of alligators, lizards, crocodiles, pythons and ostriches for their skins for luxury goods or the squalid conditions of crocodile or python farms where such species are bred is not the intent here. Nor is this a rejection of the extraordinary craftsmanship that goes into the making of such bags. All the same, why in this modern age must victories over animals, comparable to the pre-industrial age, be viewed as “luxury”, merits a debate. Killing a predatory crocodile with a spear or breaking the spine of a poisonous python was a necessity for hunter-gatherers. Just like iron was considered more precious than gold during the rule of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. The process of smelting iron hadn’t been discovered then, so owning an iron dagger for the king was “luxury”. Now that humankind’s unquestioned dominance over animals is established, what is “rare” and “luxurious” about products made from exotic skins?
The contemporary luxury industry is pathetically entwined in double standards. It talks about sustainability, environmental conservation and ethical practices, and wants notice for its corporate social responsibility efforts. On the other hand, it hawks items like Chloé Python Drew Bag, Valentino Crocodile lock bag, Chanel Alligator Flap bag, Fendi Python Spy bag, Balenciaga Crocodile part-time bag, Christian Dior Alligator Diorissimo Tote, Salvatore Ferragamo Alligator Sofia Handle Bag, Gucci Crocodile briefcase, and LV Deesse MM Crocodile tote, to name some. Bags are headline makers but there are belts, shoes, edges, trims, T-shirts and coats made out of rare animal skins. Some items take skins from the bellies of three crocodiles. Next month Fendi will celebrate 90 Years of Fendi Fur in Rome—a show to make audiences sit up.
The scary condition of slaughter houses in India where cows and other animals are cruelly killed for their hides must also be underlined. Also while shahtoosh shawls woven with down hair of the rare Tibetan antelope were banned in 1975, illegal demand and supply continues in the absence of clear animal welfare laws.
Yet, illegal trade in exotic skins is unchecked across the world, with fraud, poor regulation, mislabelling and dubious businesses in the supply chain. In addition, millions of reptiles whose skins are exported from South-East Asia each year belong to endangered species, which are fast dwindling in their natural habitats. In February, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) singled out Prada and Hermès for the unethical treatment of ostriches. Turning skin into leather requires large amounts of energy and toxic chemicals, including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and oils, dyes and finishes, some of them cyanide-based.
The gaping aesthetic divide between slaughter of reptiles and bags sold as art and luxury was most graphically held up by the 2011 video The Medan Connection, produced by Karl Amman, on the gruesome reality behind fashion’s reptile skin trade. Numerous investigative reports and videos by Peta showing the horrifying live skinning of exotic animals, or the mistreatment of ostriches are available at the click of your mouse if you wish to see any.
The umbrage that such reports draw (rightfully so) drown the few steps taken in the opposite direction. It may be time therefore to replace outrage with information. For one, non-luxury brands such as Topshop, H&M, Ann Taylor, Victoria’s Secret, Cole Haan, Nike, Overstock.com and Adidas have all declared themselves exotic skin-free. The most recognized high-end designer who shuns animal skins is Stella McCartney. Luxury house Kering, which controls Gucci, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Saint Laurent, released a report in 2014 called Assessment of Python Breeding Farms Supplying the International High-end Leather Industry. Funded by Gucci, it was the outcome of the “Python Conservation Partnership”—a joint venture between Kering, the International Trade Center, and the Boa and Python Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Instead of old laurels, luxury is desperately in need of new leadership that can (at the cost of commercial and creative losses) call a spade a spade and the use of exotic skins highly inappropriate in contemporary times.
Shefalee Vasudev is fashion editor at Mint.
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