Exotic Skins and Ethical Fashion: What About the Not-So-Cute Animals?

Exotic Skins and Ethical Fashion: What About the Not-So-Cute Animals?

In 2016, a crocodile handbag was sold at auction for $300,108. The 30cm bag, branded as the Hermes Himalaya Niloticus Crocodile Diamond Birkin, was made with the skin of a niloticus crocodile: a species that typically inhabits the Nile River.

This reptilian style statement is just one example among many: exotic animals such as snakes, lizards, crocodiles, alligators and sting-rays are being killed to produce luxury products for every foreseeable season of high fashion. But where is the backlash?

Labels such as Versace, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga are all guilty of the trade, with the latter selling high-top, python skin sneakers for up to AUD$1500. Bags and accessories made from reptiles and cartilaginous fish are immensely sought-after — fuelling the market in which the battleground between luxury and ethics stands, as they are the product of the often blood-stained and violent animal treatment and slaughter.

One single bag made from crocodile skin is produced at the expense of up to four crocodiles, and despite the production of bags being covered by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), it has been estimated that for every reptile legally killed for the purpose of exotic skin trade, another is illegally poached.

The cruel reality behind the products found on the shelves in luxury fashion houses sees crocodiles and the like experiencing immense suffering, squashed into crowded tanks with no clean air, water or sunshine in the lead up to their imminent death. The animals are often shot, and snakes are commonly skinned alive or battered with hammers — done so with the belief that their skin stays supple for longer. Decapitation of reptiles is not unusual either; their skin is then ripped from their bodies.

Luxury fashion house Chanel recently announced its decision to “no longer use exotic skins in … future creations”. Company President Bruno Pavlovsky mentioned in his statement that it has become far too difficult to source exotic skins that meet the high-quality and ethical standards that Chanel stands for. The brand has also vowed to eliminate the use of fur in their products, mentioning that in past collections, the use of animal fur has been extremely sparse.

This announcement had the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society International (HSI) rejoicing.

Director at HSI Claire Bass said, “Chanel is saving countless crocodiles, lizards, snakes and stingrays from suffering.”

Tracy Reiman, PETA’s Executive Vice President, responded to Chanel’s decision by saying, “The champagne corks are popping at PETA … and now it’s time for other companies, like Louis Vuitton, to follow… and do the same.”

PETA has played a significant part in ethical fashion education, with animal fur at the forefront of discussion, particularly in the last decade. They have also applied pressure to luxury brands for their use of exotic skins, and there are hopes that news of Chanel’s boycott may prompt other brands to stop using skins in their product lines too.

But while the use of fur in fashion is a major cause for protest, killing animals for their skins has not raised nearly as much public awareness in comparison — perhaps due to their niche appeal: the result of their often five and six-figure price points. Fox, mink, mohair and other fur-bearing animals are far more protected in terms of animal rights legislation, with funding poured into the conservation of these more conventional animal skins. It seems that people are not nearly as concerned for the welfare of exotic animals such as stingrays, crocodiles and snakes — possibly due to the fact that reptiles aren’t as cute and cuddly as fur-bearing animals, who more easily invite sympathy in comparison.

There has been little-to-no acknowledgement that luxury fashion houses have moved towards commissioning their own reptile farms in order to produce exotic skins that they can deem to be meeting their supposed “ethical standards”. Upon examination, many of these farms are in areas where animal protection laws are not enforced. It’s nearly impossible to say whether animals have been ethically killed without the implementation of strict code of practice and tight regulations.

The mere fact that that by commissioning private reptile farms, companies are able to meet necessary ethical standards, raises questions on their overall ethicality in general. The lack in funding and awareness on exotic skins sees luxury brands continually producing cruel accessories, and managing to quietly find a way around issues of ethical sourcing.

Within the fashion industry, there has been a lot of attention and energy directed towards the eradication of cruelty-lined fur coats; however, there is an urgency for a move towards the complete elimination of all animal skins, and a post-animal fashion world.

Cover by Kyaw Tun

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