Consumer Demand Strong for Exotic Skin Handbags

Despite the current economic hardships, exotic skin handbag vendors say demand is still strong for bags made with alligator, crocodile and other rare skins.

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Skins are still in.

This story first appeared in the July 27, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Despite the current economic hardships, exotic skin handbag vendors say demand is still strong for bags made with alligator, crocodile, python and other rare skins, although sales have decreased somewhat.

The past several years have marked high times for firms pushing exotic skin handbags that started in the low thousands of dollars and hit as high as $140,000 for a Hermès Birkin alligator bag with diamond-studded gold hardware. While such indulgences may seem excessive today, consumer demand remains strong for skin bags and many brands are aiming to bring them the quality and the look at a competitive price.

Companies such as Carlos Falchi, Sang A and LAI are working to get prices to a more reasonable level, in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $2,000.

Falchi, who has a strong business in leather, but is known mainly for his work in crocodile and python, has introduced more patchwork bags into the collection. LAI also introduced bags with exotic trim and combinations of skins instead of full-on skin bags. Katherine Kwei is offering the exotic look with less-expensive water snake and Sang A is offering bags in karung, which costs 70 percent less than python, according to the designer. Beirn’s water snake “Jenna” totes are top sellers at stores such as Bloomingdale’s, where they retail for about $300.

Barbara Cirkva, president of the fashion division of Chanel Inc., said, “Even in more challenging times, there is a strong market for exclusive investment pieces that do not go out of style. Chanel has recently expanded its offerings in new boutiques, like in Beverly Hills and Las Vegas, of ultraluxe items like exotic handbags. These bags are timeless pieces created with the most exceptional, luxurious materials with the ultimate in craftsmanship. For Chanel, it is always about inspiring the client and making them dream. These pieces continue to do that for the brand.”

Tomas Maier, Bottega Veneta’s creative director, said the firm’s clients seem to be particularly interested in purchasing investment pieces.

“They understand the value in a beautiful bag, made by highly skilled artisans using the finest exotic skins available,” said Maier, adding the brand’s exotic business has grown in proportion to its overall handbag business.

Some, like Nancy Gonzalez president Santiago Gonzalez, are surprised at how strong the market remains for exotics.

“I thought the overall business would be so affected, but it hasn’t been,” said Gonzalez. “It is an experience to buy luxury, that’s the most important part of it all. It’s the experience of how you acquire it. We’re not selling bags, we’re selling the story.”

Deborah Soss, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of handbags and accessories at Bergdorf Goodman, which has a significant exotic business with lines such as Nancy Gonzalez, Carlos Falchi, Kara Ross, VBH, Valentino and Chanel, said “there is always going to be a need for exotic skin bags…it’s a big part of our DNA.”

Soss cited the cost-value relationship being the premium selling point on such items, citing Nancy Gonzalez for its Caiman crocodile day bags that average $3,500 as “a good value for the money” and Chanel alligator satchels that sell for upward of $20,000, as “something you pass down to your children.”

Bergdorf’s also has less expensive exotic options for its contemporary assortment, including some in water snake.

“[Consumers are] taking into consideration things like cost-per-wear,” said Adriana Castro, whose namesake firm has a farm and tans its skins.

Cody Kondo, Saks Fifth Avenue’s group senior vice president and general merchandise manager of fashion and fine jewelry, watches, women’s shoes, handbags and soft accessories, said, “People are looking for something classic and timeless…[exotics] are one-of-a-kind pieces. They are unique. It continues to be a relatively healthy business.”

Saks is continuing to push exotics or exotic-inspired bags at the designer and contemporary price points, so as not to alienate consumers who have grown to covet skin bags in the past few years. The retailer’s offering for holiday includes its private label studded snakeskin satchel that retails for about $300 and will hit stores this holiday, Carlo Falchi’s mock-crocodile microfiber totes and a Tory Burch snakeskin-embossed tote.

On the other hand, Vernon Bruce Hoeksema, designer of VBH, which is known for its top-tier exotic skin accessories and fine jewelry, called for a return of discretion when it comes to exotic skins.

“Unfortunately, I think they have become a bit overexposed by those companies who don’t know how to produce high-quality, luxurious products,” Hoeksema said. “There is a declining demand for trendy exotic skins because they have become overdone and overexposed, [but] the demand still remains strong for the high-end, top-quality market because they are products that last.”


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