The Skinny on Exotics

Spring’s strong response to lush and plush styles proves consumers aren’t letting a difficult economy get in the way of fashion.

View Slideshow

MILAN — If you have it, flaunt it.

Spring’s stronger-than-ever fad for lush and plush accessories proves that deep-pocketed consumers seeking individuality aren’t letting a difficult economy get in their way. Crafted in a zoo of exotic skins, the most popular being crocodile, spring’s bags and shoes are treated in every possible way to accentuate their exotic flourishes, tactile gratification and uniqueness.

For spring, Bottega Veneta created a woven Cabat bag made of 25 crocodile skins, previously treated with a matte texture and peach hand, while Gucci offered crocodile and ostrich shoulder bags with a metal eyelet. Python aficionados, meanwhile, can indulge with Dolce & Gabbana’s sorbet-colored python pieces, from small belt bags and hats to stackable bangles, while Borbonese’s signature bird’s-eye bags and sandals are jazzed up with crocodile trim, beadings and crystals. Valextra’s bags are made with ostrich legs handcrafted with erstwhile techniques and Prada offered three-tone crocodile bags and sandals. Shirò went as far as lining crocodile bags with python, while A. Testoni is banking on sharkskin loafers.

“It never ceases to surprise me that, especially in tough times, consumers seek quirky and trendy pieces, even those meant for the runway only,” said Alessandro Dell’Acqua, the creative director at Borbonese. “It proves that people want to step out of anonymity with special pieces.”

Massimo Suppancig, chief executive officer at Valextra, agreed: “Even in tough times, sophisticated people with money seek the most expensive pieces for personal gratification. Exotic skins offer just that through their special tactile characteristics.”

With the likes of H&M and Zara able to quickly interpret high-fashion trends, designers are feeling pressed to look beyond crocodile bags of yore in rigid shapes and shiny patinas. They have created handbags, often retailing for thousands of dollars, that are more difficult to reproduce at lower price points by tapping into a variety of hides — crocodile, python and ostrich on the traditional side and sharkskin, whale, salmon, stingray and chicken legs in the innovative category.

For their part, tanners went overboard for spring with special effects — crocodile with suede, laminated or stonewashed effects, hand-painted python, glazed or antiqued lizard skins matching the color of the clothes and metallic accents throughout.

This story first appeared in the November 22, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“Our customers are attracted to exotic skins because of the look and feel of the materials. There is a wonderful tactile approach with exotics; the bag feels good to touch,” said Tomas Maier, Bottega Veneta’s creative director.

Frida Giannini, Gucci’s accessories director, noted that crocodile is still an all-time favorite. But what comes out on the catwalk is a far cry from the stiff and dull raw crocodile skins shipped in from South America.

“Our tanners work crocodile to give it an added value.…Working at one of our tanneries is like being in a chemistry lab full of test flasks with which to experiment and fulfill our needs,” Giannini said.

Massimo Calestrini, the owner and designer of Shirò, compares crocodile with diamonds and emeralds. “What’s older, nobler and more lasting than crocodile?” asked Calestrini, whose family still owns five tanneries in east Africa.

Bottega Veneta’s chosen “It” bag for the season is the “Ravenna” bag, a soft frame style made with 1,500 disks from 10 leathers and exotic skins, retailing for $11,500. Used in diminishing color shades, the overall effect is one of a mosaic with a shimmer. “The different textures and colors that can be achieved with exotics are unique, to the point that sometimes you don’t recognize them,” said Maier.

Suppancig at Valextra explained the company buys crocodile skins based on the size of the bag it will be cut for. “That way, the progression of the scales from the larger central ones to the smaller ones on the side are faithful to how they were on the animal. It’s an optical effect,” he said.

At Valextra, the same style handbag in calfskin retails for $930, while an ostrich leg version sells for $3,500, and a crocodile one retails for $11,000.

Dell’Acqua’s passion for exotic skins reverberated through Borbonese’s spring collection, as he went to extra lengths to match the color of the crocodile with the clothes.

“It took us nearly two months to achieve the right tone of blush pink because of the risk of ruining the scales,” he said.

But Dell’Acqua is convinced it is vital to experiment to beat lower-priced copycats. “I’d rather a crocodile trim than a faux croc bag. So many designers use low cost and quality that just look cheap,” added Dell’Acqua.

View Slideshow