Falling out of fashion: Are exotic skins the new fur?

Author: Sascha Camilli

Read Time:   |  26th October 2020

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Sascha Camilli reports on how the exotic animal industry is under fire for ties to the pandemic and for cruelty to animals


Luxury fashion: an enticing world of glamour, beauty and all things spectacular. Or is it? For decades now, luxury fashion has been under fire for unethical practices.

The fur trade has attracted criticism from not only die-hard animal rights campaigners, but anyone who is familiar with the ways it’s produced. The fashion industry is turning away from fur, with nearly all leading designers refusing to work with it.

Today, animal fur is a true faux pas, and a well-made fake is often more on-trend than the real deal. But among the flurry of fur bans that hit fashion press headlines was an increasing number of brands implementing another sort of policy: a ban on exotic skins.

Names like Victoria Beckham, Selfridges, Mulberry, Chanel and Paul Smith have stopped the use of skins from crocodiles, alligators, lizards, snakes, ostriches, kangaroos and other exotic animals in their collections.

While most high-street brands have a long-standing ban on exotic skins, it can be argued that designer names make more waves when it comes to shifting public opinion, as they were the ones to use these expensive fabrics in the first place.

Wet Markets

In this moment, exotic skins are seen as fashion’s least favourite fabrics because of their alarming connection to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Zoonotic diseases such as SARS, MERS and bird flu all originated in animals and went on to become epidemics that affected humans. Most of us are aware that Covid-19 is thought to have originated at a live-animal market in China, but it’s surprising to many to find that these markets, where animals are often kept captive in cramped, unsanitary conditions, have a connection to the fashion industry.

In fact, Australian group Nature Needs More has found out that the same animals sold in these unhygienic markets sometimes end up sold as accessories at luxury boutiques in fashion capitals like Milan.

Are the much critiqued wild-animal markets the only ones posing risks? Not according to Nature Needs More’s Founder and CEO, Dr Lynn Johnson, “Taking a step back in the supply chain, the risks involved aren’t only about wet markets, they are also about legal commercial breeding facilities,” she explains.

“Legal commercial breeding of wild animals is encouraged and widespread, but poorly monitored. Before the pandemic, few people would have known about China’s 22,000 legal captive breeding facilities, let alone the thriving market for threatened species in many other countries. China is not alone in this trade.

“With little fanfare, South Africa reclassified 33 wild species (including lions and giraffes) as farm animals to make commercial breeding and selling easier.”


She continues, “Let’s look at the example of pythons – unless a breeding facility is directly owned by a fashion house, it is very likely that the snakes that do not make the ‘grade’ for skin quality will be sold for meat or medical products.”

And fashion houses do indeed get into the exotic-animal market with their own farms – Gucci announced in 2017 that they will be buying a python farm to source skins for their bags, of course stressing that all the animals will be treated “humanely”.

But is there a truly humane way to source exotic skins for fashion? Aware that consumers care about ethics, companies are quick to claim their products are “ethically” made, but undercover investigations continue to prove otherwise.

“There’s no such thing as ethical exotic skins,” says Yvonne Taylor of the animal rights campaign group PETA, whose international affiliates have uncovered cruelty in the trade on many occasions.


Fashion Turns its Head

One look at many of the videos PETA has produced makes it easy to see why fashion brands were turning their backs on exotic skins pre-pandemic. Even before exotic skins were found to be a potential spreader of disease, they were the culprits of extreme cruelty to animals.

Behind the glamorous facade of these high-ticket accessories (a crocodile-skin Hermès Birkin bag can cost up to $500,000 and can have a wait-list of several years), a world of cruelty and abuse is lurking.

Undercover investigations have shown crocodiles and alligators kept in cramped, crowded tanks before farmers kill them with the nape-stab method, which is meant to sever the spinal cord immediately, but because of improper use the animals often end up dying slow, painful deaths.

Ostriches, whose skin is used for high-end accessories with a dotted texture are commonly killed when just a year old. They are put into an electric stunner before their throats are slit in full view of other birds. Snakes are often nailed to trees and their bodies are cut open before their skin is torn off, and lizards are sometimes decapitated.

Taylor adds, “You can have the killer look minus the killing by opting for a fake version.”

This is in line with the current offering: faux exotic skins are easier to find than ever. Vegan brands, such as Ashoka and Gunas, use vegan leather to recreate the look of exotic skins.

Accessory brand Luxtra is taking innovation a step further with leather made from mangoes, which has been embossed with a reptile texture. These brands prove that today, taking animal lives in the name of fashion is not only unethical, but it’s also outdated, too.

Sascha Camilli discovers if faux fur is an eco-friendly choice and how it measures up to the real thing here

Written by

Sascha Camilli

Sascha is a writer, an award-winning author, and the founder of the world’s first digital vegan fashion magazine, VILDA. She's also a professional animal rights activist and podcast host.

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