The skins I live in

After leopard and fox, it was probably only a matter of time before the fashion world’s thoughts turned elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Indeed, the skin of this autumn/winter season has a distinctly more ... reptilian feel.

According to Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, “From Gucci to Prada, snakeskin has been used in ready-to-wear, bags, accessories and outerwear – everywhere.” Scaly skins include python, alligator, crocodile and even starfish. There are black bodycon dresses appliquéd in purple snakeskin motifs at Versace; floor-sweeping patchwork python coats at Missoni; Prada’s brightly coloured python macs with fur lapels and trompe l’oeil python knee-high boots; and Gucci’s 1970s-inspired jewel-tone python tailored blazers and amber python jackets with orange fur trim collars. Hannah MacGibbon’s collection for Chloé is a tribute to exotic serpentine glamour with an explosion of snakeskin and snake print, from macs to crewnecks and day dresses.

Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of hip luxury emporium Jeffrey New York, says: “We’ve bought python and a lot of watersnake wherever we saw it and loved it.” Sherin adds: “Customers perceive these pieces as having intrinsic value and longevity. They wear well – some get better with age. It’s not throwaway fashion.”

According to Patrizio Baldereschi, exports director at Teampiel International, a Florence-based tannery that supplies skins to the likes of Gucci, Bulgari, Versace, Hermès and Chanel: “Exotics have expanded 30 per cent season-on-season in the past few years for us.” He says brands are also becoming more interested in unique finishes such as tie dye and dip-dye pieces. “We have an entire department of people hand-painting python,” he says.

“Brands want something that sells itself and exotics do that,” Baldereschi continues. “It doesn’t make sense to sell leather. Good leather has gone up by 70-80 per cent in the past year, while exotics have only gone up 30 per cent and the margins are much higher. A brand will make a 50 per cent higher margin on a python piece than on a leather bag.”

Little wonder that this month LVMH has purchased a controlling stake in Singapore-based Heng Long International, one of the most important suppliers of skins to the luxury market.

Heng Long’s reported net profits have more than doubled to $2.4m in the six months to June, while revenues have climbed 52.8 per cent to $20.6m.

Exotics are pushing the boundaries of fashion accessory price points. This season’s python pieces run on average 30-50 per cent higher than similar styles in leather.

Zagliani, a forerunner in the python trend, previously shocked with its £2,428 sleek silicon-injected python handbags. But this season Proenza Schouler’s brushed python satchel is pitched at £3,745. A Valentino hand-painted python tote costs £3,180 and a Missoni python biker jacket goes for £5,270.

But, says Sherin, “Consumers are willing to pay if it’s a wow piece.”

“We’ve sold more than 200 pairs of exotic men’s shoes in Harrods since June,” says Scott Tepper, part of the Kurt Geiger group and head of footwear buying for Harrods, Selfridges and Liberty. “Price points range from £1,100 for croc driving shoes to £8,000 for Tom Ford alligator lace-ups, which have been bestsellers.”

Singapore-born Ethan Koh, son of Heng Long International tannery owner CT Koh, founded his label Ethan K two years ago and is set to enter Harrods this November with his collection of croc day bags and python minaudieres. His business has doubled since launching. “My clients are some of the most wealthy women in the world and have often been purchasing leather from fashion houses for a long time,” says Koh. “They decide they want something special that they won’t see everywhere – and they come to me.”

Kalinsky is quick to distinguish the snakeskin craze from the alligator and crocodile boom, however. “The snakeskin trend is much more about fashion,” he says. “There’s something very emotional about snakeskin, with the colours and patterns, the way the dye takes to the skin. It draws you in. But there’s a world of difference between python and crocodile. Python is an accessory. Crocodile is still about pure luxury.”


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