crocodile skin back in fashion
Bazaar 2000
by Marion Hume

Designers are fascinated by it. The fashion crowd is snapping it up. Marion Hume hunts down the real story behind croc.

IT WAS A CROCODILE that finished off young Yves Saint Laurent. But it wasn’t the beast’s chilling ability to slice through the bone that made the matrons in the front row purse their lips in disapproval. It was that Christian Dior’s boy prodigy had the audacity, back in 1960, to use the luxury skin on a biker jacket inspired by the beatniks. The collection was a disaster. It was his last for Dior.

Forty years have done nothing to diminish croc’s power to shock. For Dior’s fail show, John Galliano offered a trench coat dyed deep purple, with matching track pants. (Track pants! In the skin of a reptilian predator that outlived the dinosaurs!) On other runways–Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton, Donna Karan–it ran rampant over once-tame skirts, jackets, and coats.

“Everyone is interested in crocodiles,” says breeder Keith Cook of Australian Crocodile Traders. “If you walk into a room with a rocket scientist and a movie producer and you say you’re in crocodiles, people want to talk to you first.” Which explains why the Discovery Channel’s swashbuckling Crocodile Hunter is watched by more than 200 million viewers worldwide.

With all its danger and intrigue, the skin trade has fashion–and the world–fascinated. So I decide to set out on my own worldwide expedition to get to the bottom of croc appeal, and start by sending an e-mail to a friend in New York asking for the price of Narciso Rodriguez’s sultry croc stilettos. “I think they are alligator, which is more prestigious and more illegal! Will find out!” she replies. It turns out they are $1965, alligator, and completely legal. But to many, the attraction is that they seem almost unattainable, like contraband or a sort of sartorial cocaine.

Crocodile and alligator used to be illegal. Most species still are. But some, while protected, are no longer endangered. In fact, a key reason why alligators in the U.S. and crocodiles in Australia are flourishing is that their skins are in such demand. Suddenly, breeders have much more to gain by protecting the animals and their habitats.

“I don’t know why croc is in fashion now. I do know we have three times the usual orders,” says the quality controller at the Hermes atelier in Paris. It takes two matching skins to make a Kelly bag or fall’s $30,900 skirt. Which is why the house’s most magnificent hide has remained uncut for so many years. “It’s beautiful. It never had a fight,” says the quality controller, as he unrolls it for me. No wonder nothing took this monster on. Living, it would have been Godzilla.

Ten days later, in Manhattan, I meet Andrea Tardini, whose grandfather Luigi saw his first crocodile skin after World War II and instantly quit truck driving to become a belt maker. Now Tardini has a store on SoHo’s Wooster Street in which an alligator bag can cost up to $5445. The hides come from farms in Louisiana, he says. And after some persuasion, he reveals his secret source.

I track down Dane Ledet in the vast wetlands that begin southwest of New Orleans where the highway ends, “and then it’s boats, airboats, and helicopters straight to the Gulf of Mexico,” says the farmer whose quest is gator eggs that he will take back to his farm in the Delta. “What about poachers?” I whisper. “No farmer looks to make a profit from illegal skin,” he says. “Most are as honest as can be because of what we stand to lose.”

Ledet would lose his license, his liberty (illegal trade is a felony), and the eco-friendly side of his business: The 140,000 alligators he raises from eggs each year have an 85 percent survival rate–compared with 5 percent in the wild. As young adults, 17 percent of the progeny are released into the wild.

In Australia, on the other hand, wild populations are growing at such an alarming rate that crocs have been known to turn up in people’s backyards. (Indeed, there are so many gut-churning clippings about croc attacks on my desk that I am tempted to order Dior’s floor-length croc couture gown in revenge.) Known as nuisance crocs, they are taken to farms as breeding stock, where they enjoy conditions that are the crocodilian equivalent of the Delano Hotel. On 2000 square kilometers of Australia’s Northern Territory, Leo Venturin farms cattle, chickens, and crocs, and I know which animal I’d rather be. Sure, it’s a bit stark, but the floors are lacquered, and the crocs dip in the pool and dine on a pate of kangaroo and chicken.

Back in the States, Phyllis McCranie of the Florida Department of Agriculture says, “Our challenge is to educate people that alligators are no longer endangered.” She points out Web sites that reveal man wastes nothing when he slays this beast. Besides the valuable belly skin, there’s the low-fat, low-cholesterol meat, plus soap, and gewgaws made from the croc’s knuckly, ridged back.

But can you wear alligator or croc in good conscience? Yes, says ecologist Simon Stirrat of the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission. “Wearing a legally taken skin helps the conservation process. Consumers ensure a future for a species that may otherwise be overexploited or exterminated.” And the downside? “Of course, you can get eaten much more easily than you could 30 years ago,” Stirrat says. So, if you spend $28,000 on a bag, don’t hesitate to enjoy the skin it’s in. But if you are vacationing near the mouth of the Mississippi or a distant Australian billabong, do be very careful where you camp.