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Crocodile Skin 101

Take your pick: These are three of the most popularly used crocodile skins in the luxury fashion market — the Dark Blue is from the Hornback Siamensis, the Burgundy Red is from the Siamensis belly and the Moss Green is from the Caiman Hornback.

A croc is a croc is a croc,” or so I thought until I had a chat with Raul Francisco. He along with his wife Joanna, own and operate the exciting local fashion brands Carbon, Tint and Joanna Preysler Boutique that sells bags made only in luxurious exotic crocodile, python and ostrich skin.

To be honest, I have been hesitant to talk about or feature fashion items made from exotic animal skin because of two things – the first is what I now know as my misplaced misgivings about how animals are treated in the production of exotic skin products and the second, my son’s love for animals and his disapproval of any product made from it. I remember spotting a very sexy pair of python stilettos at Jimmy Choo in Rome a few years ago; giddy at my find, I made a move to enter the boutique when my son looked at me incredulously and said, “You’re kidding, right?” I turned around and walked away and since then have not considered looking at or buying anything made from python, ostrich or crocodile skin. Then I got an Exotic Animal Skin 101 from Raul.

Crocodiles are not killed randomly to satiate the market’s increasing demand for products made from their skin. Animal preservation and responsible breeding are a must among those involved in the trade of exotic animal skin; Raul says that it is a highly regulated industry. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora & Fauna (CITES), which was first established in the 1960s as The World Conservation Union, is an international agreement among governments that ensures the international trade of exotic skin does not threaten their survival and sustainability for the future.  Most if not all international fashion labels, especially those of the high-end, luxury kind, adhere to the CITES protocol. The bags designed and sold at the Joanna Preysler Boutique here in Manila use only CITES-certified crocodile skin.

Why is crocodile skin so coveted, so expensive? Raul explains that the process of breeding until tanning is a long and tedious one, lasting at least four years. Because of this and the delicate physical nature of the crocodile skin, its scarcity and exclusivity, it is an expensive and valuable commodity measured by, get this, the centimeter. Now, imagine a handcrafted Hermés Birkin bag and approximate how much crocodile skin is needed to create one-piece; add to the value equation the species of the crocodile, the quality of the skin, the symmetry of the tiling patterns, the flawlessness or the amount of imperfections, then you would understand why it costs thousands, even hundreds of thousand of dollars, as is the case with the Shiny Rouge H Porosus Crocodile 30-cm Birkin Bag with 18K White Gold and diamond hardware that sold for $203,150 at a Heritage Auction in Dallas, Texas.  On average, a branded crocodile bag will cost between $1,500 to $6,000.

Does it really matter what kind of crocodile is used? Apparently yes, I found out. To the trained eye, tiling, symmetry, suppleness and a scar-free quality, subjected to a distinct grading system, determine the price of each crocodile skin. The belly is the most expensive part of the skin because it is more supple and soft compared to the hornback. The belly has its own grading system; crocodiles bred in single pens have a different quality from those bred in mixed-pens. Products made with one-piece of large skin without cuts are more luxurious and expensive while products made with several joints or random cut parts are priced lower.

There are several species of crocodile currently being used in the fashion industry — the Indo-Pacific Porosus, the American Alligator, the African Niloticus, the Southeast Asian Siamensis and the South American Caiman. How can one spot the difference? The Porosus crocodile, also known as the Indo-Pacific Porosus, is a saltwater crocodile found in Northern Australia through Southeast Asia to the Eastern coast of India; according to Raul, it is also the species we find in Davao. The Porosus crocodile has fewer armor plates on its neck compared to other crocodiles and has a broad body in contrast to the other leaner crocodiles; it has the most even tiling and an almost perfect symmetry. The African Niloticus, also known as the Nile crocodile, is common in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, South Africa, Cameroon, and Sudan and in parts of Madagascar and Senegal. This crocodile has small and even tiling, making it one of the most beautiful crocodile skins in use. The Siamensis or Siamese crocodile is native to Brunei, East Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Borneo and possibly Java. This crocodile has a supple feel and has beautiful tiling that is the most similar in character to the American alligator. The South American Caiman or Caiman crocodile is primarily from Columbia. The Caiman skin is characterized by the “peaks and valleys” on its horn back portion and “pin marks” on its belly portion.  

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The most expensive of the lot is the saltwater crocodile or more commonly known as the Porosus; the Indo-Pacific kind is the largest of all living reptiles and its belly skin is the most highly priced of all. Its tiling portion is even and symmetrical and this is what Hermés uses for its products, especially the iconic Birkin and Kelly bags. The South American Caiman is the most popular and is legally sourced in Colombia. Nancy Gonzalez, the internationally-renowned Colombian bag designer uses this type of crocodile skin.

Crocodiles are bred in CITES-certified farms across Asia, Australia and South America. Locally, you will find bags made from Caiman, Siamensis, Niloticus crocodile and occasionally the Porosus and American alligator kind. At the Joanna Preysler Boutique, the crocodile skins are sourced from farms in Southeast Asia and from traders who purchase from CITES-certified and regulated tanneries in the United States, Africa and Australia. Raul proudly shared that they have just started working with a crocodile farm based in Davao, a pioneer in the Philippines.

Crocodile skin may also be used for jackets and vests but they have to be garment-grade. The process of “garment washing” makes the skin buttery soft and supple enough to wear. To care for crocodile skin products, keep items in a dust bag in a cool, dry place; if it gets wet, just air-dry it — do not blow dry or use any solvent, wax or oils. And to ensure the authenticity of the products, take into consideration the reputation of the establishment you are buying from. The legitimate ones should be able to guaranty and certify the products they are selling.

Is this demand for crocodile skin just an expensive fad, I wondered? No, Raul says that this is not just a trend and there will always be consumers for luxury exotic skin products. Their own store has received tremendous interest and support from Manila’s stylish set. The Europeans have always had a deep appreciation for exotic animal skins products but of late the Russians and the Asians have developed a fondness for it as well.  And now that there is more information on the industry and consumers have become more educated about the balance between commerce, conservation and sustainability, they are more open to the idea of purchasing products made from exotic animal skin, Raul adds.  If it is any indication, 2013 is turning out to be a banner year for exotic animal skin products in international fashion — just check out the handbag collections of Gucci, Burberry, Bottega Veneta and other well-known brands for spring/summer. 

I myself have had a change of heart; I no longer stay away from stores that sell products made from exotic animal skin. And my son, after sharing this Crocodile Skin 101 with him, no longer squirms or rolls his eyes in disbelief when I gush over sexy python stilettos or exquisite crocodile bags.

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The Joanna Preysler Boutique is located at the 2nd level of Greenbelt 5, Makati City. The Hermés, Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga and Burberry stores are located in Greenbelt 4 and 5, Makati City.

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