Rethinking Designer: Has Hermes Reached the End of Its Exotic Skin Era



Since the dawn of time, when cavemen skinned and dressed in buffalo, animals have been a central muse within clothing and fashion. Fast forward to the 21st century, and we’re still skinning animals. Thanks to their elaborate prints, exotic look, and natural fibers, using animals in fashion can have great benefits as they help spark creativity in design and act as naturally resourced material over synthetics. However, in recent decades, concerns regarding the ethical sourcing of animals and the use of exotic animal skin to manufacture high-end bags from the likes of designers such as Hermes has led to a desperate need to rethink designer.


The famous Hermes Birkin bag is one of the many luxury items that help satisfy the elite status craving. But, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), owning such a bag demonstrates support of abusive industries rather than high status. We're rethinking our designer bag wish lists and coming to terms with the harrowing sourcing of animal-based materials used to make haute couture such as the Birkin.


The Birkin


The Birkin is a line of tote bags by the popular French fashion house, Hermes. These extremely prestigious items are some of the rarest and most desirable in the world and since their release in 1980, they've been a signature commodity in the handbag realm. The bags are handmade in France using calf, ostrich, and alligator skin, and most notably the albino alligator used to make the Himilayan Birkin, which holds a current value of £500,000. The bags are extremely exclusive with an estimate of only 200,000 in circulation. Therefore they resell for prices between £8,000 to £80,000 due to the demand and artisan craftsmanship that goes into making each one. The price and mantra surrounding the bag pays homage to its finished product, but not its production.


Like many other high end designer handbags, the Birkin and its sister bags rely on animal skin to achieve its luxury look. However, such a style comes at a cost. Designers such as Hermes approve the brutal live skinning of animals especially calves, alligators, and crocodiles in order to source their material. Alligators and crocodiles are factory farmed in dreadful conditions, raised in small underground tanks with little air and light. It's legal to put up to 350 6ft alligators in the space of a family home. They are bred and killed within two years despite their sixty-year life expectancy in order to be used for their skins. Shockingly, Hermes uses two to three crocodiles to make one handbag.


Britons and their bags


A 2016 study highlighted that in the past 12 months, 31% of Britons bought a handbag with UK sales reaching £1.3 billion. Yet leather handbags are no longer a bag for life, as a rising middle class means rising consumption of high-end bags. In recent decades, consumers have gone from owning one sturdy, long-lasting leather bag, to owning several. The demand for designer handbags is increasing and with it, the increase of animal skinning. In the leather industry, around 250 million cows are killed each year. If the rate of leather bag production continues, the figure will need to increase to 430 million by 2025.


The problem is not just the use and abuse of animals, but that we don't know what we are buying. As naive consumers were comforted by prestigious brand labels and “Italian leather” stamps, but in reality, our favourite designer bags are coming straight from slaughter farms or blood-infested markets. PETA correspondent states how "Companies know that by slapping a high price and luxury label on a filthy and disgusting process, people will think they're buying something of value."


No to fur, but yes to exotic skins?


Animal rights campaigners have convinced many fashion houses, and in turn, their consumers, to shy away from fur. Among younger Western consumers, fur has steadily eased itself out of wardrobes and was finally banned by London Fashion Week back in 2018. It's speculated that a “Fur-like reckoning” is coming for exotic skin, but what's taking so long?


In 2018, Chanel declared it would stop using exotic skin in its handbags due to difficulty in obtaining ethically sourced materials. The ban was a bold move and was utilised by activists such as PETA to encourage other companies to do the same. The move reflects a shift in values amongst the new consumer generation, many millennials, and Gen-Z consumers state they prefer to buy products that are ethically sourced.


However, companies have since proved to be reluctant to rid their collections of exotic skin. Instead of discontinuing their exotic collections like Chanel, Hermes has bought into their own python and reptile farms in Thailand, to ensure ethically sourced materials and a more ‘friendly’ skinning. Whilst the move is a positive step in the right direction, there is no such thing as an ethically sourced animal material. The only positive animal trade is no animal trade at all. As consumers, we had the power to ban fur, so we have the power to ban exotic skin. We need to rethink our purchasing values and connect with the ethics behind the products we fantasise about.


Animal skin is so last season


The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered debates regarding the sourcing of materials. There are growing concerns that animal farming and skinning markets are becoming epicenters for infectious diseases. “Global viral threats and pandemics will continue to plague humans as long as we capture, confine and kill animals for fashion." It's unrealistic to expect a sudden banning of all animal-sourced material, as there is the opposing debate that using animals in fashion is actually benefiting ecosystems and ensuring that certain species don't become extinct. However, it's the 21st century and we don't need to be skinning reptiles alive for our handbags. It's time top brands rethink their designs and start changing with the times. There are plenty of alternatives out there to an alligator.

"Global viral threats and pandemics will continue to plague humans as long as we capture, confine and kill animals for fashion." Vogue India

Yes, Chanel has banned its reptile collection but whilst consumers are willing to spend £40,000 on a crocodile Birkin, the move has little impact. The Birkin is the holy grail of designer bags. And, as a pioneer in its field Hermes has a duty to move toward cruelty-free production and ban exotic skins, if they did, others would follow suit. There's nothing luxurious about taking a butchered alligator out to dinner.