Women's Fashion

Croc madame

The older they get, the better they become. And these days, it seems, one is rarely enough. Avril Groom reports on the growing connoisseurship in heirloom-quality exotic-skin handbags

November 26 2012
Avril Groom

As a young girl, designer Lina Hamed shared her great aunt Luleya’s old black crocodile handbag with her three sisters. It retained not only its good condition but, she says, “a sense of history, like its own secret life. Luleya was given the bag by a British general’s wife in Jordan. It passed to my grandmother and mother, who took it to Saudi Arabia, and then we used it in England. It had marks from a long cross-cultural life, but they were part of its character, and the older it got, the better it was.” Hamed discovered how tough and durable exotic skins can be, and was eventually inspired to start the handbag company Analeena. “The skins may be precious, but you don’t have to treat them in a precious way,” she says. “I design bags to be heirlooms, but they don’t need delicate treatment.” Rising-star designer Ethan Koh agrees. “The beauty of a crocodile bag is that you can use it every day and keep it for life,” he says. “It moulds to the wearer and develops a patina. It becomes part of you. I get stopped and asked about my bag more often when I’m carrying a well-worn one.”

Theirs are two of the brands in the recently expanded accessories space at Harrods, now with an area dedicated to exotic skins – a response, says general merchandise manager Simon Longland, “to a demand for exotics that has been growing at about 30 per cent a year over the past five years”. This demand is now global, he says, and has gone far beyond the bright little box bag for special evenings. As customers crave longevity and individually crafted pieces, more are choosing exotic skins for their daily bags, in practical and classic styles, and large enough for their working requirements – taking the genre outside its previous comfort zone of red-carpet socialites and ladies who lunch. Meanwhile, US-based designer Lana Marks has noticed “a surge in demand for large bags in exotic skins over the past two years – from China and Mexico, as well as Europe and the United States. We sold 85 per cent of our stock in a week at Harrods after our spring delivery.”  

There is, according to Giorgia Scarpa, creative director of Italian exotics brand Zagliani, “a small niche of real connoisseurs of exotic skins able to recognise the differences in minimal details”. And uninitiated customers are keen to learn. “Most of our clients have experience of previous ownership,” says Hilary Lewis, leather goods director at Asprey, whose exotic bags (from £12,000) are now edgily designed by Katie Hillier. “But newer clients are excited by the beauty and qualities of exotic skins and learning about them.” They are also gripped by specialist labels entering the field with their own aesthetic.

“Five years ago, Nancy Gonzalez was the only well-known exotic specialist,” says Longland. “We opened her boutique in Europe. But now we have six other top‑quality brands appealing to knowledgeable customers.” Analeena’s glamorous style is exemplified in her elegant Chancellor bag (£8,599) with its timeless shape and glossy finish. Marks’s designs are structured and formal, in highly polished crocodile (from £5,200). Zagliani is known for soft, very light creations (from £7,250), while Koh’s Ethan K brand supplies both box bags with jewel-studded clasps (from £2,180) and larger totes.

Of course, capacious crocodile designs are not new. Christie’s has been running vintage luxury handbag auctions for five years, and interest has grown greatly in that time, says vintage couture and handbag specialist Clare Borthwick. Hermès classics in exotics fetch the highest prices. “Rarity value, sought-after styles, age and condition all affect prices, but a brightly coloured, exotic‑skin Hermès Birkin in good condition would be expected to fetch from about £24,000, whereas a comparable bag in leather would be estimated at £4,000 to £7,000,” she says. “All Hermès bags have a premium because people recognise their quality handcrafting, but rare ones initiate furious bidding.” In May this year, a bespoke Hermès bag sold for £70,000 at Christie’s online charity auction.

This makes the £18,440 required to secure the smallest new crocodile Birkin seem reasonable. The legendary waiting lists for crocodile Hermès bags became so long that the system was abandoned. Now they are available only on a first-come, first-served basis. Current offerings include the Double Sens tote, which reverses from soft matt crocodile to calf leather (£22,810). But many of today’s customers for exotics prefer to place a bespoke order.

Harrods, for example, has many styles for immediate sale, but also has a thriving special-order trade. “Someone who understands skins and their quality, how they are matched and the process by which they are made is prepared to wait for what they want,” says Longland. “They are not fazed by a swatch card of a hundred colours. They are often the same client who will make a considered purchase of serious jewellery, seeing the bags in the same way – as an investment to be enjoyed over many years. It is a significant purchase for most people and choosing takes time, especially if a person is buying a classic style in several colours, so the department has been designed to be comfortable and relaxing.” Marks customises her Paris tote (about £10,000) with a multitude of inner pockets for business women; Koh fits out bags “to suit the customer’s life”, incorporating, for example, three BlackBerry pockets and a make-up pouch for the CEO of a telecoms company.

Harrods also has The Penthouse, a personal shopping space where those invited can, by appointment, view and cogitate on special items, such as one of only three examples of a Prada Doctor bag in deep purple, as well as crocodile versions of Prada’s main-range styles, such as the Galleria (both price on request). Orders take eight to 12 weeks and can be in various materials and colours for a very personalised bag.

Louis Vuitton’s new Haute Maroquinerie at its London salon offers two-hour appointments in a luxurious Peter Marino-designed room to “build” an individual bag – classic or quirky, according to taste – from a choice of five styles, seven leathers a vast colour range for both exterior and lining, a choice of metals for hardware, and personal engraving (but no obvious logo), from £22,600 in crocodile. Customers then wait five months for their orders to be ready – 12 for exotics.

In Italy, Valextra always makes alligator versions – both special orders and from stock – of its famously minimal working bags (from £12,000), while Dolce & Gabbana does special crocodile orders in two styles, including the capacious Sicily (from €3,500), which comes in a range of 34 colours and with a personalised tag. Orders take three months. Bulgari, too, is bringing in jewel‑coloured, shiny alligator versions of the successful Isabella Rossellini bag, one in purple with saffron lamb leather, the other in blue with lavender lamb leather, and both with clasps made from semi‑precious aventurine (£9,150).

Koh, whose family in Singapore runs one of the world’s top tanneries, supplying skins to luxury brands, and who recently sold a controlling stake of the business to LVMH, puts his finger on the reasons for the new all‑day appeal of exotics. “People understand now that the best processing results in soft, durable skin,” he says. “Contrary to rumour, we don’t inject skins. We use a painstaking craft process. A matte finish, which is the most water-resistant and the best for day bags, takes 15 hours of rubbing over a metal pole, stretching gently. With high shine, each scale reflects light like a cabochon jewel. The skin is pressed to thin it, heated, rubbed with a special cloth for about six hours and then treated with agate in a machine requiring highly skilled operation.” Valextra describes creating permanent curves with a “thin film of vegetable skin applied to the back of each scale”, and greasing opaque skins to obtain a silky texture.

The return of colour to fashion is also driving demand. “You might expect classic dark shades to sell best but exotics take colour so well, it’s irresistible,” says Longland. “The jewel shades go fastest – worn with neutral clothes, they never date.” Marks agrees: “At this level, most women have the classic dark bag and are looking for a pop of rich colour.” Dolce & Gabbana finds orange a top-seller, although for Koh it’s “pale grey and taupe.” As for skins, crocodile and alligator are the gold standard. “Lizard can seem a little hard,” says Koh, “while python – cheaper and less durable – is almost a trend item.” He, Prada and Longland have all noticed a growing interest in ostrich – also less expensive, yet robust. But for most aspiring customers, it is firmly a case of give us our daily croc.

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