The handbag: Fashionably cruel?


Fashion is always a statement. Carrying a US$6,000 Hermes “Birkin” bag could be intended to say “I am rich and special, and have discerning taste”.

Animal rights activists, however, are attempting to deconstruct this image. If they succeed, people who own Hermes bags will no longer be perceived as those “lucky enough to have gotten onto the waiting list to purchase one [a process that can take up to two years because of demand]”, but a “cruel slayer of snakes/lizards/crocodiles” instead.

Ten years ago the People for The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) ran a campaign against wearing furs, in which supermodels — some of whom have since reverted to wearing fur again — stated their preference of nudity.

The same organization is now aiming to tell the fashion world that fashion items using animal skins not only cost thousands of dollars, but also the heads of reptiles sacrificed to support the trend.

PETA’s campaign against fur fashion had significant success, with people associating fur with trapped minks and blood and guts of chinchillas. But even this has not been able to keep fur completely off catwalks. And with snake, lizard and crocodile skin, PETA may still have work to do to convince the public to take pity on these less-cute animals.

To do so, PETA Asia Pacific recently released video footage from its yearlong undercover investigation of gruesome killing of snakes and lizards in five Indonesian cities. A National Geographic report shows that Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s biggest exporter of wildlife, including live animals for pets and animal parts.

The footage shows a man in Tangerang chopping off snake heads and skinning their slithering bodies while the mouths of their severed heads are still opening and closing. In another shot, a light green lizard monitor is held by two men while they drain the blood from its throat.

PETA also staged a protest, in which activists dressed in grim reaper costumes with hoods, masks and scythes and rallied in the main thoroughfare of Jakarta. The group had been refused entry by security guards at their planned location of Pacific Place Jakarta mall, home to a Hermes outlet.

PETA spokesperson Ashley Fruno said recently that each year around the world, millions of crocodiles, lizards and snakes are subjected to abuse and killed for their skins. National Geographic reports that 24,782,857 reptile parts were exported from Southeast Asia between 2000 and 2007. Reptile skins are used for handbags, belts, shoes and clothes, beautifully arranged in dove-lit displays of expensive stores.

The Birkin bag, named after model Jane Birkin, is one of the most prestigious items using reptile skin.

According to Hanifa Ambadar, editor-in-chief of influential fashion blog, the Birkin is the “Holy Grail” of bags. Other international brands using reptile skins include Louis Vuitton, Loewe, Balmain, Roberto Cavalli and many others.

PETA has appealed to luxury goods producer Hermes International to immediately drop “exotic skins” from its lines. PETA said leading shoe producer Nike and its affiliate Cole Haan, as well as international fashion store H&M, had agreed to stop selling products made with exotic animal skins. Hermes International press office could not be reached for comment.

While the trade of animal parts is legal in Indonesia, the country is bound to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) that stipulates that endangered species must not be traded.

By law, only licensed wildlife hunters and traders are allowed to capture and trade animal parts in Indonesia. In its investigations, however, PETA found most hunters did not have permits, Fruno said.

The Forestry Ministry Directorate General of Nature Conservancy and Forest Protection (PHKA) oversees the licensing and quotas for wildlife trade in Indonesia. PHKA director general Darori said his office provided permits to groups of snakeskin collectors.

“The ones who trap the snakes and lizards are villagers. They sell the skins to licensed collectors. It’s not possible for every single villager to obtain a permit,” he said.

Every year, his office releases a quota for the wildlife trade, based on recommendations from the Indonesia Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

“LIPI checks whether there is an abundant stock or not. We’re bound to an international convention as well,” Darori said.

According to the PHKA data, the total quota for 2010 is 430,280 snakes; 413,100 monitor lizards, and 29,500 crocodiles.

However, PETA is completely opposed to trading in animal parts, even if it is legal here.

“PETA is against any kind of poaching. Even if they have permits PETA will always be against poaching,” Fruno said.

Darori said his office made sure animals were not tortured during the killings.

“So, when a snake’s head is cut off, it is not tortured,” he said. Laymen would torture snakes they encounter, out of fear, compared to professional hunters.

“Because the skin is what hunters are after, they do it swiftly so the skin is not damaged. Commoners would batter a snake with a stick if they found one,” he said.

Unlike PETA, which is opposed to animal killings, Darori said Indonesia’s local fashion industry should use animal parts and develop its own brands.

“We can make them as good as international brands. It’s just that our brands are not as big as international labels,” he said.

Fashion commentator Sony Muchlison said a lot of imitation fashion items with real crocodile skin could be found in Indonesia. At several of Jakarta’s markets, for example, one could find fake Gucci, Dior and LV handbags easily.

Indonesian handbag manufacturers also sometimes use real crocodile skin in their products, he said.

“Some people think wearing exotic rare leather is unique, and the more exotic and rare, the higher the appeal,” Sony said.

That is why PETA is aiming to change customers’ perceptions. Ashley said they aim to stop consumers from buying products that use animal parts. Once demand is no longer there, producers will no longer use them, she said.

Hanifa Ambadar said only a few individual fashion lovers in Indonesia thought about issues of animal rights.

“There are some concerned individuals. They spread the information on Twitter. They followed the protest,” she said.

However, in general people are not aware of the problem yet, she said.

PETA’s recent campaign did make some people start to talk about it, Hanifa said.

“Recently, in the Fashionese daily forum we had a discussion on the use of animal skins,” she said.

The term “ethical fashion”, Hanifa said, has entered the vocabulary of the local fashion industry.

People admire the British vegan designer Stella McCartney who refuses to use animal parts in her designs, she said. And people are also starting to realize that using organic cotton is better for the environment, she said.

Fruno said PETA had exposed video footage to allow consumers to be more critical in their purchases and to learn that animals suffered to fulfill humans’ fashion desires.

In the end it’s a matter of personal choice. Is a bag worth a snake’s head?


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