Choices go from neon embossed leathers that mimic python and ostrich to rare and very expensive tree frog skin. It's mostly accessories, but there are a lot of skin-inspired printed fabrics out there, too.
People are drawn to the look because it's "discreet luxury," says Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. She sees consumers pulling back from ostentatious embellishment in favour of pieces with a longer life, and that goes for the wealthy, too.
"If we're talking about the real thing, they're investment pieces. You buy them for quality and longevity — a croc, alligator or ostrich shoe or bag — you'll truly have it forever, and you'll be able to pass it down to your children, nieces and nephews. Even the rich are thoughtful about how they spend their money," Sherin says.
And for those who cannot afford the real thing, the mimicking leathers and quite sexy prints are good stand-ins, she says.
"It's a trend because it's available to everyone," she says.
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In its May issue, Harper's Bazaar features Penelope Cruz in a croc-embroidered gown and croc sandals by Givenchy; Salvatore Ferragamo's emerald croc beauty case; croc boots from Calvin Klein; and a Reed Krakoff croc luggage piece.
Yes, exotic skins and their less expensive cousins are widely available, agrees Jana Matheson, creative director of Judith Leiber, but it's still an "insider" look, which, of course, seems to make it all the more desirable.
The leather bags at Leiber run $195-$795, while genuine skins can cost several thousands of dollars.
"Exotics are a secret luxury. It's an insider club," she says. "If you understand skins and know what you're buying, you don't have to show off. If you have a brown, beaten-up piece of luggage that happens to be croc, an innocent bystander wouldn't know it, but you would — and your friends might."
Some of the most exotic exotics she's worked with include tegus lizards, stingrays, tree snakes and frogs, which, she explains, are so small they're used for small pieces and even then they need to be pieced together. "They are pretty inconvenient," she says.
Matheson says there isn't a single customer for the look because there is so much variety: suitcases, evening bags, belts and shoes. You can have any colour of the rainbow, turn them metallic, paint them or bleach them so there are no natural markings, just the texture.
So far the only thing she hasn't figured out how to do is get crystals to adhere to the bumpy surface.
California-based designer Heather Belle made it a mission to craft leather versions of exotic skins not because she was taking an environmental position, she says, but because the faux versions look as good as the real thing — for a much lower cost.
(Also, she notes, python-skin products, for example, are banned in California.)
She's also working with a plastic that's almost like a galvanized rubber. "My background as artist and painter has allowed us to develop a handcrafted replica without destroying or killing animals. I'm not maligning those who do, but we have a choice and that choice is of the highest quality and standards at a better price," Belle says.
She adds, "I love this process. ... I'm playing with recreating elephant skin right now, but it's hard getting the painting process down to create something really luxurious and beautiful."
Skins and skinlike leathers take colour so well, allowing people to participate in the season's other big trends: big, bold, bright and neon hues.
The trend in handbags has been clean, simple silhouettes, but now there's a bit of a backlash, says Shelby Kruzhkov, director of merchandising for handbags and small leather goods for retailer Henri Bendel. "I think we're eventually going toward embellishment again, but now, in the interim, interesting materials have become the most important thing."
Bendel's uses mostly lookalike leathers because they mimic the real thing so well while keeping down costs. The embossed versions of ostrich and stingray look "very luxe and classy" and instantly elevate an otherwise simple outfit, Kruzhkov says, while snake, croc and lizard skins can easily be incorporated into a 24-hour wardrobe, from day to night. The wearer can treat them as a seasonless "basic," even though they are eye-catching and fashion-forward, she says.
Clutch handbags are probably the most popular "exotics" accessory, but a satchel, suitcase or tiny evening bag are popular, too.
Leiber's Matheson suggests a fold-over lunch-bag style, while Saks' Sherin says a belt is a good baby step into the look. Or, she adds, a silk blouse covered in a skin pattern can go under almost any jacket or blazer.
She says she likes seeing this creative evolution of a classic; it makes for "wise shopping" as a trend now and closet workhorse later. Her own brown crocodile suitcase — which belonged to her grandmother — still gets regular use.
Matheson gets good stories out of her exotic-skin pieces, too. People always ask questions and offer compliments.
"There's the fantasy of where you can go with these or where you've been," she says. "Skins just say 'adventure.'"