Serpentine allure

Just three years ago, a full-python purse was the last word in glamour and one which would induce sticker shock in mainstream consumers.

As the highly sought-after snakeskin continues to embellish top-tier designs from luxury brands - Chloe with its compact Drew mini-bags for next season and Fendi's Baguette in python - the non-venomous snake is increasingly preyed upon by smaller fashion brands.

Most notably, indie Asian labels with easy access to the breeds native to the region.

According to luxury group Kering's conservation and ecosystems specialist Helen Crowley, sales of python products in Asia have risen by 25 per cent in the last 10 years.

Now, about 500,000 skins are exported from South-east Asia - leading to a boom in homegrown labels specialising in such bags.

"Python is such an interesting and unique material and there are so many different ways that designers can work with it," says Goh Ling Ling, who started bag brand Ling Wu in 1999.

"You can use the natural colours, hand colour it or you can re-colour it. The natural markings and textures are incredible in themselves even before they're turned into a bag or accessory."

The majority of her designs go for under S$1,000, currently available at the Keepers pop-up store at 230 Orchard Road and Tangs - and she leads the trend of affordable exotic-skin bags that appeal to shoppers of every budget.

There are at least six such labels in Singapore, including House of Sheens. Founded by Shireena Shroff Manchharam, who is also an executive coach and image consultant, the idea to create purse-friendly bags came about in 2012 after making regular trips to Bali, Indonesia and picking out python accessories for herself.

"When I first started out, snakeskin bags were not so readily available, but now you can get a clutch with no label or brand for S$60 to S$70 from someone who buys it from the streets of Bali," says Ms Manchharam, who recently held a fashion competition with the students of Management Development Institute of Singapore to design a bag.

"Consumers now think that anyone can get python, so why are you different? You have to come up with designs that are unique, which is why we mix materials like python with calfskin, adding studs, experimenting with stones or even peacock feathers."

The python trade is said to be worth US$1 billion a year, according to a 2012 International Trade Centre report.

But when anyone with the means to buy a plane ticket to Indonesia or who simply Googles a manufacturer for "private label python accessories" could potentially start a python fashion business - are the reptiles then in danger of being over-hunted to feed this frenzy for skins?

Earlier this year, the Python Conservation Partnership, a collaboration between Kering, the International Trade Centre (ITC) and the

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN SSC Boa & Python Specialist Group) was launched with the aim of improving the sustainability of the python trade and helping to facilitate industry-wide change.

Kering is the parent company of brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen.

Striking a balance

The research programme over the next three years will focus on sustainability, transparency, animal welfare and local livelihoods for the python trade.

The data and findings will contribute to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) process, which supports a framework for countries to manage their trade in endangered species.

Although independent makers of python purses may not have the resources to conduct their own sustainability programmes, all homegrown labels use skins that are CITES-certified.

"Sustainability is important to us and these papers ensure the particular species of snake never gets endangered as the quantity of snakeskin allowed for sale is tightly controlled," explains Mia Gigandet, founder of three-year-old python shoes and bag brand Emblem, which is sold at Tangs.

"There are many conservation and socio-economic factors at play when it comes to sourcing exotic skins," explains Ms Goh, who uses CITES-certified skins of reticulated pythons, which are not endangered.

"Python farms provide income for families and wild harvesting provides a livelihood for more rural communities."

While python farms will help keep up with demand for the precious skins and protect the python population, a balance needs to be struck between maintaining the jobs of local traders and preserving the wild pythons in their natural habitats.

Likewise, Ms Manchharam's business model is emblematic of the term "cottage industry". The workshop where her bags are created is found in a hut filled with mounds of colourful CITES-certified skins, located in a village in Bali.

"We don't have piles of stock and it's not fast fashion - it takes two to three weeks for a custom piece to be made by hand and to be delivered," says the businesswoman who will be opening her first showroom on Amoy Street early next year.

Her most expensive design, a top-handle Tous Tote with calfskin accents, goes for S$550. Currently, her brand is available through online stores such as Gnossem.com and her website, sheens.com.sg.

Most of the materials employed by Ms Goh also originate from Indonesia where the skins are mainly wild-harvested.

According to the designer, although farming pythons for skins in Indonesia may be feasible, the Indonesian Reptile and Amphibian Trade Association (IRATA) found it not economically viable as the wild python population is very healthy in numbers.

"There's a difference between 'ethical' and 'sustainable'," Ms Goh elaborates.

"There have been cases in Vietnam where some farmers have been using extremely cruel ways to kill the pythons just to preserve the skin. This doesn't happen so much in Indonesia where more humane practices are used."

Unfortunately, the designer adds that it is harder to determine how skins are procured because current regulations focus more on sustainability.

The import of snakeskin products is, however, controlled, adds Ms Manchharam, as licences are required to sell python products in certain markets.

For example, a decades-old state law bans the sale of products made from python in California, and the application process for the export of skins can also be very costly.

And although the more affordable accessories may lack the impeccable finishing and more coveted details that can be found in a designer piece - such as large panels of skin or the use of the softer belly skin, which features wider scales, they make up for it with creativity.

Emblem, started by Ms Gigandet in 2011, initially focused on comfortable shoes that feature extra cushioning for comfort and quality materials to prevent blisters.

Highly accessible

Her signature ballet flats come in bright metallic finishes, adorned with bows or tassels; while bags range from contrast panel clutches to functional satchels.

"Emblem focuses on being a brand where comfort and design are on a par with each other," says the French-Chinese designer. "Emblem will never produce a product with a beautiful design that is unwearable."

While their prices are kept highly accessible, these homegrown designers with a penchant for python are confident of maintaining their products' widespread appeal and availability.

Ms Goh says that with improvements in the regulation of the exotic skin trade and farming, a constant supply of skins will ensure that prices remain stable.

Ms Goh has two full-time staff members and barters her bags in return for the services of an independent public relations agency.

"As my business grows, I will be having more contact with the manufacturers further up the supply chain. This will help when negotiating costs, but it will also give me the opportunity to see with my own eyes the entire process, and hopefully have a positive impact on any areas I feel need improving."

This article was first published on Dec 27, 2014. Get The Business Times for more stories.