Serpentine allure

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.

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