Exotic Skins

Photographer Arnaud Pyvka Explores the Rarefied Hides Favored by Luxury Fashion Houses

Brightly colored alligator and crocodile hides supplied by Singapore’s renowned tannery Heng Long International conceal the bare flesh of model Lidi Kochetkova in Arnaud Pyvka’s provocative shoot. A well-kept secret among chic tastemakers, the family-run Heng Long treats the production and preparation of animal skins as an artisanal craft, supplying perfectly treated hides to the likes of Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Prada. “It’s a dying skill as there are fewer and fewer artisans who are able to do it without using lacquer,” observes CT Koh, who runs the 175-strong tannery. Founded after the Second World War by CT’s grandfather—who learned the art while sailing between continents as a trader—Heng Long use a special Bombé finish on their skins, as well as transparent Analine dyes which don’t obscure the grain and natural detail. In between studies at Central Saint Martins and the London College of Fashion, CT’s youngest son Ethan recently branched out with his own bespoke accessories line Ethan K, making bags and clutches from the family’s sought-after skins. Here father and son discuss scales, conservation and the best way to make a bag last.

How do you tell a crocodile from an alligator?
Ethan Koh: Crocodiles are sourced from African countries, South East Asia, Australia and Papua New Guinea. Their scales are squarer and rounder so you can see the contrast.
CT Koh: Our alligators are American, from the Mississippi river. You can tell they have bigger scales; they’ve got a longer body than a crocodile.

Which hides would you recommend designers use?

EK: There’s a misconception that big scales or small scales are best but it’s down to what you’re producing. Rarer Australian salt-water crocodiles have smaller scales on their side so they look more aesthetically pleasing when you design a small clutch bag. Java lizards, a species farmed wild in Indonesia, have a beautiful natural dual tone, which you’ll often find used for watches.
CT K: A large good quality handbag also requires at least two to three pieces, especially when we take care to use the center cut of the skins as the center of the bag, so a good piece of hide is functional as well as beautiful.  

Where does work begin on a crocodile skin?
EK: Today the process begins with conservation.
CT K: During the 1970s trade increased but crocodiles were being exploited; so scientists and animal lovers joined in a group called the Crocodile Advisory Group, a special network that shared knowledge on sustainable farming. It means many species are no longer endangered.

What’s the trick to making a bag last?

EK: Two months ago I was at the Olympia Arts & Antiques Fair and I saw a couple of beautiful jewelry boxes from Asprey made in the 1890s to 1910s.  If they hadn’t been tanned well, they wouldn’t have lasted until today. Sometimes with crocodile bags, after a certain point, the skin actually looks even more beautiful. It depends how the user takes care. But the best trick? Don’t use your bag as an umbrella.

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Conversations (3)

  • daasper
    Boo. We no longer need to kill animals for clothing. Time to establish a new family business.
    • Posted By daasper
    • August 28, 2012 at 11:12AM
    • Share Comment:
  • janjamm
    Though every crocodile has some degree of international and domestic protection in the places where they live, still about a quarter of the world’s 23 crocodile species is either threatened or virtually extinct in the wild. We as humans can help once we decide not to eat crocodile meat and not to buy crocodile leather products, especially those cruelly "farmed" in caged conditions. This kind of "fashion" is unnecessary and thoughtless.
    • Posted By janjamm
    • August 28, 2012 at 10:36AM
    • Share Comment:
  • tintoy
    Beautiful photographs, sickening trade . . .
    • Posted By tintoy
    • August 28, 2012 at 5:30AM
    • Share Comment:

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