Handbags: A Solution to Florida's Python Problem?

By

When imagining Florida’s growing population of invasive pythons, most people picture a scene from AnacondaTremors, or another cheesy snake horror film.

Camille Zarsky, though, thinks of handbags.

Six months ago, the 28-year-old New York City designer began contacting Florida-area hunters to see if any of their catches could be used in her collection of exotic-skin purses. She had heard that the snakes, first introduced to the Everglades in the nineties by pet owners who grew tired of (or lazy about) caring for their animals, were running rampant in the national park and its surrounding areas, laying hundreds of eggs and snacking on the occasional alligator or cat.

Bizarre as it sounds, the problem is quite urgent. In January, the Florida Wildlife Commission invited 1,500 hunters, most of them amateurs, to embark on a “Python Challenge,” offering cash prizes for the biggest catches. (Professionals with permits can hunt the snakes year-round.) No one actually knows how many pythons are living and breeding in the wild, according to Commission spokeswoman Carli Segelson, though estimates range from 10,000 to over 100,000. Either way, that’s enough to make a scene from Indiana Jones look like a trip to the zoo.

Designers like Zarsky see both an opportunity for fashion accessories and a way to help fix Florida’s python problem. She plans to order a sample of uncolored or “natural” Florida python for her line of bags, which are made exclusively of the material and range from $500 to $2,000. And she’s not sharing her hunter’s name, because she’s worried other designers will poach him. “I feel good about it knowing that pythons are a problem in Florida,” Zarsky told the Cut. “You’re not taking an animal out of its own habitat. It’s actually a solution to an environmental problem.”

The Wildlife Commission is also considering reaching out to big European luxury houses to discuss ways to monetize the snake problem, according to Don Ashley, a Florida-based consultant and a former inspector for the organization. But though that’s a possibility, it’s at least a few years out. For one, the animals are difficult to catch in the murky swamps of the Everglades. January’s python challenge only yielded 68 snakes. But that hasn’t stopped opportunists from trying to get ahead of the game. Brian Wood, a wholesale vendor of a different Florida skin — alligator — to brands like Hermès, Prada, and Salvatore Ferragamo, began manufacturing private-label wallets and bags out of Florida pythons three years ago. Sales have been "great" so far, he said. And Wood, who was recently approached by the Discovery Channel about a reality show, believes that the industry is only in its infancy. 

In fact, python is having a fashion moment in general: Gucci used the skin in many of the garments it sent down the runway this February, including a turtleneck. Jason Wu, Reed Krakoff, and Proenza Schouler have also tried their hands at the material. Python is particularly popular among the nouveau riche emerging markets in Russia and Asia, according to Abram Mendal of Pan Am Leathers, a tannery which supplies alligator to Gucci and Hermès. And who could forget Beyoncé’s python-and-iguana bodysuit at the Super Bowl?

"I wish I sold python. I'd probably be driving a new car right now," said Henry Slaughter, a Florida-based alligator tanner.

Currently, all of the 350,000 pythons used by the luxury industry on average per year are sourced in Asia, where the snakes are native. Yet despite the snakes’ ubiquity in the waters there, using them for accessories doesn’t escape criticism: Scientists don’t actually know how many pythons currently live in the forests of Malaysia and Indonesia or whether “harvesting” them (the preferred industry term) is sustainable, according to Ashley, the consultant, who is working on a study of the topic. It’s a problem European luxury houses like Gucci are working to address, and that animal-rights groups have also targeted.

Back in Florida, Colleen O’Brien, communications director of PETA, said that her organization supports finding humane ways to remove invasive species that inflict minimal pain on the animals. Though, she added, the organization does not condone developing a leather industry or hosting bounty hunts like the one in January. It’s hard to argue on behalf of an animal whose presence has historically inspired so much fear in humans. Tales of destruction by python loom as tall as a basilisk in South Florida, including one infamous story of a family who forgot to feed its eight-foot-long pet snake in 2009. The animal escaped and strangled their 2-year-old daughter.

Ashley Hensarling, a real-estate publicist in Jupiter, Florida, who owns around 25 designer bags, many of them Camille Zarsky pythons, says she feels little empathy with the creatures. “I don’t see why people would want them as pets,” she added. “If I see a big snake near me, I want it dead.” 

Other fancy shoppers in Miami and Palm Beach, spurred by their own fear of pythons, have also approached designers about using their local snakes instead of Asian ones. Anthony Luciano, a New York–based designer of exotic-skin bags adorned with tassels, jewels, and flowers, which sell between $1,000 and $5,000, began considering the possibility of using Florida pythons after shoppers at his Neiman Marcus trunk shows in Bal Harbour repeatedly requested it.

Jennifer Shapiro, a mom of two in Boynton Beach, Florida, says she even convinced some of her friends to change their minds about her blue-and-gold Anthony Luciano python bag. “I have a few friends that are like ‘Really? You bought an actual python?’ And I say, ‘I’m helping the Everglades.’” Shapiro's story makes people feel better, she said, even though it’s not quite true, since Luciano’s python skins still currently come from Asia. 

Zarsky says she wants to incorporate the Florida snakes into her line precisely to attract people like her mom, who want to help fix an environmental problem but might otherwise be turned off by the idea of wearing a dead snake. “As a new designer it could really make my brand stand out,” she said. “I was thinking of doing a whole marketing campaign surrounding the fact that the bags will be from Florida.”

BEGIN SLIDESHOW