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Jan 2005
Local alligator leather products make it all the way to Italy

by Patricia C. Ress, Staff Reporter

   Imagine for a moment that you are riding down the romantic canals of Venice, Italy in the back of a gondola. But you and the other American tourists are screaming as your gondolier is bravely fighting the canal gators with his wooden paddle! Now you can wake up from this nightmare! It’s something you’ll never see. But there’s a lesson here somewhere.

   Italy has no domestic supply of alligator skin. Yet Italian shoe and purse makers have come to depend on the southern U.S. via French tanners and traders, who are the world’s main processors. And all of that can add up to big bucks for those of us in Acadiana, the gator hide ‘mecca’ in all of this! Alligator skin, a major star in the Italian leather goods industry, accounts for 60% of Italy’s total raw reptile hide imports, and half of its total value of tanned reptile hides.

   “When you’re talking alligator, you’re talking about an American product,” said Frank Millican, director of agro-business for the Louisiana State Department of Agriculture. “About 90 percent of the alligators come from Louisiana, the rest are from Florida and other southern states.” In most places that is known as ‘cornering the market’ and from the looks of things, Acadiana and Louisiana have done just that.

   Many of those tanned hides come from France, or more specifically, from crocodile tanneries in Normandy and near Paris. For example, Tannery de Cuirs Indochine et de Madagascar (TCIM) was founded in 1920 in Beaumont, France. It’s U.S. subsidiary is Roggwiller Tannery of Louisiana, which is located in Lafayette.

   “We receive alligator from Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, and even some from South Carolina,” said RTL’s CEO Bernard DeReynies. Since coming to Louisiana in 1994, RTL has purchased one-fourth of all the hides produced in Louisiana.

   A huge 20,000 tons of processed hides were sent from the company to Europe in just its first year of operation! “A lot of the skins we tan (the process is actually called crusting) are sent to TCIM in France for dying and other treatments,” said De Reynies.

   Although a third of the production is for the domestic market and the company is trying to get U.S. consumers to think alligator, building that consumer base may take time.

   The European market is a feminine market with $200 handbags and $75 high-heeled shoes while the U.S. market is a masculine market dominated by wallets and cowboy boots. Prices for small items like wallets are generally lower, and, to a degree, so is the consumer awareness. France imports about 70 percent of its raw hides from the U.S. and ships 63,000 tons of hides to Italy after tanning. The rest of the raw U.S. hides are shipped to Singapore, Taiwan, etc.

   The Asian economic crisis trimmed Japanese imports of Italian leather goods, especially for luxury products such as alligator. However the Chinese market has recently become more attractive as customer purchasing power expands. And there is another problem. Some potential customers in the U.S. mistakenly regard alligators and crocodiles as endangered animals and thus refrain from buying their products. However U.S. alligators were removed from the endangered list in 1974 so this argument is no longer a valid one.

   Both U.S. farmers and their French partners must also worry about the vagaries of style. The top fashion houses in Milan set the trends that can affect demand for skin immensely. But while demand fluctuates, overall it has remained steady.

   Linda Grene is the owner and CEO of Louisiana Alligator Leather Company in Baton Rouge. She is a ‘wholesaler’who has been in this business since 1997 and has seen many changes.

   “A year ago this past September, I started seeing prices going back to the highs of the early 1980s,” Grene said. “But they are coming down a bit now. Alligator is the ‘diamond’ of all skins and has gotten out of sight price-wise.”

   Because of this Grene has added ‘faux crocodile’to her product lines to make them more affordable for everyday people. Faux crocodile is printed leather by pressing alligator into cow hide and is much cheaper leather.

   Grene now has recently started a pet line. She began to start seriously considering it after a trip to a local pet store to buy a collar for her Hemingway (six-toed) cat. “I found a collar for $24.95 and it dawned on me that I couldn’t make a collar for that.” But when some of her business associates later presented her alligator products to more up-scale pet stores, some of them became indignant. “I think they were still thinking that the gators were on the endangered list,” she thought.

   Another problem/hurdle Grene faced was whether or not to let her products be manufactured in China. After seeing the pet store products at such cheap prices, she began to wonder about the quality of the products.

   “I decided to be U.S.A. MADE. It would be cheaper to have them manufactured in China, but there is a language barrier, I wasn’t sure of the quality of the work, and wasn’t sure that they used the top #1 grade quality I would use,” she finally concluded. Today her manufacturer is one that also manufactures products for many hi-end retail outlets.

   And she has also retained a wide range in color choice. There are 18 to choose from in her pet and belt lines and in many of the other things she produces as well. She has Teju and Ostrich belts, collars and leashes (matching if desired), alligator wallets, belts, and specialty items. If you would like to see products she has available, go to www.louisianaleather.com or phone 225-928-3569.


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