Activists who for years have thrown paint on celebrities’ fur coats and protested next to the catwalks are setting their sights on skins made from crocodile, alligator, snake and ostrich. The pressure has contributed to a scramble by luxury brands to impose animal-welfare standards on their exotic-skin suppliers.
A few fashion houses are funding tech companies working to grow leather in laboratories. And companies that once viewed animal-rights groups as a nuisance are now consulting with them about their policies to limit cruel treatment.
French fashion house Hermès International SA in 2015 got a taste of the damage that allegations of animal mistreatment can inflict on a brand. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released undercover video it shot at crocodile farms in Texas and Zimbabwe supplying the brand that showed crocodiles lying in piles in concrete pits and being slaughtered without first being stunned. The video prompted British singer and actress Jane Birkin to ask Hermès to remove her name from its iconic crocodile-skin purse.
Ms. Birkin reversed her position a few weeks later after talks with Hermès. Nonetheless, since the incident French imports of reptile skins are down more than 30%, customs data show.
According to PETA, Hermès has recently held discreet talks with the animal-rights group about its use of exotic animal hides. Hermès declined to comment.
The industry shift is driven in part by younger consumers, who have become core clients for the industry.
“This is a generational issue. These are companies that wouldn’t even meet with us a decade ago,” said Dan Mathews, senior vice president at PETA. “They realize consumers have an emotional attachment to brands based on how a company acts.”
More than two-thirds of consumers younger than 35 would be willing to pay more for sustainably made products, according to a 2017 survey from Bain & Co.
“We see a strong shift in consumer sentiment,” said Claudia D’Arpizio, a partner at Bain focusing on the luxury industry. “You can care about the planet, care about human rights, but animal welfare stands out as key topic for consumers.”
Taste is also playing a role. Sneakers and T-shirts, a look far removed from the gaudy aesthetic of a crocodile-skin bag, are among the luxury industry’s fastest-growing product categories.
At Prada, exotic skins are going out of style. The Italian fashion house is focusing its marketing efforts on a line of handbags made of nylon.
“Nylon embodies a founding principle of Miuccia Prada’s modernist design language,” Prada Chairman Carlo Mazzi told the Journal. “It’s our recent preferred form of expression.”
After being confronted by PETA protesters at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in April, Mr. Mazzi pledged that the company would no longer promote its exotic-skin products.
Hugo Boss has released a shoe made of pineapple fibers. And Vicki von Holzhausen, a former auto-industry designer, has created a line of handbags that uses a high-tech textile derived from fabric used in the interiors of luxury cars.
London fashion house Stella McCartney, which doesn’t use leather and fur, has seen sales grow strongly in recent years. The privately held label doesn’t disclose overall results, but said annual revenue at its U.K. affiliate doubled between 2011 and 2016, hitting £42 million ($56 million) in 2016.
Exotic-leather goods fetch some of the highest prices in fashion and help luxury brands cater to their wealthiest clientele. Hermès’s Birkin bags sell for tens of thousands of dollars when made with crocodile skins; some resell for multiples of that at luxury auctions.
PETA has kept up the pressure on Hermès, buying a single share of the company to be able to organize protests at the company’s annual shareholder meetings in 2016 and 2017.
Hermès executives met twice this year with PETA activists pushing the company to stop using exotic skins, said PETA’s Mr. Mathews, who attended the meetings.
PETA called off a protest at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in June to allow talks to continue, he said.
Mr. Mathews declined to elaborate on specific discussions, but said that when PETA meets with fashion brands, it suggests alternatives to products made from animals.
Longer term, luxury labels are even seeking alternatives to leather made from cows. Gucci and its corporate parent Kering SA are backing companies developing techniques to grow leather from animal-cell cultures. Gucci Chief Executive Marco Bizzarri said the lab-produced leather isn’t yet usable. “But considering the speed of technology, it could happen.”
Modern Meadow, a New Jersey-based company is planning to release a lab-grown, leather-like textile with a luxury label in the coming year. Earlier this year, the company signed an agreement with Evonik , a chemical company with expertise in microbial fermentation, to produce its “biofabricated” textile on commercial scales. Such lab-grown textiles differ from existing leather alternatives such as Naugahyde because they are made with living cells.
“We have received inquiries for partnerships from just about every major, and not so major, brand you can imagine,” said Suzanne Lee, Modern Meadow’s chief creative officer.
Write to Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com
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