Teresa A. Summers, Bonnie D. Belleau, Terri Von Hoven, Kelly L. Nowlin and Yingjiao Xu
Alligators and fashion may bring different images to mind, but the combination offers potential for Louisiana’s economy. A research initiative to explore ways to increase domestic demand for finished products made with American alligator leather began in 1997. The goal is to find more opportunities for Louisiana’s alligator business.
The American alligator is indigenous to the South from the Carolinas to Texas, with the highest populations in Louisiana and Florida. Alligators have been hunted for their hides since the 1800s. From 1967 to 1987, the American alligator was listed as endangered. But that is no longer the case. They were brought back through programs that encouraged landowners to preserve alligator eggs and habitats in return for the right to harvest a percentage of the grown animals.
Alligator farming began in the late 1980s. About 100 alligator farms with more than 250,000 alligators operate in Louisiana and Florida. In 1999, alligators were produced on 64 farms in Louisiana and 24 in Florida. On farms about 90 percent of hatchlings reach 4 to 6 feet in length compared to only about 17 percent in the wild. Farmers are required by law to return a percentage of their alligators to the wild. Farmed skins are generally smaller but offer better quality than wild skins. This availability of alligator skins makes possible the expansion of markets for alligator leather goods.
The U.S. market for alligator leather has historically been limited to a fairly narrow range of products such as boots, belts and wallets targeted mainly to men. In contrast, in Europe alligator leather products are aimed primarily at women and include apparel and accessories such as handbags and shoes. Because of these differences, the European market is stronger and more fully developed. Most alligator skins, raw or tanned, are sold to manufacturers in Europe or Asia.
Producers in rural Louisiana are an important source of raw skins, and a limited number of U.S. tanneries now process alligator skins, including Roggwiller Tannery of Louisiana (RTL) in Lafayette. Expansion of the alligator industry is constrained, however, by lack of understanding of potential markets in the United States. Little research has focused on determining markets for products made with American alligator leather.
Targeting Designers, Manufacturers
To provide information to designers and manufacturers interested in using alligator leather, we measured the physical and performance characteristics of the leather critical to successful product design, production and use.
For many apparel products, alligator leather needs to drape, must be colorfast, must resist perspiration and water absorption and must not abrade during use. For home furnishings, abrasion resistance and tensile strength are important. For other types of home textiles, flammability is critical. For automotive upholstery, all parameters are important.
Tests were conducted on alligator skins based on projected product end-use and included stiffness, abrasion resistance, tear resistance, breaking strength and elongation, flammability, wrinkle recovery, crocking (transferring color when rubbed), drape, image analysis, durability and colorfastness to drycleaning.
The garment-finished belly skin was soft and supple. The matte-finished horn- back skin was stiff. The gloss-finished belly skin was uniform in thickness and fairly stiff. Image analysis of the skins revealed networks of fibers whose organization varied with different sections of the skin. For all samples, the flesh side appeared to be a series of layers of fibers formulating a network. A single fiber of the flesh side of the garment-finished skin indicated the fiber was made of smaller fibrils much like the fibers composing a yarn.
Further testing indicated the garment-finished skin had the best bending properties and would probably have better drape than the gloss- or matte-finished skins. Tensile properties, particularly for the garment finish, demonstrated that alligator skin has the strength to perform well in upholstery products, home furnishing products and accessories. Shearing and bending properties also hinted directly at drape, showing that the garment finish had less shearing rigidity than the gloss finish and would be appropriate for apparel applications. For the tear test, the gloss-finished sample performed the worst.
Results suggest alligator leather is appropriate for apparel with limited drape requirements; the garment- and matte-finished skins will drape better than the gloss-finished skins. Alligator leather will make fine home furnishing products as well as accessories, particularly the gloss-finished leather because of its ability to retain shape. Belts, trim, handbags and luggage are good applications of alligator leather for its strength and abrasion resistance properties. In addition, jewelry is another option for alligator leather.
To explore U.S. demand for alligator leather products, a survey was sent to 800 consumers located in key markets to determine their attitudes, perceptions, knowledge and intent to purchase exotic leather products. The sample was drawn from members of Fashion Group International, an organization of professionals in design, marketing, manufacturing, retailing, advertising, publishing, and those who provide research, financial and educational services to the fashion industry. The response rate was 50 percent.
Almost all respondents were female, Caucasian, at least 45 years old and held a bachelor’s degree or higher. Half were engaged in professional occupations, about one-third were self-employed and approximately one-fifth held management positions. Approximately three-fourths of respondents worked full time, while about one-sixth worked part time and a few were retired. Most earned more than $50,000 annually.
Respondents reported limited experience with exotic leather apparel and preferred classic/traditional styles over fashion-forward styles. Most respondents were unaware that the American alligator is no longer on the endangered species list, believed exotic leather requires special care and knew that exotic leather is a durable material. Half stated they would purchase exotic leather apparel because of its unique qualities, and almost all believed that wearing exotic leather is socially acceptable. In general, respondents indicated they preferred garments constructed entirely from exotic leather as opposed to its use as trim.
With input from designers, manufacturers and additional survey findings, product prototypes have been developed by the researchers. These items have received recognition in regional and national design competitions and have been shown at multiple trade shows.
The continuing focus of this project is to explore the factors that drive product adoption and market demand for finished goods made with American alligator leather. Physical property testing and survey data collection continue. The ultimate goal of the project is to provide information useful to the alligator industry to help expand market opportunities.
Findings reveal a potentially lucrative domestic market for women’s apparel and accessories made with alligator leather. Physical and performance characteristics of alligator leather indicate products traditionally made with leather as well as nontraditional products can be produced effectively to satisfy consumer demand. But consumers must be provided accurate information about the correct legal status of the American alligator as well as the uses and care of alligator leather in products. Education and promotion are vital to improving domestic marketing opportunities for American alligator leather products.
(This article appeared in the winter 2001 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)