In the thick of New York Fashion Week, models strut down the runway clothed in exotic leathers and snakeskins.
But some of the most high-end designs never make it to the runway.
Look carefully at a picture of Naomi Campbell in a feather creation from Alexander McQueen’s 2010 collection. Very few of these $14,000 gowns exist.
But the News4 I-Team found one -- inside a government warehouse.
The U.S. has some of the strictest wildlife protection laws in the world. So while Campbell wore that dress to McQueen's memorial service in London in 2010, the US Fish and Wildlife Service said it was seized when the company tried to import it into the United States.
“Our biggest thing is to make sure endangered species don’t end up on the shelves at the stores in America,” said Naimah Aziz, who is in charge of a team of USFW inspectors who see what’s headed to the runway long before anyone else.
They work at the Port of New York, sorting through more than 30,000 shipments a year to make sure the python on a $5,000 trench coat, for example, came from a sustainable source. (That coat passed inspection.)
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When inspectors find a problem, the fashions are added to their growing collection of seizures.
Aziz showed a briefcase made of saltwater crocodile, a boa constrictor wallet, a clutch made of rock python. There was a monitor lizard handbag. And another wallet, made from iguana.
And there was the smallest item of all, a tan leather billfold made from the skin of an endangered sea turtle. “This billfold is the most protected species on the table,” Aziz said.
The News 4 I-Team asked to watch this inspection process after uncovering a troubling trend the fashion magazines never tell you about: high-end fashion makes up a large portion of seizures at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's warehouse of confiscated animal products.
Nestled between the polar bear and the tiger heads was a $2,000 Gucci purse made of reticulated python.
As for that Alexander McQueen gown, it was illegal to import because it's trimmed in caiman, a cousin to the crocodile.
Both brands, as well as Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta are all owned by the luxury conglomerate Kering, which boasts on its website that it’s one of the “greenest companies” in the world with "100% of its skins and furs from sustainable sources."
But the News 4 I-Team found the government has intercepted almost 900 Kering items in the last five years for using protected species including fox, alligator, crocodile and python.
Based in Paris, Kering told News4 in a statement it’s “fully committed to legal and sustainable trade” and “none of the species” taken by the U.S. government “are at particular risk of extinction” and that the seizures were “most probably a reflection of [paperwork] mistakes.”
But Aziz said, “Just because it’s on a shelf doesn’t mean that this species doesn’t need to be monitored.”
Aziz explained under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, it is illegal to use endangered animals like sea turtles or elephants in any kind of commercial trade.
But CITES does allow use of some protected animals, including certain types of alligator, caiman, crocodile and many types of snake -- if the user has the proper permits showing the animal was either farmed or legally trapped in the wild.
So, paperwork mistakes can become critical.
As an example, Aziz showed a $3,500 clutch she was inspecting. Bedecked in rhinestones, it’s advertised online as “authentic crocodile.” But the permit says it’s American alligator, which is protected under CITES.The discrepancy is a problem, so it’s up to the inspectors to make sure the leather really is alligator and it wasn’t illegally poached.
“All of the integrity of the wildlife is lost if there is no paper trail that tracks it back to the origin," Aziz said.
Many of the companies told us they don't want to make these kinds of mistakes because it costs them money.
The News4 I-Team found that LVMH, the largest fashion conglomerate in the world, lost half a million dollars when the U.S. government intercepted more than 2,700 of its items in the last five years. That’s more than any other luxury company.
LVMH is the parent company to more than 20 fashion brands, including Louis Vuitton, Dior, Bulgari, Givenchy, Fendi, Marc Jacobs and De Beers Diamonds. Those brands are all on the government's list for seizures.
LVMH told News4 nearly all of the seizures “are related to paperwork and labeling processes or procedures. That said, the LVMH Group takes these matters very seriously and our brands are committed to insuring they meet all requirements” and will “further improve traceability of leather and exotic skin products and to preserve the animal species use by our brands.”
"There's an incredible power on the runway here,” Simon Collins, dean of fashion at Parsons The New School for Design, said. “There's a certain perceived elitism in some fur products and animal skin products and I certainly observed that when I arrived at Parson's six years ago. There was an element of the student body in order to make it more luxurious they should add in some fur. Sadly, I still see that in the runways."
He said some designers, like Stella McCartney, will only use synthetic materials and he believes it doesn't have to be exotic to be luxurious.
"Absolutely not. It doesn't even need to be expensive to be luxurious," he said.
Collins explained his students can choose to use exotic skins in their designs, but only after they are taught to think carefully about what happens when you put pressure on an already threatened species.
"That creates a trend, which people around the world then follow," he said. "And they don't care so much about" sustainability.
“That's something we neither control nor regulate but we are in some way responsible for and I think it's incumbent on the designers to be aware of that," he said.