As anyone who has watched one episode of Sex and the City would know, the Birkin bag is the ultimate status symbol. The Hermès signature is usually associated with a hefty price tag and a years-long waiting list, but this week, it became associated something much more serious. “Having been alerted to the cruel practices endured by crocodiles during their slaughter for the production of Hermès bags carrying my name, I have asked the Hermès Group to rename the Birkin until better practices responding to international norms can be implemented for the production of this bag,” said Jane Birkin in a statement that made headlines worldwide. Birkin requested that the bag be “debaptized” until better practices are put in place.
In response, Hermes released this statement: “Jane Birkin has expressed her concerns regarding practices for slaughtering crocodiles. Her comments do not in any way influence the friendship and confidence that we have shared for many years,” said a statement from the brand. “Hermès respects and shares her emotions and was also shocked by the images recently broadcast.”
Alongside the Birkin debacle, our newsfeeds have also been populated by the tragic death of Cecil the Lion–one of Zimbabwe’s most beloved lions residing in Hwange National Park was shot for sport by a big game hunter. The hunter, a Minnesota dentist named Walter Palmer, has now closed his dental practice after pressure from protestors and is now facing poaching charges.
Lesli Bisgould, a Toronto-based lawyer with a special interest in animal rights, compares the current fervent interest in animal welfare to the “overnight success” of a band that’s actually been toiling away in dive bars for 30 years. “It takes a long time before finally there’s enough there that the public consciousness just can’t turn away anymore.”
In order for things to change, people need to look at the labels on their clothes as carefully as they do the labels on their food. “Thirty years ago we used to be able to say, ‘Gee I didn’t know where my leather boots came from,’” says Bisgould. “Even if it was true back then, it certainly is not true now. There’s no shortage of information. People are starting to realize that hurting animals is more of a luxury and a choice than a necessity.”
Ultimately, the fashion industry is a really good place for positive change to occur because it thrives on constant innovation. “Humans have a tremendously creative quality, and we’re constantly reinventing,” she says.
With fresh styles and products released every day, the industry would hardly grind to a halt if they stopped manufacturing animal products. “Nobody’s going out of business,” says Bisgould. “At the end of the day the real power lies in the hands of the consumer, because these products are only made and sold because we buy them. If we stop buying them, they’ll just produce something else.”
Some luxury brands have even managed to thrive while refusing to use animal products. Vivienne Westwood renounced the use of fur in 2007, after learning that sometimes animals chew off their own limbs in order to escape from cruel steel traps. Afterwards, she donated the remaining fur items in her line to be used as bedding for orphaned animals. Then there’s Stella McCartney, the lifelong vegetarian who has not used leather, fur or skins for her namesake label since the brand’s origin in 2001. McCartney has even been at the forefront of developing high quality, PVC-free alternatives to leather and refuses to even use glue made with animal products. McCartney admits that designing without leather is “hard,” but it seems she’s managed pretty well these past 14 years.
Let’s hope that more designers are willing to follow their lead and Birkin-gate serves as a wake-up call that we can no longer ignore where our fashion comes from.