Scaling the heights: exotic leathers

30 November 2017

New York-based Pan American Leathers has been championing responsibly farmed exotic leathers since the 1930s. CEO Abram Mendal explains the family-run company’s philosophy.

Leather International: Please can you give us a brief overview of the origins of Pan American Leathers (PAL)?

Abram Mendal: Jack Mendal emigrated from Eastern Europe to Colombia in the late 1930s. Through his first few contacts in that Cartagena community, he began selling local products to the US market.

Eventually, there were calls from his US contacts for crocodile leather from Colombia, so he began to work with specialised international technicians and chemical suppliers to develop the tanning formulations and procedures to service that need, meeting the highest international quality standards.

That business took off, and the Mendal family became an authority on crocodile and lizardskin tanning worldwide, with operations in Colombia and Argentina. Jack closed the business in 1983 while issues with conserving certain species were addressed.

Once the seeds for the modern conservation system were sown, Jack was approached by the state of Louisiana to start up again.

To help him with this, he looked to his son Mark, who had a US-based cowhide business at the time.

Mark soon became familiar with the business, and in order to better service PAL’s global customer base for exotic skins, he broadened its product line to include non-crocodile species such as python, and developed its national and international reach through made-to-order industrial production. Now I continue that tradition, adapting the business to include a stock programme component as manufacturing in the western world has fragmented.

As technology advances, pressure groups gain momentum and notoriety, and brand names – especially in automotive – start to eschew leather, what do you see as PAL’s role in providing a voice to the benefits of leather overall, in terms of efficient supply chains, clean production and a refined and sustainable product?

These reptile species are part of an extremely responsible and wellgoverned sustainable-use farming programmes worldwide that are effectively enforced at the international (CITES), national (national fish and wildlife departments) and state level (state fish and wildlife departments).

These programmes have brought many of these species from nearextinction – when these laws originally went into effect – to healthy populations, provided jobs in rural and industrial communities otherwise starved for work, and given locals in rural places reasons to protect their habitats.

The meat of these crocodiles is used for human consumption and even the carcasses are used for other products like pet treats.

Also, the high-end fashion houses that have taken very big positions in this business have also exerted a very positive influence in the way the animals are treated.

Of course, there have been some horrifying exceptions to what are otherwise responsible participants, but those players are truly a very marginal 1%, and are rooted out swiftly upon being discovered.

As for clean production, most of the experienced, established tanneries in exotic skins have sophisticated water treatment plants, ventilation systems and technology to mitigate these issues.

The US and European tanneries (the ones we are familiar with, at least) are strictly regulated by municipal water authorities and other state and federal environmental agencies and the resulting leather is subject to all kinds of tests imposed by law and by luxury brands that need to protect their customers.

What is the current consumer appetite in the US for exotic leathers compared with other markets, such as Europe and Asia, and how has it changed over the years?

Europe and Asia have always been much bigger markets than the US.

What are the main factors that influence demand in this particular segment of the leather industry?

Strangely, supply is one of the most significant factors. It is very limited in our business relative to demand. When supply allows, the luxury houses will put exotics in their lines and those trends will trickle down to smaller brands and across product categories.

How has PAL been able to weather regulations becoming more stringent towards exotics?

In this industry, regulations have been welcome, as they have been well planned and well implemented by CITES and the national wildlife agencies. The regulations have been effective at conserving species, protecting habitats, and keeping most bad players out.

What are the primary challenges you face in terms of maintaining transparency across the value chain, in the US and Colombia?

There can be a disconnect between the city-based consumers of exotic skins and the country-based suppliers. We are in the middle of the two, so we need to do a good job communicating and reconciling differences between the two.

We have found that as long as we proactively communicate customer expectations and supplier limitations, and support both sides where they need it, the industry progresses in step.

Synthetics and better results from inferior hides through high-tech tanning methods are creating less expensive products for the consumer, thereby encroaching on the genuine article. How is this affecting your margins and how are you able to respond to this challenge effectively?

The customer for genuine exotics isn’t the same as the customer for prints or whatever else. That’s not something we really worry about. The value and allure of 24-carat gold aren’t threatened by gold-plated brass.

Regulations have been welcome, as they have been well planned and well implemented by CITES and the national wildlife agencies. They have been effective at conserving species, protecting habitats, and keeping most bad players out.

Global hide prices have been struggling to recover since its peak a few years ago. How are exotics part of this struggle, and how are they entirely removed from it, as a unique entity within the vast leather industry?

Again, in this industry, supply is so limited relative to demand. Of course, we have up and down years, but exotic skin prices are quite stable relative to more traditional leathers.

What kind of competition do you face within the sphere of exotics?

The biggest issue is competing for raw material with the large fashion houses. They can take two alligator skins, make a bag from it and sell that bag for $50,000. That gives them a lot more flexibility in what they can afford to pay for the skins.

Can you explain the roles of the CSG network and CITES in ensuring a sustainable future for the sector in which you operate?

CSG has done a nice job studying our industry, and keeping the relevant constituents and governing bodies informed on issues and progress.

One of those governing bodies is CITES, which has been an incredibly successful private/public partnership operating on international, national, regional, state and municipal levels. Those organisations are fundamental to the long-term prospects of our industry and business and we will always be supportive however necessary.

Responsibly farmed crocodiles can provide a valuable source of meat for humans, as well as skins for the fashion and automotive industries; Abram Mendal says the interest in reptile hides has had a positive effect on crocodile welfare overall.
PAL acts as the bridge between city-based consumers and rural suppliers of exotic leathers.
The Mendal family is a global authority on crocodile and lizardskin tanning.
A crocodileskin handbag in a striking red finish.
Exotic skin prices are relatively stable at present.

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