Snapped Up

by Mary Tutwiler

Luxury brand Hermès purchases Lafayette's alligator hide tannery.

The largest alligator hide tannery in the United States, Roggwiller Tannery of Lafayette, has been swallowed by one of the premier luxury goods houses in the world. On July 12, Daniel Roggwiller and his son Phillipe, heirs to the French family leather business Indo-China and Madascar Tanneries, founded in 1928, sold their shares for an undisclosed sum to Paris-based Hermès International.

"This is a very, very good thing for Lafayette," says RTL CEO Bernard de Reynies, who will remain as director of the tannery. "Hermès is the leader in the luxury brands in the world, and they have invested in this company. That means they will stay here for many years."

Currently, Roggwiller employs approximately 40 people; de Reynies estimates that production and employment will double over the next two to three years, as Hermès management has already invested in upgrading the tanning system.

Roggwiller bought the old L. A. Frey & Sons building off Pinhook Road from Iberia Bank in 1994, creating a U.S. headquarters to join their tanneries in Paris and Italy. The company buys exotic skins from all over the world: crocodile, shark, stingray, lizard, python, frog and ostrich ' all of which they tan and dye for the fashion world. Louisiana is the heart of the U.S. alligator hide industry, but Roggwiller also buys hides from Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Approximately 120,000 skins out of the 300,000 processed in an average year in Louisiana will pass through the Lafayette plant.

Louisiana alligators are no longer an endangered species due to a program of returning 14 percent of farm-raised alligators to the wild, but they're still carefully regulated by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Both wild and farm-raised skins, each bearing a state tag issued to alligator hunters, arrive at the tannery coated with rock salt from local processing plants. They are inspected, logged in and bar coded ' every skin has to be accounted for, and each one costs the company a $4.25 state regulation fee.

At that stage, the hides are still raw skins and in danger of rotting. Half of them are shipped, still encased in salt, by air to France for processing. The remainder go through a 12-week tanning, dying and drying process that makes them buttery soft and ready to be shipped to Europe and cut and sewn into handbags, shoes, belts, jackets and wallets.

The tanned hides are valued anywhere from $200-$800 apiece depending on size and quality. "We are looking for the best quality," says de Reynies. "We have always sold 20-25 percent of our skins to Hermès. Hermès is looking for the crème de la crème. We need to find customers for the other quality, because all of the skins are not perfect." Seeking perfection seems to be a trend; Gucci and other couturieres have also recently purchased tanneries to assure themselves of the first rate leather demanded by the fashion industry.

Most high-end luxury brands manufacture their goods in Italy and France, where hand-stitching leather is a highly regarded artisan skill. Hermès in particular has a reputation for craftsmanship that borders on the realm of mystique. "Hermès is the premier handbag line of the well dressed French woman," says fashion doyenne Sandy Mugnier, who owned a couturier shop in Lafayette, Sandy Austin, from 1981-1989. "If they have one suit hanging in their closet, it would be Chanel. If they have one bag, it would be Hermès." Mugnier owns a 30-year-old Hermès bag she says is still in perfect condition. "I would never part with that bag," she says. "Quality endures."

Hermès is one of the oldest family-owned businesses in France. Founded in 1837 by Thierry Hermès, the leather shop specialized in horse harnesses for carriages and hand-stitched saddles. The clientèle was the rich nobility of France as well as European royalty, including emperors and kings. When the motor car began to overtake carriages as a mode of transportation, third generation owner Ã?mile-Maurice Hermès made the transition to leather clothing designed to be worn in touring cars. The trademark silk scarf was added in 1937. While items like ties and fragrance have been added to the luxury line, the caché has not changed, and customers willingly wait to purchase a coveted $7,000 Birkin bag.

Two burning questions in the minds of local fashionistas are whether Hermès will set up an atelier here to stitch alligator hides into purses, and whether Hermès items will be on sale in Lafayette. Hermès goods are only sold in company-owned shops or as a small boutique inside a high-end store such as Saks Fifth Avenue. de Reynies thinks not, on both counts. "Lafayette is too small," he says. "Hermès is very careful in how many shops they open. There isn't a big production. They want to keep the handmade quality high."

"What I would love to see as a little goodwill gesture would be to have a local boutique," says Kiki Frayard, owner of luxury shop Kiki in River Ranch. "Maybe it would be me." While Frayard knows that is quite unlikely, she says it's good branding for the local economy to have such an exclusive name associated with Lafayette. "It's kind of a cool thing that they're here," she says. "They're the number one luxury brand in the world. They are so exacting about their alligator skins ' it's great that they have chosen Louisiana and the tannery here for their leather. You can walk into an Hermès shop somewhere in the world and see a Birkin bag made from Louisiana skins. That they have come here will make other companies take another look at Lafayette."