When Camille Zarsky was growing up in Houston, she used to spend weekends working on her family’s ranch outside the city. "I used to find snake skins on the property," she says. "I had this infatuation with snakes. I loved the beauty of the skin." So when Zarsky, now 28 and a designer in New York, launched a luxury handbag brand a few years ago, she decided to make about a fifth of her collection out of python skins, and the rest out of leather. When she found that only the python pieces sold out, she pivoted the brand to focus entirely on python.
Business boomed. She called up her father to tell him of her success with the handbags. He said, "If you’re going to go the route of pythons, you should consider Florida."
Currently, Zarsky sources her pythons from Europe, where there is a centuries-old tradition of tanning and dyeing the skins, which it sources from Asia. What Zarsky père was getting at was the fact that if his daughter could shift her python sourcing to Florida, her business would also be helping to solve a major ecological problem there.
In the past decades, the Everglades, where the invasive species now thrives without a predator, have developed a serious python problem. Theories about the problem’s origin vary; one is that illegal, exotic pets may have escaped, then multiplied. The python problem has become so great that Florida recently sponsored a "Python Challenge," to encourage amateur hunters to go after the beasts.
At first, Zarsky didn’t make too much of her father’s suggestion. But coincidentally, her bags soon became especially popular in Florida, and Zarsky found herself down at a Palm Beach boutique called Style So Chic promoting her bags. A woman at the sale told Zarsky a story about a friend’s dog who was "almost eaten" by a python, right in her friend’s backyard. The problem suddenly became more vivid to Zarsky, who decided to start looking into sourcing python from Florida in earnest. "I love the idea of eliminating a problem and creating beautiful works of art," she says.
But as much as Zarsky would love to have a product that is 100% made in the U.S. and solves a problem to boot, her actual path forward remains as murky as Florida swamp.
She began as you’d imagine—by Googling "python hunter." Soon, she and several of her employees, elegant young women who more typically found themselves on the phone with luxury retailers, were setting up Skype dates with a suite of Crocodile Dundee types who make a hobby or career out of hunting snakes.
Zarsky struck up a bond with a licensed python hunter named Ruben Ramirez. "I get texts from him that literally say, ‘Hey Camille, how about this one, do you like it? I caught it last night.’ And it’s a photo of him standing in a swamp with a python in his arms," says Zarsky. "He’s in rubber boots and a wife beater and jeans, and you can see there’s a knife in his pocket, like something out of a movie."
While Ramirez and others have produced skins to her liking, she has yet to find a tannery that can tan and dye the skins to her specifications. "Tanning hides is an art form, and to do it properly you need millions of dollars worth of equipment," she explains. She could export the skins to Europe and import them back again, but the taxes she’d have to pay would double the price of her bags, which already retail, on average, for $1,200 (a large tote using three python skins runs $5,500).
Zarsky’s story of an innovative idea stymied reveals some of the real-life challenges for a well-meaning entrepreneur who’d like to source locally and leverage business to solve an environmental problem. But while the goal remains elusive, she says she’s up to the challenge—she’d particularly like to find a high-quality tanner in Florida, if she can, and plans to dedicate more time this year to the pursuit. She even hopes to accompany Ramirez on a hunt herself, soon.
"I’m not scared," Zarsky says. Her dad prepared her for this, too. At the ranch, colonies of water moccasins would slither out of the lakes and sun themselves on a little piece of land they called Snake Island. She and her dad went out there summers with a shotgun. "I had a unique childhood," she says.
[Images courtesy of Ruben Ramirez]