NEW ORLEANS -- A professor at LSU is connecting the dots all the way from the alligators hunters in shows like Swamp People, to the exclusive high-end designer stores in Paris.
The project is not only creating jobs in several industries, but it is also helping the natural resources and the Louisiana environment.
The annual Fashion Week New Orleans is becoming a hot ticket. But you might not know that up the road in classrooms at LSU, a professor in the College of Agriculture is working to stitch together the global fashion industry and the Louisiana swamps.
"Everybody that see it loves, loves the skins, of course, and we're so blessed to be from Louisiana," said Dr. Lisa Barona McRoberts, an LSU assistant professor in the College of Agriculture, division of textile, apparel, design and merchandising.
Grade #1 and #2 alligator skins sell. In fact, high-end designer Hermes of Paris has an alligator tannery in Lafayette, The Reptile Tannery of Louisiana. LSU students are allow in for a tour, but the media are not.
Purses can sell for $1,000s to $10,000s but Grade #3 skins, those with some blemishes, scratches or asymmetric scale patterns, weren't moving. And that is an environmental problem.
"If the alligator market drops to a point like it did in 2009, to where there's not enough incentive to harvest the alligators, if that happens for a long enough period of time, then along with that goes the loss of incentive to manage that marshland for alligators," said Buddy Baker, the Director of Coastal Operations at Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries.
That state agency highly regulates and scientifically manages the wild swamp population of alligators, so it's not out of control. The gators stay healthy, as does the swamp land. And there are fewer nuisance calls by people.
"Meat sells. The demand for meat exceeds the supply of meat. In some years, we can't supply enough #1s and #2s to meet this fashion industry, but the #3s are the skins we need to move better," aid Baker.
That is where Dr. McRoberts and the Louisiana Alligator Advisory Council come in. Through grants and research, LSU students now create designs with Grade #3 skins. They have competitions. Graduates are being hired by big name design houses. With them, goes the education and idea of the apparel industry using Louisiana alligator skins in designs.
"As you can see, Marc Jacobs made his spring line last year almost all out of alligator garments, and it was all pastel colors," remembers Dr. McRoberts.
The skins can be made into any color. They can be suede. They can be mat or high polished gloss. The students are encouraged to be creative and unconventional, from wedding dresses to, well, something out of "50 Shades of Grey."
"I've never had a collar on before Lisa, I will tell you," I say to Dr. McRoberts, as she puts a black alligator collar around my neck with silver spike hardware on the shoulder pads.
"I think it would be perfect for you. You can wear it to a debutante ball," She says.
"This is more Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street," I answer.
Dr. McRoberts and her colleague Dr. Chuanlan Liu, took this concept of marketing alligator skins through students, to the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology in China.
"We want to open up the consumer market in China. That's the long-term goal. But the short-term goal, we want to increase awareness," said Dr. Liu, an associate professor of merchandising who is originally from China.
Awareness to buy and use this natural, renewable resource from Louisiana is the objective, one that wildlife experts say supports a generations old culture of harvesting alligators -- one that supports entire families who live near the swamps.
"Her spunk and her enthusiasm have taken this marketing approach to another level. She's modest and she doesn't brag about what she's done, but I can tell you, she's had an impact," said Baker of Dr. McRoberts.
"I will tell you that I am passing on what was passed on to me," McRoberts says, who was a design student at LSU in the 1990s.
Dr. McRoberts is also going to other U.S. colleges with the same message.
In October, The International Textiles and Apparel Association will have its annual conference in New Orleans. She plans to run workshops there on how to use alligator in designs.