INTERNATIONAL ECONOMY & AFRICA: Chile seeks to hook global trendsetters on salmon leather

By Mark MulliganFinancial Times; Apr 29, 2003

Want to stand out from the crowd this summer? Help is at handfrom the world of farmed salmon. With salmon-skin wallets, belts, shoes and handbags already starting to create a buzz of interest in exclusive European and Japanese boutiques, a group of Chilean entrepreneurs is about to launch its model for a large-scale export industry encompassing everything from clothes and accessories to interior designs and soft furnishings.

"What we are talking about here is an industry which could eventually create 150,000 jobs," said Eulogio Evans, one of the founders of the "Fish" label that will be used to market the salmon-skin products.

While still a minnow compared with neighbouring Argentina in the world of fashion, Chile has abundant supplies of the raw material needed for turning out a salmanoide prototype range for the catwalks of Milan and Paris .

The country's icy Antarctic currents and cheap labour have helped it become the world's second biggest exporter of farmed salmon products, behind Norway , in an industry which is now worth about $1bn (€910m, £630m) in annual revenues, compared with $159m 10 years ago.

For Mr Evans and his partners , this translates into 1m sq ft of untreated salmon hides a month.

Although increasingly processed into fishmeal and oil in Chile, "before, the skins were just thrown away, a fact which was adding to the environmentalists' case against the industry", says Rubén Strauss, a leather tanner who left the cattle-raising pampas of Argentina and Paraguay to work with Fish hides in Chile's frigid south.

" We are marketing this as an ecologically sound alternative to other exotic animal hides such as crocodile and snake skin ,"

Indeed, while salmon farming itself is opposed by Chilean environmental groups because of its impact on marine ecosystems, moderate animal welfare organisations have no objection to using the skins of edible species.

However, Claudia Escobar, a Chilean clothes designer involved in the Fish project, received unwanted attention when her prototype salmon- skin bikini was revealed at a recent fashion parade in Santiago .

Under the heading "Please stop, you're giving me a haddock", an Australian-based website called Susanna's Soap Box suggested salmon skin was "only good material for salmon to wear".

For its backers, however, the idea is no joke. The Chilean government's main business development agency has financed some of Fish's start-up costs and other state organisations have promised further assistance in positioning products in foreign markets.

Inspired by the success of Chilean wine in global markets, the Fish project hopes to be part of a new government-backed "Made in Chile " campaign seeking to capitalise on recently signed free trade agreements with the European Union and US .

After rapid growth in the 1990s, the Chilean economy is today struggling against world commodity gluts and financial upheaval in the region. Economists have warned that, without fresh ideas and advances in technology and infrastructure, the country could begin to stagnate.

The once proud textile industry, which was destroyed by cheap Asian imports, would be one of the main beneficiaries of large-scale export of salmon leather.

"Chile desperately needs more quality value-added exports to get it away from its dependence on bulk commodities," said Alberto Herrerías, another of the Fish founders.

"Salmon skin fashion fits the bill perfectly."In keeping with the exclusive nature of the product - an Irish salmon skin boutique offers wallets on the internet at $71 apiece - a golf club in the Andean foothills has been chosen as the launch venue for the Fish marketing model.

Top billing on the menu will, of course, be reserved for farmed Chilean salmon.