Fashion creativity on a whole new scale


What do you get when you cross a salmon with a winter coat?

Why, a midnight-blue salmon-skin jacket trimmed with luxurious Russian sable, of course!

Icelandic designer Eggert Johannsson unveiled his (cleaned and scaled) visions of winterwear last week in a cavernous Washington ballroom, showing a collection of women's jackets made of salmon and perch in tomato, cranberry and lemon - hues, that is. To the amazement of the cheering audience, the fish-skin fabrics turned out to be as soft as suede and with nary a scent of swampy waters, briny seas or even tartar sauce.

And, if Johannsson has his way, American shoppers soon will be, well, hooked.

"The first question I am always asked is, 'Does it smell?' " Johannsson said very, very seriously. "Of course it smells! All leather smells. This is no different. People always say, 'This is impossible. You are teasing me.' But the product really speaks for itself."

The truth is, Johannsson's jackets convey "leather," "clothing," and, sometimes, "chic." What's unexpected is that they don't convey "fish," "slimy" and definitely not "baked pecan-crusted salmon."

Instead, the only hint of the fabric's fishy origins is the pattern of tiny circles on the perch-skin jackets, where the unfortunate creatures' scales used to be.

The practice of using fish skin for clothing and accessories dates back several centuries. Vikings, Johannsson said, were known for crafting belts and pouches out of cured fish skin. And some Icelandic tanneries have been selling wallets and purses made of sting ray, shark and even catfish.

Johannsson, who is based in Reykjavik, Iceland, said he started experimenting with fish skin in his women's jackets six years ago when he first learned of an Icelandic tannery that had been curing fish skin for fashion use. Ocean Leather prepares the rolls of fish-skin fabric for use in much the same way as one does cowhide.

After 31 years of making fur and leather jackets, Johannsson said he couldn't resist the challenge of using fish skin. At first, he used the skins only as pipings or trims. This is the first year he is showing a collection of jackets mostly made of fish skin to an American audience.

"I like the idea of fully utilizing the fish," said Johannsson, who works only in perch and salmon at this point. "It's great for the environment. Man is part of nature and we need to take care of the environment however we possibly can."

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, however, takes a different stand.

"Obviously, it's terrible for the fish. They've evolved to feel pain," said Lisa Franzetta, PETA spokeswoman. "They have very sensitive nerve endings in their mouths. When they're hooked and they're pulled out of water to slowly die of suffocation, you're causing a painful death that's for nothing but the sake of vanity."

But right now, PETA is among the least of Johannsson's concerns. Every new fashion idea can present its share of challenges. Because fish vary in size, Johannsson often finds himself having to piece together jackets from cured salmon skins that sometimes are as small as the palm of his hand. He uses about 50 fish skins per jacket and charges between $9,000 and $12,000 for each custom-made piece.

Fish skin also costs 25 times more than regular leather. So, don't expect to be able to request a glorious, salmon-skin interior the next time you go into a Lexus dealership.

And then there are the peculiar questions Johannsson has to answer. Like, "Can you wear the jackets around cats?"

"I tested it on my cat at home," the designer said. "She didn't have the slightest reaction."

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