Would you still want this season's ponyskin bag if you knew it was the real thing? MARTIN RAYMOND hunts down the secrets of the skin trade
It's a jungle out there. Take a stroll through the designer collections in this last year of the millennium and you'll soon realise that the fashion houses have made an extra special effort. At Galliano it was boar's head millinery; at Gaultier it was crocodile; at Louis Vuitton skunk neckpieces; at Versace stingray dresses; from Warren Kade a frogskin gilet.

The high street has joined the celebration in animal prints, with ponyskin the look of the season. And isn't it clever how they've made it seem so real? Which is probably because a lot of it is. For ponyskin, this season's "must have", is now this season's "mustn't talk about", following uproar from groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) and the Ponies Association UK, which alerted us to the fact that ponyskin came, in many instances, from real ponies.

According to Peta this is just the tip of a very murky iceberg as fashion flaunts everything from snakeskin and frogskin, to rat (petite grise the trade calls it) cat and dog fur. "Designers are using all kinds of skins, and many of them have no idea how they have been harvested," says Peta's Andrew Butler. "And when they see consumers reacting badly to this - as they have to the ponyskin issue - they start back-pedalling."

My own investigations found this to be true. Although designers like Warren Kade, Johnny Moke and Padraig Sweeney came clean about the skins they use - dyed frog, dyed pony, dead snake - others responded to my questions like despatch box politicians. No ponyskin here, they say, only cow. PR's and shop managers, however, tell you differently. "There's pony skin a plenty," said one.

A similar tale unfolds on the high street. As a customer I'm told that the ponyskin bag I'm stroking is fake, but when I call the press office of the stores involved and say I'm doing a ponyskin shoot, "real not fake", and can they accommodate, the answer more times than not is a cheery yes.

And then, of course, there's the business of cat and dog. Again we're not talking fake here but Labrador, red setters, German shepherds, domestic moggie. You'll never see it labelled as such, but as Sobaki Katzenfelle, Loup d'Asie or as one UK shipping importer told me he liked to label them, Goupee. In China, however, few such deceptions are bothered with. One company, Lee International, offered me black dog overcoats, another the finest in Labrador and German Shepherd. And to ensure that nobody was upset, pelts or finished garments could be labelled "goatskin" - a favourite ruse - or lambskin, or simply "Genuine Fur".

BBC2's Newsnight investigated the use of animal skins and named a company called Alaska Brokerage as prepared to import cat and dog fur into Britain. The programme also pointed out that the import of such skins isn't illegal, nor for that matter is the sale of cat or dogskin coats. Designers or retailers under present legislation only have to say if the fur on sale is real or not, nothing about what it's made from.

Groups such as London Animal Action, which stage regular protests outside the offices of Alaska Brokerage, have staged similar protests against Dolce & Gabbana for allegedly using catskin in skirts. Although D&G said the skin in question was pony, Peta's Italian arm was, according to Butler, unable to obtain samples for DNA testing.

This, says Manfred Karremann of the Humane Society International, is the only way consumers can be sure that fur trim, lining or products used in winter overcoats are not made from dog or cat pelts. Karremann's documentary, currently being broadcast by the Humane Society of the United States on the internet, makes harrowing watching. Not only are cats and dogs clubbed, skinned, and groin-bled alive (better for the skins apparently) before your eyes, but Karremann and the Society's investigators take you on a grizzly, no-holds-barred trail that reveals how 2 million skins annually find their way into Britain, Germany, France, and Italy.

The pipeline starts in Harbin, in northern China, where German shepherds are farmed and their pelts sold for about $8 each, or in the Philippines and Thailand where cats are farmed or kept domestically for twice-yearly fur auctions. Brokers buy pelts by the ton or the "plate" - six to eight pelts stitched together so they are harder to identity as cat or dog - and then import them into "safe" countries (with no ban on these pelts) such as Germany and the UK. Brokers in London or Leipzig then sell them on to buyers from fashion houses for a handsome mark-up.

In Italy and Germany, they are popular with manufacturers for use in ski boots, bed sheets, golf gloves, car upholstery and as cheap lower-end fur trim, called Gae-Wolf, used extensively on coats sold in department stores. It is in this form, investigators say, that cat and dog fur makes its way back into Britain, and into the US, major importers of middle-market clothes from Italy and Germany. Karremann's webumentry has caused such a scandal in the US that a Senate Bill is being debated to stop such imports.

But there is no similar action being take here. "Retailers have no idea what clothes are made from," says Kerry Wyler, of London Animal Action. "And even if they did, there is no legislation to say that they'd have to tell consumers. We've found catskin accessories in kiosks along Oxford Street, and in Chinatown, and people like Alaska Brokerage are importing them, so somebody must be buying them. But you don't see designers or retailers saying, `Look, here's catskin, try it'."

According to Chris Scott-Gray of the British Menswear Council, it really is a case of retailers not knowing. And if they did? "The Clinton Principle applies - don't ask and we won't tell. But I think most would draw the line at cat and dog." Designer and retailers I spoke to agreed. No, they didn't do dog, but yes, a lot of clothing imports did come from Italy and Germany - but no, they didn't DNA test them. Too costly. Or as Peta's Andrew Butler puts it, "likely to tell them things they don't really want to know about." And this, he says, is true of fashion folk generally - they say no to fur but when you talk to them about "other fashionable skins and how they are harvested, at best they plead ignorance, at worst they say there's little they can do about it."

And, of course, ignorance equals profit. Which probably explains why when I asked them, designers and shoe retailers using anaconda, cobra, python, or alligator either pleaded ignorance on how skins were collected, or attempted to cast themselves in the role of eco-cobblers, saying that most skins they used had been shed by the animal in questions. That's what reptiles do, don't they?

Alligators? Excuse me? Besides, as Butler says, "shed snakeskin is useless for designers to work with - too dry, too brittle, too damaged. What is needed can only be got by skinning the snakes alive. If you beat or shoot them they take a long time to die, not to mention the damage this does to skin segments."

And that "to die for" crocodile or alligator bag you're contemplating in the autumn sales? Clifford Warwick, who studied the latest slaughtering methods used by an alligator farm in Florida that many in the leather industry hold up for its exemplary practices, explains how the animals are killed there. Three workers are employed, he says; one stands on the alligator's mouth, another on its tail, while a third slices through the spinal cord with a steel chisel and hammer. Five to eight blows are needed to kill the gator, which will take up to two hours to die. And this is far more humane than most killings Warwick has witnessed - more commonly baseball bats, hammers, and axes are used to bludgeon the animal to death. Many alligator farmers are ex-poachers.

Fashion designers and editors play these things down, or feign ignorance. One editor told me that "readers don't really want to know that sort of thing". But by not telling us the truth, we are being misled.

Take shatoosh, for example, beloved of many an up-market fashion gal and used in expensive up-market scarves, shawls, skirts and cardigans. It comes from a Tibetan antelope that has been listed as an endangered species since 1975. It is not shorn like a sheep, but killed, usually brutally, by Tibetan smugglers mainly, who trade it in for Indian tiger with their cross border counterparts. Estimates put numbers now at about 75,000 and declining rapidly.

An inability to afford shatoosh shawls doesn't lift us above the A-list on to the moral high ground, however. Pashmina, its distance cousin, has come into the average consumers orbit and demand has escalated. In response the Chinese have cross-bred pashmina goats with Himalayan sheep so they can get more hairs to work with. The trouble is that the hair is thicker than normal pashmina, and not as soft, so silk is used and in some cases human hair. This is similar to practices in the fur industry where entire Indian villages' survive on cultivating human hair for thickening out cheap fur coats.

Even plain old wool has a story to tell. Eighty per cent of the wool we wear comes from Australia, and much of it is merino. Yet Australian animal rights activists point out that Australian sheep suffer over 50 million operations a year that would constitute extreme cruelty if performed on dogs and cats. One million die from exposure within 30 days of being shorn, while millions more are killed to keep wool prices up. More disturbing still is an operation called "mulesing", performed on millions of Merino sheep annually. To increase yields, merino sheep have been bred to grow folded coats. In these folds, where urine and moisture collects, flies lay their eggs and maggots hatch, damaging fleece and skin. To prevent this, huge strips of skin are carved away from the backs and legs of lambs, usually without anaesthetic, and the skin stretched to ensure that it grows more smoothly. The wounds may eventually kill the sheep, but not before shearing takes place. Even in those Val Doonican V-necks lies a tale fashion would rather you didn't know about.