Believe it or not, there was a time when lustrous nutria pelts were coveted by such stars as Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. Over the years, the “swamp rat” fell into disfavor. Now, a southeast Louisiana company called Righteous Fur seeks to recapture the glory days of nutria fashion by creating eco-friendly nutria designs that can be worn with a guilt-free conscience.
Their mission: to help save the Louisiana wetlands.
Herbivorous nutrias eat the basal portion of marsh plants, which kills the plants. As a result, the underlying soil becomes subject to erosion, and massive, muddy ponds begin to form. These damaged regions, known as nutria eat-outs, often become areas of open water.
Righteous Fur aims to draw attention to the problem through its design collective, a jewelry collection, and a fashion line, while encouraging a market for nutria fur.
The group has held fashion shows in New Orleans, Lafayette and New York City. Their next show, which includes several New Orleans-based designers, takes place in Lafayette on Tuesday. “Nutria-palooza sur la Coulée” will feature sustainable fur fashions, made from the byproducts of the Coastwide Nutria Control Program.
New Orleans designer Cree McCree, the co-director of Righteous Fur, said that 98 percent of the nutrias killed are thrown back into the swamp.
“There’s two problems with that,” said Becky Schexnayder, another co-director and producer of the fashion show. “Decaying depletes the water of oxygen, and all that beautiful fur is being wasted.”
Creating fashion designs with the fur is “a giant recycling project,” McCree said. “If the nutria are being killed anyway because they’re destroying the wetlands, the fur can be used to make something beautiful.”
Items that will be available for auction include furry hats, vests, soft iPad bags, swanky cocktail wraps inspired by the “Mad Men” era, purses and small accessories.
Schexnayder is creating glamorous formal wear for men and women, with a Mardi Gras twist.
New Orleans’ Hot 8 Brass Band will serve as a lively soundtrack while the models parade down the runway, draped in an eclectic mix of nutria fashions.
Guests can sample dishes made with nutria meat, along with non-nutria fare, and signature cocktails. The bayou country event also will include a preview of a documentary titled “Rodents of Unusual Size.”
The Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program and representatives from Wildlife and Fisheries will discuss their ongoing efforts to save the wetlands, while volunteers from the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana show the audience how they can get involved.
A portion of all event proceeds goes to the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.
McCree, who describes herself as an “assemblage artist,” was recently featured in National Geographic for her tribal jewelry designs that contain slender nutria teeth, set in Balinese silver. She has furthered the Righteous Fur projects with mini-grants from BTNEP.
“Marshes are important, not only because of the habitat they provide, but also because of coastal protection,” said Michael Massimi, the invasive species coordinator of BTNEP. “That’s the buffer between us and hurricanes that enter the Gulf.”
Nutrias are from South America, mainly Argentina, and were brought to the United States during the 1930s for their fur. For the first few decades, the fur industry kept the rodents in check.
“There was a demand for nutria fur around the world — mostly in Russia, and other parts of Asia and Eastern Europe,” said Massimi, who noted that nutria fur is comparable to mink.
For a while, the nutrias were kept in farms but eventually escaped and multiplied. In the 1980s there was a backlash against fur fashion, and the demand for nutria dwindled. By that time, these swamp scavengers were a known culprit for wetland loss.
During the ’90s, helicopters began surveying the coast for nutria damage and discovered that 100,000 acres of land were being lost every year. In 2002, they came up with an incentive program that continues today: the Coastwide Nutria Control Program, which is funded by the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act.
Through the program, hunters and trappers receive $5 for each nutria tail that they proffer.
“The reason they use tails is because some trappers still find markets for the meat or the fur,” Massimi said. “Annual reports, since 2002, show how much damage is being done to the marsh and how many tails have been counted. It shows a very obvious decline.”
The program is working, but the vast majority of the nutria remains are left in the swamp.
“If there was a market for the fur and the meat, maybe we wouldn’t have to spend so much coastal restoration money on paying for the tails,” said Massimi. “And, it honors the animal if you use its parts.”