Accessories designer Nancy Gonzalez has been indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice on charges of illegal smuggling and conspiracy. The designer is being extradited in a joint effort between U.S. and Colombian authorities and will be tried in the U.S.If convicted, Gonzalez faces a maximum total sentence of 25 years in prison and her business is subject to $1 million in fines.
The Colombian-based label known for its use of exotic skins has been a prominent name in the luxury accessories business since the early 2000s. It was even cited in “The Devil Wears Prada” as part of Anne Hathaway’s fashion makeover and was a key resource for the accessories departments of major global luxury stores.
Judging from court records filed in the Southern District of Florida, the Department of Justice began its investigation into Gonzalez’s operations in 2016. That year, the brand told WWD that it was selling some 79,000 bags a year.
Exotic skin accessories are heavily regulated by the U.S. government and all trade must have documentation and comply with CITES rules [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora]. Gonzalez has told WWD in the past that she owns her own exotic animal farms where her skins are harvested and treated. The brand also has manufacturing facilities where its bags are sewn and produced for sale.
Court documents allege that the Gonzalez label paid people to fly from Colombia to the U.S. with its handbags in their luggage. When intercepted at Customs, the individuals carrying Gonzalez’s bags said they were gifts for friends in the U.S.
Inside the Nancy Gonzalez shop-in-shop at Harrods.
As part of its investigation, the Department of Justice observed the transport of nearly 300 bags that it alleges were part of a larger trade conspiracy architected by Gonzalez and her company. Most of the bags in question appear to be made from caiman skin, a reptile that is smaller than a crocodile and is considered a more accessible price point in the accessories arena.
Representatives for Nancy Gonzalez could not be reached for comment. The label’s social media channels have been dormant since late April of this year, which is around the time that the Department of Justice’s investigation began to take shape.
A dramatic, music-scored video tweeted by Colombia’s attorney general earlier this month shows Gonzalez being escorted by authorities from a luxury enclave in Cali, Colombia. The attorney general’s office says this mission is the first of its kind in Latin America to deal with exotic skin accessories.
“The final destination of the products was luxury stores and well-known exhibitions such as New York Fashion Week,” the official account tweeted.
El requerimiento indica que elaboraban carteras, bolsos y diversos productos con pieles de babillas, caimanes, serpientes, entre otras. Contactaban a ciudadanos en Valle del Cauca y, al parecer, los convencían de viajar a Estados Unidos para que llevaran los artículos. pic.twitter.com/pOhK7zFrSB
— Fiscalía Colombia (@FiscaliaCol) July 8, 2022
In early 2021 Gonzalez told WWD that the U.S. remained her brand’s largest market and that she was looking to expand in the U.K., Middle East and South Korea, with plans to enter the Chinese market in 2022.
In the last decade the brand has oscillated between high and low points. As recently as 2016, the company launched a shoe line and maintained a dedicated space in Bergdorf Goodman’s handbag department, which Gonzalez once bragged to WWD was better than having her own store and was the reason she had yet to open a boutique in New York City.
A representative for Bergdorf Goodman declined to comment on the origin of the store’s Gonzalez bags and if the store has been contacted by authorities as part of a larger investigation.
The brand has innovated in the exotic skin space design-wise, weaving crocodile or python skin into bag chains or laser-cutting the skins to resemble flowers.
That fortune changed in 2017 when Santiago Barberi Gonzalez, the designer’s son who also served as her brand’s creative director and chief modernizer, suddenly died. The label gradually fell from wider favor, and made attempts to revive itself by launching calf leather bags to appeal to a broader audience. In recent months the Gonzalez brand was spotted with just a single small cabinet of clutches in Bergdorf’s. Its previous stand-alone space in the store had been taken over by edgier European brands.