Designer jailed for smuggling crocodile handbags into US

By John Mercury April 23, 2024

A celebrity handbag designer whose products have been used by Britney Spears and on Sex And The City has been jailed for smuggling crocodile handbags into the US for fashion shows.

Nancy Gonzalez, 71, admitted recruiting couriers to carry as many as four products each on commercial flights from her native Colombia to the US for New York Fashion Week, among other high-profile events.

Gonzalez, who was arrested in 2022 in Cali, and later extradited to the US, was sentenced to 18 months in a federal court in Miami on Monday for breaking US wildlife laws.

The handbags, made from the hides of caiman and pythons bred in captivity, were worth as much as $2m (£1.6m), prosecutors said, but the designer’s lawyers said each skin cost only around $140 (£113).

Sometimes she failed to obtain the proper import permits from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, something backed by a widely ratified international treaty governing the trade in endangered and threatened species, the court heard.

Holding back tears, Gonzalez told the court before sentencing that she deeply regretted not fully complying with US laws.

She said: “From the bottom of my heart, I apologise to the United States of America. I never intended to offend a country to which I owe immense gratitude. Under pressure, I made poor decisions.”

Salma Hayek, Britney Spears and Victoria Beckham are among celebrities who bought Gonzalez’s carefully crafted handbags.

Her work was also included in a 2008 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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In court, her lawyers played a 2019 video of top buyers from Bergdorf Goodman, Saks and others praising the designer’s creativity, productivity and humanity.

But prosecutor Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald said the retailers “must be regretting they were ever put up to that and if they heard it was presented in court they would cringe”.

“They have their own brand to protect,” he added.

Mr Watts-Fitzgerald, who compared Gonzalez’s behaviour to that of drug traffickers, said her activities were “all driven by the money”.

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Her lawyers pleaded for leniency for the woman, who, they said, created “the very first luxury, high-end fashion company from a third world country,” which later competed with industry giants like Dior, Prada and Gucci.

They also argued that only 1% of the merchandise she imported into the US lacked proper papers and were samples for New York Fashion Week and other events.

Prosecutors had been seeking a stiffer sentence of 30 to 37 months. But the judge said he was taking into account the nearly 14 months she spent in a Colombian prison awaiting extradition.

She was ordered to begin her sentence on 6 June.


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