How I Got Into the Alligator Business

Hi. I’m Mary Tutwiler, owner of Cocodri, a Lafayette, Louisiana, alligator accessory business. I certainly wasn’t always in the fashion business. In fact, I didn't care much about fashion for most of my life.

I’ve had a lot of jobs: sandwich maker, barn girl, caterer, full-time mom, environmental activist, journalist, restauranteur. In 2008, while I was working as a journalist in Lafayette for The Independent, I was assigned a story covering the local tannery, RTL, which specializes in alligator skins. The tannery had just been acquired by fashion giant Hermes. I left with two buttery soft small skins, one dyed turquoise, the other cognac.

For a year, I puzzled over the gorgeous skins and finally got the nerve to cut and sew them into small wallets. They were so lovely and useful I realized I was on to something, and with the help of my daughter and some friends—who had a sewing machine with a diamond tip needle— we created Cocodri.

The Louisiana alligator skin industry is a 200-year-old tradition. When the first French settlers arrived in Louisiana, they dubbed the huge reptiles they found in the swamps cocodril, their name for the more familiar Nile crocodile. The American alligator was hunted to the brink of extinction, reaching endangered species status in the 1970s. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries enacted a program for collecting eggs and returning hatchlings to the wild. Today,we have a plethora of wild and farmed alligators in south Louisiana.

Here in Lafayette, I live in the epicenter of the alligator world. We create everything from swamp tours to alligator sauce piquant on menus and the fashion items I design. Cocodri has expanded from wallets to handbags, belts, travel items and other accessories. Many of my customers hunt their own alligators, and together we create one-of-a-kind items made from their skins.

Every piece produced by Cocodri is handmade in Lafayette. My goal is to design beautiful, practical pieces that will last a lifetime. A lot of care goes into each piece, into every detail. I want my customers to enjoy their bags and wallets every day, to constantly be surprised by how joyous it is to own something that is both useful and lovely. As for me me, who never really cared about clothes or looks before? I am having a blast in the fashion business!