As a kid, Jason Jones was obsessed with a 19th-century bison leather holster that his dad carried in his Hollywood antiques shop, Used Stuff. His father was a Hopi Indian, and Jones developed an appreciation for the artistry of tepees, clothing, and footwear made of the animal’s hide. After working for Armani and L.A. designer Henry Duarte, Jones founded Parabellum, which in 2009 started making the most luxurious bison accessories this side of Italy. Parabellum’s cashmere-lined computer cases, for instance, are sold at Maxfield, a West Hollywood boutique that also stocks Hermès and Lanvin. “We use bison because of its beauty, strength, and powerful symbolism,” says Jones, whose belts, handbags, and billfolds are rendered from materials purchased from Native Americans in South Dakota.
Mulberry, Chloé, and Marc Jacobs have incorporated the historic mammal in recent handbag collections, but the hides are more likely to be found in smaller handmade lines. “It’s different,” says Calleen Cordero, an L.A. designer who works with bison for shoes. The uniqueness isn’t only in the pebbled texture; the marks and scars of herd life make each hide distinct. Such variation discourages large-scale designers, who often want a consistent look in their products; this in turn increases bison’s recherché appeal in more discerning style circles.
An inherent sponginess makes the material tough to cut and sew, but that quality has endeared it to motorcycle riders. “Bison hide is thicker than cowhide,” says Susan Carpenter, a Ducati owner who writes about motorcycles, “which means that it is potentially better for a crash impact.”
The National Bison Association, which promotes the use of bison as meat, helped popularize its secondary application in the fashion realm. Jim Matheson, a representative of the organization, keeps his eye on demand. After a brush with extinction, the U.S. bison population now numbers half a million. “We are getting more and more calls from tanneries looking for the hides to sell to designers,” Matheson says. “There is a bit of a supply issue.”
Illustration by Kristen Ulve