The Women Behind Swamp Dogs of LA
Published on June 18, 2013
The term “high fashion” tends to evoke images of concrete jungles, not Deep South swamps. And yet, two women in Lafayette, La. — not New York City — have launched the latest craze in canine fashion with their bespoke dog collar line, Swamp Dogs of LA. Meticulously crafted locally, these puppy accessories — inspired by two very special Schnauzers — are making tails wag and giving new meaning to the term “drool worthy.”
Leslie Sandlin and Barbara Conner have known each other since childhood. “This is a small town,” Sandlin drawls. “Barbara actually lived next door to my mother and father for a while.”
As adults, though, the two women's lives took different paths: Conner abandoned her early career as an X-ray technician to become a motorcycle racer and successful jeweler, combining elegant freshwater, Tahitian and South Sea pearls with rock ’n’ roll-inspired materials like leather and sterling silver medallions. Meanwhile, Sandlin became an entrepreneur of sorts with her hands in everything from recruiting to business development for various companies.
But the two remained in the general vicinity of Lafayette. And when Sandlin needed a gift for her daughter’s 25th birthday in 2009, she made a beeline for Conner’s bijoux collection. It was fate. They ran into each other and, in no time, the jeweler had hired her old friend as her head of marketing.
The Dogs Who Inspire
Both women have always loved animals, and Conner, especially, is all about dogs. So perhaps it’s not surprising that one day in 2011, when she and her husband were out riding and spotted some “big old beautiful black dogs” running around, trailed by a couple of puppies, they pulled over to find out more. A man named Cheddar — “Very Louisiana,” Sandlin says with a laugh — was selling the pups, who had been born during spring flooding that claimed the lives of most of their siblings. Conner fell instantly in love and had to take one home. “She already had two Pugs, a Great Dane and a beautiful Shepherd,” Sandlin says, laughing. “Her husband said they had too many already!”
But Conner insisted and brought a girl puppy named Sam home with her. At the same time, Sandlin was down in the dumps, having just lost her own 16-year-old Schnauzer. Conner told her that she absolutely had to go back and adopt the other girl puppy. Sandlin did just that.
That summer, the two women watched Sam and Sissy, the canine sisters, “grow like weeds” together. And it was while watching them play that Sandlin mentioned having a friend in the alligator business. What a cool idea, they thought, to make alligator dog collars, decorated in pearls like Conner’s jewelry.
By the following week, they were meeting with people about production and design.
Lest American alligator lovers worry about the ethics of using alligator skin to make dog collars, rest assured: The gators are thoroughly protected. In Louisiana, the local government keeps the population controlled by giving each property owner a certain number of tags, one for each alligator they’re permitted to hunt, between September 5 and October 5. Wildlife regulators also go trapper to trapper, checking each number and tag to make sure it’s all above board. People are jailed and fined if they kill an alligator out of season or kill more than their allotted number.
“They’re just unbelievable creatures,” says Sandlin, who is proud to use the alligator skins, as they would otherwise be wasted.
The Collars Themselves
The first Swamps of LA collars were all made from American alligator skin that was tanned; tanning prevents the leather from developing a feathered look and allows it to retain its quality longer. Conner and Sandlin get their material from an “alligator guy” in Grand Chenier, which Sandlin says feels like “the edge of the world.”
Of course, every skin is unique — the look and texture can also depend on the part of the alligator from which the skin is taken — and the two creators have the skins dyed various colors. In addition to pearls, Conner adorns them with alligator teeth that evoke ivory, often dipped in gold or silver. Sandlin’s Schnauzer, Sissy, wears a bright green one with two alligator teeth on either side and pearls in between. “The quality is unbelievable,” Sandlin says. “I let this nutty dog of mine wear this collar — we walk, she jumps in the pool and shakes. Of course, dogs will be dogs, so nothing stays perfect forever, but it wears beautifully, too.”
Because American alligator skin is expensive, Sandlin was thrilled to discover acid-washed cowhide while antiquing not long ago, which she says is pretty and durable. Now the women are creating dog collars from that as well, which means they can offer their customers bespoke collars at a lower price point.
The collars are currently for sale on the Swamp Dogs of LA website, as well as at Spoiled Pet Spa in Lafayette, The Louisiana Marketshops at the 115 in Henderson (where all stock is local) and at Groovy Dog Bakery in Austin, Texas. The women are expanding soon to a shop in North Carolina, too.
As they grow their stock to include, among other things, a leash and leader, these Louisiana natives continue to keep their work close by. “Everything is made in Louisiana, and we’re going to keep it that way,” says Sandlin. “We love the business, and we love our dogs. We hope to expand and keep it going.”
Seems like these ladies are barking up the right tree.