- A fashion designer has become notorious for advertising a handbag said to be made of alligator tongues and an “ethically sourced” human spine. Some product descriptions have claimed it is a child’s spine.
- Arnold Putra, a reportedly wealthy Indonesian, has also claimed to use “albino skin” and “plastinated human remains” in his clothing.
- Putra told Insider he sourced the spine through medical surplus, but wouldn’t say whether it came from a child.
- The bag went mostly unnoticed for years. But after a widely-shared tweet about it recently, people flocked to his Instagram, where he posts travel pictures.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
An Indonesian fashion designer is selling a handbag made out of alligator tongues and an “ethically sourced” human spine, which he says came from medical surplus in Canada.
The item caused outrage online — and prompted Insider to find out everything possible about the item and where exactly it could have come from.
The handbag is a $5,000 one-off piece by designer Arnold Putra, which first went on sale in 2016. It is a basket-style handbag, with a handle formed of what appears to be a single human spinal cord. Experts told Insider they believe it is genuine.
Putra lives a flamboyant lifestyle, full of exotic travel, luxury, and high fashion. He was name-checked by the “Rich Kids of Instagram” account, and in 2017, he was described as one of “the most prolific car collectors in Indonesia” by Tatler Indonesia.
He has been pictured with fashion celebrities like Michèle Lamy on his profile — @arnoldputra — which was made private during the course of Insider’s research for this piece.
A second Instagram account, @byarnoldputra, details his fashion line. The posts include the spine handbag, which has also been marketed for sale on some fashion sites.
On the @byarnoldputra account, it was with a description which said the bag was: “Made of an entire child’s spine who had osteoporosis.” Putra told Insider that this account is run by someone else and that he has “contributed” to it.
Putra did not say, despite several enquiries, whether the spine really belonged to a child.
Insider contacted two child osteopaths and showed them pictures of the bag. Both said it is almost certainly a real human spine, but did not agree on whether it belonged to a child.
The bag was posted to social media in 2016 on the @byarnoldputra account, and has since appeared on Putra’s @arnoldputra travel account and on the website and social media of UK distributor The Unconventional.
And for a long time, nobody paid much attention. But then on March 23, an attentive 19-year-old student and curator named Maxim posted a screenshot from @byarnoldputra to his Twitter account @wqbisabi. From there, it was widely shared, often accompanied by outrage.
Soon, people began bombarding Putra’s Instagram, and the distributors of his work, with questions about where the materials came from, and why he would turn a human spine into a bag.
“Plastinated human remains and albino skin”
One explanation came from The Unconventional, whose spokesperson replied to a WhatsApp query that was shared on social media, and later confirmed as genuine by Insider.
The reply said: “He exchanges luxury items with ancient tribes for items that are considered precious to them.”
However, Putra has since told Insider that he wasn’t traveling to tribal regions when this collection was being made. “My methods of sourcing don’t involve traveling to these places at all,” he said.
Instead, according to Putra, the spine “was medically sourced from Canada with papers.” It is possible, he said, to buy bones from licensed companies which receive human specimens donated to medicine, and occasionally sell them as surplus. At time of publication he did not confirm whether such medical surplus is the exact source of the spine. He declined to show Insider the papers, saying they are subject to a non-disclosure agreement.
The bag was part of an unfinished collection “involving similar materials unprecedented in garment-making,” he said.
For the alligator tongues, he said they were byproducts of the alligator meat and leather industry. (Alligators are no longer endangered in the US.)
“It took a bit of experimenting to get the tongues flattened and supple enough,” he said.
Following the social media uproar over the bag, Putra posted an Instagram story in which he said, joking or not, that his collection was “derived from plastinated human remains and albino skin.”
Putra suggested these items were also medical surplus, but has not responded to a request for clarification.
The legality of buying and selling human bones varies worldwide. The trade is legal in numerous US states, according to National Geographic.
It is also legal in Canada — in 2017 the Global News TV network profiled SkullStore, store that sells human remains. Its website advertises a “child shrunken head” for just under 100,000 Canadian dollars.
Its owner Ben Lovatt told Insider that the spine bag handle “does appear to be a retired medical or teaching specimen,” adding that there is a long history of trade in bones for teaching, cultural and personal purposes.
A spokesperson for The Unconventional, which has advertised the bag as made from an “ethically sourced” human spine since 2016, told Insider: “All I’m going to say is that I do not condone the use of REAL human remains.”
The bag, as well as the company’s contact number, have been taken off the company website since the Twitter post gained attention.
One platform, Not Just A Label (NJAL), also hosts Putra’s work.
Asked about their stance on the ethics of Putra’s work, design program manager Erica Sabatini said: “While NJAL is an open platform for designers to showcase their designs, and free for everyone to create an account, NJAL does not interfere nor interact with designers’ creative process.”
Responding to the online outrage around both his bag and also the way he portrays tribes in his Instagram account, Putra said: “It’s part of a creative learning process that should involve opposition, otherwise it would just be a form of repeated validation.”
“I’m not intending to sell out and will continue to realize my ideas that are frequently changing in terms of subject matter.”
Soon after the tweet with the bag was widely shared, Maxim, the curator and student who had sent the tweet took it down, as people were reporting him to the site.
“I shared it simply because I thought it was something others had to see,” he told Insider. “I can’t believe he’s gotten away with what he’s done.”