From the Everglades to the studio: Designer Elle Barbeito turns invasive pythons into sustainable fashion

Elle Barbeito hunts invasive Burmese pythons and turns their skins into art. Photo credit: Ysa Perez

For the last 20 years, Burmese pythons have been infamous in South Florida. Brought to Florida in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this invasive species has become so destructive to the Everglades that some people have made a career out of hunting them for the state.

Among these hunters is Elle Barbeito’s father, Mark Yon, who joined the South Florida Water Management District’s Python Elimination Program in 2017. Taking inspiration from her father’s profession, the 26-year-old Barbeito built her own business creating accessories ranging from wallets to gun holsters using python skin caught in the Everglades.

While her dad hunted pythons, Barbeito studied fashion design in New York. Barbeito says working in fashion design was “the dream” since her childhood. She was in the process of moving back to her hometown of Miami and figuring out what her next venture would be.

By the time she settled back in Miami, her father and his long-time best friend, Brian Hargrove, had been learning how to skin the pythons they caught and preserve the leather. Seeing the collection of snakeskin Yon had accumulated and having her time in the New York fashion scene fresh in her mind, Barbeito saw an opportunity to repurpose some of the skins.

After her dad gave her some skin to work with, Barbeito’s next mission was to learn how to work with the python skin. Having never worked with leather before, she found herself doing what most do when they want to learn something new — she watched video tutorials online.

“I started learning how to work with leather with the python skin,” Barbeito said. “I just taught myself, watched a lot of YouTube on how to work with leather.”

She also began to assist Yon and Hargrove on their daily hunts and learned how to process and preserve the leather herself.

Elle Barbeito skinning a Burmese Python in her backyard.
Elle Barbeito skinning a Burmese Python in her backyard.

“I spend a lot of time outside besides just the hunting stuff,” Barbeito said. “I go camping a lot. I do a lot of trails. I just go to the Everglades a lot now.”

Barbeito fully immersed herself into the process of hunting the pythons and spent more of her time exploring the swamp herself. She was still trying to figure out what her very own fashion business would look like. Going from the hustle and bustle of New York to the marshes of the Everglades gradually shifted her creative vision. To her, it felt right to preserve the connection between the pythons and the environment they lived in even as she crafted them into something new.

“Seeing the type of equipment people are using like knives, flashlights, it just inspired the type of stuff I wanted to make,” Barbeito said. “It made sense to make pieces that were going to accommodate that kind of lifestyle.”

Once she found her footing in working with leather, Barbeito built her own website and began to take commissions. Finding herself back in unfamiliar territory, she launched and promoted her business all on her own.

“It was scary, especially since I’ve never really had a business before. I’m still figuring out what I’m doing,” Barbeito said.

Even at only 26, she says trying to navigate an ever-changing social media landscape to promote her work is “a lot to keep up with.”

“It’s hard, I’m learning every day,” Barbeito said, “But I still feel so lucky that I get to do this and that I get to do it with my dad too.”

Muzzle handmade from python skin by Elle Barbeito
Muzzle handmade from python skin by Elle Barbeito Photo credit: Elle Barbeito

When it comes to commissions, Barbeito says many times it consists of clients coming to her with their own ideas and giving her the freedom to add her own spin. She recalls times where clients have asked her to recreate beloved wallets and other accessories that have aged past their prime.

“It’s really collaborative, that’s where I get a lot of my ideas from,” Barbeito said.

Another source of inspiration comes from her workspace, which — before January of this year — was her house. She had been fully operating from home, processing the snakeskin in jars in her backyard and working on leather pieces in her room.

Her younger sister, Daphney Hanono, 20, looks back at that time fondly.

“It’s nice to see her working from home doing what she loves,” Hanono said. “It was tough when she was living in New York, but it’s nice to see her process and things coming to fruition at the house and in her studio.”

Barbeito is just glad that she now has a separation between work and her home life. Since she began to lease her own warehouse space, she’s been able to create a setup that has helped her become more productive.

“Having my own space has been like a breath of fresh air considering I’ve been working out of my house since I’ve started doing this,” Barbeito said.

Barbeito clarifies that the space she does her work in is not completely hers. She shares the first floor of the warehouse with three painters. She describes it as a communal space that sparks even more inspiration for what she’s creating.

“They’re always very encouraging. They always have a lot of kind things to say about my work as well. So, it’s always very inspiring to have that kind of support in a place where you’re creating,” Barbeito said.

Python lawn chairs handmade by Elle Barbeito.
Python lawn chairs handmade by Elle Barbeito. Photo credit: Elle Barbeito

Besides a more productive workspace, support seems to be one of the most prominent things the studio has brought her. Barbeito has also been able to invite more people to join her team, including Scarlett Herdoiza, 20, who aspires to follow in Barbeito’s footsteps.

Herdoiza’s role involves assembling Barbeito’s creations after the snakeskin has already been processed. This involves hours of gluing, sewing and drilling. However, she says it doesn’t feel like work at all, which has made her start to dream of a career in fashion design herself.

The supportive nature of the studio has also touched Herdoiza, who says that the older men who work there offer not only their afternoon cafecito and encouragement, but a sense of genuine enthusiasm and passion towards the art they themselves are making.

“Everyone is doing something that they love,” Herdoiza said. “They make time to think about themselves and things that they enjoy doing.”

Such a positive work environment fuels Barbeito as she makes truly sustainable art. Aside from commissions, Barbeito has worked on a few projects for herself, including a rocking chair that she upholstered earlier this year. Venturing into furniture is just her latest step forward in her creative journey. She hopes to continue to evolve as a designer and artist while also protecting the Everglades from being further damaged by invasive pythons.

“At the end of the day, we’re making use of something that could be discarded,” Barbeito said. “I’m sure there’s other python hunters that don’t go as far as skinning all the snakes and putting all the work into it because it’s easier to throw it out — which is crazy to me. So, it feels really good to be able to make something meaningful that’s sourced from something that has to be removed from the Everglades.”