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Luxury designer Nancy Gonzalez sentenced to prison for smuggling crocodile handbags

Celebrity handbag designer Nancy Gonzalez hides under an umbrella as she walks with her lawyer Andrea Lopez outside the federal courthouse Monday, April 22, 2024, in Miami.
Celebrity handbag designer Nancy Gonzalez hides under an umbrella as she walks with her lawyer Andrea Lopez outside the federal courthouse Monday, April 22, 2024, in Miami. Copyright Josh Goodman/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Josh Goodman/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jonny Walfisz with AP
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Nancy Gonzalez, a fashion designer who has worked with major Hollywood stars, has been sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty of smuggling crocodile handbags into the US.

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Colombian designer Nancy Gonzalez is known for her luxury handbags which have been worn by Salma Hayek, Britney Spears and Victoria Beckham, as well as featuring in ‘Sex and the City’ and a 2008 exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But her career frayed at the edges when she was arrested in Cali, Colombia in 2022 before being extradited to the US for a multiyear conspiracy to recruit couriers to smuggle crocodile handbags to showrooms and New York fashion events.

The handbags were made of caiman and pythons bred in captivity, and while their hides are legally allowed to be traded into the US, the species are protected wildlife that require close monitoring under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora - known by its initials CITES.

71-year-old Gonzalez pleaded guilty in the Miami court this week. “It’s all driven by the money,” said Assistant US Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald, who compared Gonzalez’s behaviour to that of drug traffickers. “If you want to deter the conduct, you want the cocaine kingpin, not the person in the field.”

Lawyers for Gonzalez sought leniency for the celebrity designer, describing her journey as a divorced single mother of two children who designed belts on a home sewing machine in Cali for friends into a fashion icon who outcompeted the likes of Dior, Prada and Gucci.

“She was determined to show her children and the world that women, including minority women like herself, can pursue their dreams successfully, and become financially independent,” they wrote in a memo prior to Monday’s hearing. “Against all odds, this tiny but mighty woman was able to create the very first luxury, high-end fashion company from a third world country.”

Celebrity handbag designer Nancy Gonzalez hides under an umbrella as she walks with her lawyer Andrea Lopez outside the federal courthouse Monday, April 22, 2024, in Miami.
Celebrity handbag designer Nancy Gonzalez hides under an umbrella as she walks with her lawyer Andrea Lopez outside the federal courthouse Monday, April 22, 2024, in Miami.Josh Goodman/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

Her attorneys said that she had already paid dearly for her crimes. The Colombian company she built, which once employed 300 mostly female employees, declared bankruptcy and stopped operating after her arrest.

Of the products she had imported into the US, they argued that it was only 1% that lacked the proper authorisation and were mostly samples for events like New York Fashion Week.

Gonzalez herself expressed her regret to the court. “From the bottom of my heart, I apologise to the United States of America. I never intended to offend a country to which I owe immense gratitude,” she said as she held back tears. “Under pressure, I made poor decisions.” She went on to say she only wished to be able to hug her 103-year-old mother once more.

The prosecution against the designer, however, argued that the wealthy and opulently living Gonzalez had exploited couriers to smuggle the merchandise into the US for her “producing felons,” said Watts-Fitzgerald. It was also noted that this wasn’t the first time Gonzalez had been warned, with US officials making the law clear to her in 2016 and 2017.

Gonzalez was sentenced to 18 months in prison, a reduction from the 30-37 months prosecutors sought. Judge Robert Scola took into account the 14 months she had spent in a Colombian prison awaiting extradition.

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