How A Fake Animal Popularised Ersatz Leather

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Beautiful, luxurious bags do not need to be made from cruelty, and the fashion world over the past decade has become far more mindful and open about the benefits of using ersatz materials in place of leather, feathers and fur.

The history of alternatives to leather spans over a century at this point and there have been a wide range of materials, some using particularly unusual means to get the word out.

Arguably the strangest was a marketing campaign so effective that people believed it came from an animal that didn’t exist.

Skin Of The Nauga

A mix of composite knit fabric and PVC expanded to form a leather-like coating, Naugahyde is a popular ersatz leather material that was for decades regularly used as an alternative to animal leather in upholstery.

It went by several names in this regard, from simply “vinyl”, “Morocceen”, “Cordaveen” and “Madrid-grade vinyl”.

It had a few advantages compared to leather in this regard; as a synthetic material it could be supplied in rolls that allowed for seamless coverage over a large area, and it could be easily wiped clean with a damp cloth.

However, in an attempt to help people unfamiliar with the artificial material feel more comfortable with it, Uniroyal Engineered Products started a long-running advertising campaign in 1967 centred around a strange creature called the Nauga.

According to the marketing copy, the Nauga was an “ugly” yet resilient creature with a vinyl hide that was “indestructible”. It would also naturally shed its skin to provide the material used to make Naugahyde products.

It goes without saying that the Nauga does not exist outside of the adverts and the production of soft toys made from the material. The name of the material comes from its place of origin, Naugatuck, Connecticut.

However, the marketing campaign was a relative success, easing consumers who were wary of synthetic products by providing a cuddly face to them. The campaign was largely concluded by 1975 but had managed to endure in the minds of a surprising number of people.

For others, the campaign was so effective that they either forgot or did not realise that the vinyl creature was not actually real.

The first reference to the Nauga outside of the advertising pages was from the comedian Al Rosenberg, who would regularly use the catchphrase “Save the Nauga” in his sets.

This was entirely tongue in cheek; Mr Rosenberg played Earl C. Watkins, an eccentric inventor and the reason why the Nauga had become endangered was because it was used to make office furniture, and as offices were rapidly increasing in size, it was causing the creature to become extinct.

The joke campaign became so popular it was even used in a 1981 Garfield comic and became a popular reference used in April Fool’s Day jokes and pranks in a manner similar to the “spaghetti tree” Panorama film.

However, it took on a new life in 1992 when Professor Dean Cliver of the University of Wisconsin used the Nauga in a list of fictional endangered animals alongside the “Ester Squirrel” (used to make polyester) and the “Belgian Velcro”.

Much like the spaghetti tree, some people believe the plausible lie to this day.