So, finally, after being distracted by a few other topics, I’m ready to bring you another installment of my friend Doug’s adventures in life. As evidenced by his bee cultivation as a teen, it is quite clear that Doug has always been in possession of an enterprising
nature. So when it was time for him to finance his first solo vacation out of Zimbabwe at the tender age of 23 you can rest assured that his strategy to raise funds was strange and unique.
Allow me to set the scene. Way back in 1978, Zimbabwe (which was still called Rhodesia back then) was experiencing a lengthy
period of political instability and civil unrest which had resulted in the United Nations declaring economic sanctions against the country. This rendered the Rhodesian Dollar worthless on the global market. Which meant that if you wanted to go on an overseas holiday, as Doug did, you had to exchange money before you left (no-one would buy your Rhodesian dollars outside the
country, you see). That sounds all fine and dandy but in fact the government had capped the foreign currency exchange allowance to a maximum of GBP180 per person. Simply put, you could only buy up to GBP180 at a time, to fund overseas travel.
Even back in 1978 this wasn’t a great deal of money. And it certainly wasn’t enough to bankroll the 75 day tour of the UK, Austria, Germany and the Greek Islands that Doug had planned. He wasn’t worried though – he had (of course) a trick up his sleeve. A common way to make some extra money for travel was to take items not readily available elsewhere with you on your vacation, and then sell them, pocketing the foreign currency and making a little extra spending money. At the time, the most money was to be made selling products made of elephant hide (I KNOW!!!), and in particular elephant skin briefcases. They were unique and small enough to carry on board a plane. The going rate for one of these briefcases in London was GBP100 and it only cost the equivalent of GBP50 to make, so it was an easy way to double your money.
So, Doug went along to a well known leather product warehouse with the intention of buying one or two of the elephant skin briefcases to sell in London and augment his travel budget. He walked straight up to the briefcase section of the warehouse and started looking at them, but after a moment his attention began to wander onto all the other products available in the shop. Aside from the specialty elephant hide products, there were also things made from regular leather: wallets, belts, bags, shoes and jackets. Doug looked at the elephant skins hanging from the ceiling. Then he looked back at the jackets. Elephant skins. Jackets.
And it was at this moment that Doug had, what he describes as, a “brainwave”. Yes indeed! For if an elephant skin briefcase could go for GBP100, imagine how much money he could get for an elephant skin jacket!!
It was a lightbulb moment for him and he wasted no time making the suggestion to the vendor who looked at him like he was crazy. He insisted that he wanted a jacket made from elephant skin, even after the vendor warned him that it wouldn’t be soft, like cowhide, and it definitely wouldn’t be comfortable. Doug was not to be swayed. He envisioned this mystical jacket inspiring a bidding war on the “Golden Mile of Tailoring” – Savile Row in Mayfair, London. He also envisioned his wallet bulging with extra pounds for his holiday. No, he’d made his mind up – he wanted an elephant skin jacket, and he would have it.
And so, the tailor measured him up, asking what colour he’d like the leather dyed. Doug shook his head. No dye. He wanted it natural. After all, what would be the point of an elephant skin jacket if you couldn’t see it was made of elephant skin? That’s just how Doug rolls. He did agree to at least have the hide shaved before the jacket was constructed (elephants are hirsute creatures, you know)! After all, no-one would want to buy a hairy elephant skin jacket! So, with his measurements taken and a price agreed upon, Doug left the warehouse with instructions to return in one month to collect his bespoke jacket.
A month later, with only a few days left before his flight to London, Doug returned to the warehouse and the first thing he saw upon entering was his elephant skin jacket hanging up on the wall. He noticed it straight away because the arms of the jacket were sticking straight out horizontally. As you can imagine, elephant hide is very thick, and when it is tanned it becomes very stiff indeed. Doug asked to try the jacket on, thinking that a few wears would soften the leather so that the arms wouldn’t be so stiff. But what he found was that the hide was SO stiff that he could barely keep his arms down without a great deal of effort. If he relaxed, the arms would simply start to rise up at his sides. He couldn’t even bend the elbows. Still, he thought after examining the jacket, the craftsmanship was of the highest quality and he was sure the leather would eventually soften and relax. So he paid
the tailor the agreed price of 750 Rhodesian Dollars (the equivalent of about GBP375 – two month’s salary at the time), thinking he could easily make twice that on Bond Street in London. The fact that the jacket literally stayed upright on the floor with no support did nothing to deter him. And so off he went with his new threads!!
Over the next few days Doug wore the jacket around the house, trying to break in the leather. Suffice to say the leather did not break in and was just as stiff on the day of his flight as it was the day he bought it. There was no way he could fold it to pack it away in his luggage and so he was forced to wear it to the airport where, because his arms were sticking straight out, he drew many
curious glances. Once on the plane, of course he had to remove the jacket as he couldn’t really sit for ten hours without bending his elbows. All the passengers around him simply stared as he awkwardly took the jacket off and attempted to fit it, stiff as cardboard as it was, into the overhead locker.
Anyway, the jacket (and Doug) survived the flight and after settling into London (he was staying in a share house with some friends that worked on oil rigs), Doug took his prize possession down to Bond Street to see what he could get for it. He decided against wearing it because, in his words, he realised that he looked like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.
The first tailor he stopped at simply stared at the jacket, before shooing him away. The second tailor laughed, before doing the same thing. The third took the time to admire the quality workmanship and detailing, but still wasn’t interested in buying it. Doug’s dream of a bidding war was dissolving before his very eyes. He spent the next two days walking up and down Bond Street with a stiff, dun grey, elephant skin jacket under his arm going into every tailor shop trying to get some money for it. To no avail.
The only thing he did succeed in doing was attracting the attention of the local constabulary, who stopped him to ask what on earth he was doing. After checking his documents and determining he wasn’t in fact up to any mischief, they let him go on his way (probably stifling a chuckle, I dare say). But Doug’s spirit had been broken. He dropped the price of the jacket – first to GBP175 and then down to GBP75. Still, though they all agreed it was a marvellous specimen of clothing, no-one wanted to buy it. He was stuck with it for the rest of his European holiday.
The night before he was due to fly out of London, one of his oil rig buddies offered to take it off his hands. At that point, Doug was desperate and so he took the GBP50 offered for it. He later found out that his friend had taken the jacket apart and had it made into elephant skin wallets, making a tidy profit.
As a footnote, there is apparently, deep in storage somewhere in England, a Polaroid photograph of Doug wearing his elephant skin coat. I promise you that if I ever get my hands on a copy I’ll forward it onto all of you.