by Mike Redwood – Spokeman of Leather Naturally
With leather under attack and hides and skins in some parts of the world being sent to landfill rather than being used to make leather, we need to stop arguing about the reasons consumers are not buying leather and switch to building an understanding of why they do.
While Europe is far from immune from the issues being felt by the industry worldwide generally speaking it is in a better place than most. The French leathergoods sector has been taking market share from the Chinese for a number of years and the overall French leather sector has given itself some clout by sensibly grouping all businesses associated with leather to say that it employs around 130,000 people across the tanning, footwear, leather goods, gloving, and distribution of leather goods segments. This is a route more countries should take to give the industry the critical mass to be visible and not considered a historical relic.
Similarly Portugal has been watching its leather footwear side grow steadily again reminding us of better times in the last half of the 20th century, but this feels more structured and permanent. Italy has, of course, been remarkable and its mix of fashion flare and innovation have kept it amazingly strong and adaptable despite all the changes of the last few decades.
With an aging population as Europe has not had the sudden switchover to dependence on the custom of the under 40s and with it the limited understanding of our agricultural past. As an added support with good husbandry European rawstock is generally of high quality and from animals raised with high welfare standards.
Despite these significant advantages Europe still needs to escape from sourcing and production terminology towards analysing what the consumer expects and wants. Is the leather article the consumer is using offering the value promised with the purchase? Or better still is it giving more, so that it is actually delighting the consumer by going beyond expectations.
As we walk the stands of European tanneries at the many international trade fairs, we are always struck by how beautiful the leathers are, how wonderful – and pertinent – is the choice of colours but it is not enough to stop there. How will that leather look in the article for which it is made – a shoe, a bag, a piece of furniture? How will it be used, and what will it look like after a year or two of use?
If you buy an iPhone it is the same as millions of others, but as soon as removed from the box and switched it on it starts to become personalised. Whether it is used for communication, entertainment or information the owner instals specific Apps and all the different settings for search and security. What sort of case do it is put it in, and whether a protective cover goes on the screen? Very soon the phone is highly individualised and like no other. With leather in a bag or any other item this personalisation through use is even more distinct, and in understanding the impact of use of over time the tanner can be constantly working to improve her leather.
A classic piece of leather today should not necessarily be merely a copy of a classic yesterday. Processes improve, equipment updates and customer needs advance and our leathers need to adapt. We must not ignore the vital concept of quality as an evolving measure of our work. While the articles we use in life change their designs to accommodate everything new – the technology we use, the way we travel, eat, work and socialise – leather cannot stay still. It has to adapt to remain relevant. Tensile strength, abrasion resistance, spot and water resistance, colour fastness and so many other areas must advance to match the new competition.
No other material can so improve with age as leather
Yet associated with this is the other side of what makes leather attractive and why it must not get overwhelmed in battles about price; the art and craft side of leather. Some of the luxury companies have been buying tanneries in recent years and it is suggested that this is about access to raw material. My own thought is that it is to ensure the craftsmanship in leather making is not lost. It recognises that the magnificence of leather is about that amazing mix of Art and Science that makes the world a better place. Leather tells a story, and that story stays with the owner of the article and grows as the leather changes with age, with handling, under different light. No other material, when well made, can so improve with age as leather.
Leather gives us stories to tell, that are often overlooked. That is not to say we ignore the attacks on leather but defence is never a very good marketing strategy, implying weakness or something to hide. Understanding the subtle beauty of leather in use and articulating that to the consumers while maintaining that spirit and loyalty in our manufacture is key.