“Leather is not a novelty material. It is a luxurious material.”

The designer Bill Amberg was talking about the use of leather in interior design but his thoughts on materials are relevant in many areas these days: especially since raw material has become so expensive. His lecture was part of a LeatherNaturally! seminar at APLF in Hong Kong

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 Bill Amberg emphasised texture and touch as key features for leather and made this point by asking audience to close their eyes as they felt leather swatches he had handed. The huge variation in leather from heavy vegetable, butter soft bovine, light weight sheep through to parchment were demonstrated and used to highlight the fact that touch is a key factor often under-utilised by tanners.

As well as embossing and etching texture can be created by special stitching and laser cutting. This emphasis on the “experiential” aspects of leather which plastic competitors cannot match is a vital element when working with leather. The customers in most cases are interested in the outcome far more than the cost so that if the work is well thought through the price comes more from the value in use to the consumer than via a discussion on cost plus appropriate margin. In working with leather Bill Amberg retains a group of skilled leather craftsmen from a variety of disciplines to offer innovative approaches to each new situation. These include Saddlers and Bookbinders.

Fifteen years ago the pressure was to make cheap covered leather for upholstery and other uses but now even in more regular sectors the market wants much more bespoke leathers. This implies small lots and some tanners have had difficulty adjusting lot sizes from 7000 to 10000 feet down to a majority of orders being under 1000 square feet. Following on in discussing this still changing world Jon Clark, CEO of Prime Asia, highlighted the role of new industry collaborations such as the Leather Working Group and LeatherNaturally!

He argued that despite huge progress that has been made by the vast majority of tanners in the world unchallenged reports from all manor of governmental, quasi-governmental, NGOs, charities and pressure groups leads to misinformed consumers. The topics at issue include ensuring that designers know that top Tanneries have well managed wastewater treatment facilities, that hides are sourced from cattle raised for the meat industry, that alternate materials such as Pleather are not leather but chemicals and that the leather industry is not a source of Cr6.

The role of LeatherNaturally! as expected by its members he defined as to:

  • Highlight leather’s beauty
  • Educate consumers
  • Counteract attacks on leather

It is an industry-wide effort whose members include:

  • Tanners
  • Manufacturers
  • Retail brands

Evidence to date indicates that an impact is already being made and additionally that throughout the world many leather bodies have started to turn their activities more towards designer and consumer focused activity. This is a welcome change but of course much more has to be done, given that PETA alone works on an annual budget of US $32m.


Essential to the leather story has to be integrity. Jon Clark said “progress starts with the transparent sharing of information”.

As a lead member of LeatherNaturally! his company publish comprehensive data on water and energy consumption, on carbon footprints and waste. While the leather industry has made great strides he fully accepts that more has to be done. But the debate is best conducted with the facts, good and bad, on the table. This is valid given that the new younger highly urbanised consumers throughout the world are better educated and better connected than ever before.

In Asia alone by the rather loose OECD definition of middle class there will be 1.7 billion by 2020 and 3.2 billion by 2030 all needing to be educated in the true value of natural materials like leather. Many will not see cows in real life until their teenage years and LeatherNaturally! research continues to show an increasing ignorance amongst young consumers as to the origins of leather. Most talked about recently has been the small but significant group of the 400 million Chinese who are already middle class who have moved up into the high net worth individual (HNWI) grouping and buy large amounts of luxury goods in China and increasingly while travelling in the US and Europe.

According to Bain and Co there are two huge areas of this luxury segment – the aspirational and the accessible – which dip below the HNWI level solidly into middle class purchasers. These are the main stream long term target audience for volume leathers.
They are increasingly looking for not so much a big brand name but rather an article that a generation or more ago would have been termed “high quality”. By this the consumer means a well made item, properly designed and crafted which will last a long time. For items that are made of leather this means that the consumer is willing to spend some time maintaining them with appropriate oils and polishes and expects that, if necessary, they can be repaired.

This makes the point that leather is not a material suited to what has come to be called fast fashion, or cheap construction. The consumer education to be undertaken by LeatherNaturally! will focus on quality, value, longevity, performance and beauty. And the more transparent we are with our communications the prouder we will become of every aspect of our material.


by Mike Redwood