Paris-based trends expert Anne Liberati has seen fads come and go in a tumultuous 20 years in fashion. The project manager for APLF’s Material+ since September 2015, she has also been in charge of the trends fashion direction for CTC, the French Technical Centre of Leather Industries. This means her present role is to determine for the leather industry which sorts of attitudes, emotions and concepts will ultimately make their way into trends and collections.

Now more than ever in leather,, Liberati emphasises the importance of embracing transformational technologies. The idea for Material+ came 18 months ago when APLF notified her to reflect on the development of the leather industry.

Her objective now is to refresh the sector, with a focus on craftsmanship, new technologies, links with emerging leather industries, and a closer look at leisure, sport and fashion, recognising footwear as a strong commercial segment. The industry is exploring new components for footwear, she says, but also advanced fashion tech, and the latest clean and sustainable materials, in order to meet the strong footwear demand.

Shady business

Liberati is part of the Comité Français de la Couleur (French Community of the Colours), headed up by Olivier Guillemin, and she used to work for

Her role, in a form of R&D think tank for the CTC, works to form direction by season, which translates into products to be developed in different parts of the French industry, principally in footwear and finished products. That covers texture, colours, new vocabulary and details around shapes, as well as new functions for popular leather goods, such as bags. Liberati sets trends and lifestyle orientation for winter and spring-summer.

Growth continues to be sluggish in the luxury market overall. Bain and Company predicts that personal luxury goods for 2016 as a whole will mirror last year’s low single-digit real growth. Claudia D’Arpizio, lead author of a recent report on the sector, warns that luxury is stuck in “a holding pattern” for the foreseeable future, and has seen only 1% in real gains since 2014. This is attributed to a weak US holiday season, declining tourism in Europe, instability in the Middle East and a slump in China. The hope is that repeated industry forays into the latter will turn these fortunes around.

Leather is weathering the storm, however. Technavio’s analysts forecast the international leather goods market to grow at over 4% annually until at least 2020. Around 8,000 businesses are involved in the leather industry in France, employing 70,000 people and turning over €15 billion a year, €7.8 billion of which comes into France as export revenues, which makes France the world’s fourth largest exporter of leather products across all sectors. The leather goods sector includes more than 1,000 firms and a turnover of €2.6 billion, with €4.9 billion of export sales.

Net gains

Of course, the French leather goods sector is famous for its many luxury labels, as well as the stunning finish in high-quality materials through the use of techniques such as the saddle stitch. France is the third-largest exporter of leather goods worldwide. Hong Kong is the biggest client for its leather goods, purchasing 18% of all exports.

With improving economies and growing purchasing power, Indian and Chinese customers are buying more luxury leather goods. At the same time, Westerners are increasingly discerning in their shopping habits. The trend of purchasing products online is causing manufacturers to reconsider their retail strategy; Fendi, an LVMH brand, launched its own e-commerce website in 2015. There is also increasing demand for transparency in the industry and more sustainable practices. An alternative approach involves certified organic tanneries using plant and vegetable tannins; Valentino and the Gucci Group are already using eco-friendly and organic leather.

Leather has also found itself in choppy waters in light of China’s leather goods export figures looking poor in the first two months of 2016; overall export value declined by 21% year-on-year to $12 billion. This was blamed on low-end products in the industrial chain; and losing the advantage of low production costs, with some relocation of industry to South-East Asian and African nations.

Nevertheless, China can still look to its massive internal market. The country also benefits greatly from its full industrial chain, effective production clusters and highly skilled worker teams.

Liberati’s role has seen her travel the world to observe these differences at close quarters. There is a revolution in traditional manufacturing and high-tech solutions, but it doesn’t look the same in every region. “I was so spoiled in Hong Kong,” she laughs. “Europe is sometimes a bit too close. France, Italy and Spain are great, but I discovered another part of the world. In Hong Kong, I encountered an approach to leather craftsmanship that I had never seen in Paris or Milan. It’s good fun to discover a new culture, and a new programme for creativity.”

What is crucial in luxury – and in leather, particularly – is choosing the right approach to craftsmanship and technologies. Leather is a principal material to bring in this new way of luxury.

A shift is overdue in Europe. “Luxury is a big subject,” says Liberati. “I would like to get to the heart of what we mean now by ‘luxury’, or the ‘new luxury’. First, I think the sense of luxury is changing, at the same time as this manufacturing revolution is under way. In France the ‘Y generation’ had a new way to consume. What everybody wanted was some sustainable value, some clear view of the product. Also, they didn’t have the same code for luxury. Before, to be luxury, or on a socially high level, you needed to buy, to possess, but the new generation doesn’t view it that way.”

The right approach

Liberati acknowledges that this trend could well be the key to the resilience of leather in the luxury segment. She says consumers want sustainability, traceability, customisation, flexibility and a product on demand. This has consequences for which methods of production are used.

“What is crucial in luxury – and in leather, particularly – is choosing the right approach to craftsmanship and technologies,” says Liberati. “Leather is a principal material to bring in this new way of luxury.

“Fast fashion, in a positive way. We will spread this all over the world to new social segments of consumers.”

“I’m very close to the industries,” she continues. “I’m a designer, above all. I don’t want to set any fashion orientation if there is no possibility to produce through the new technologies or current know-how in the trade. I don’t want to spread ideas that cannot be realised at the right moment. That means two years ahead. With new immersive technologies, you can move faster, so we need to stay informed about the flexibility of the new technology and how it affects designing leather products for the mass market, or the high-end market.”

Liberati finds inspiration in Buddhist philosophies around slow and fast ways of being. “We have the choice of two speeds, because technology now offers that possibility,” she explains. “It will be a big revolution, and we shouldn’t be afraid of big changes. We are not obliged to answer to the demands of fast or slow. Just be what you want to be.”

 There is space for everybody because of the large scale of current consumption: “Manufacturing shouldn’t be afraid of new generations of designers, concepts or new tech, she concludes. “Technology is a reinforcement for tradition, not the enemy.”  

Anne Liberati biography

Liberati was educated at the Atelier Met de Peninghen art school in Paris and began her career as a junior designer for Endt and Fulton Partners in 1982, before moving on to work for Chaperon et Méchant Loup as a furniture and interior design art director. In 1996 she became a fashion and trend director at Modamont, working in season storytelling, trend books and colours, scenographies, graphic charter and forecasting conferences.

She spent three years as an international trend expert for the Pantoneview website, where she was responsible for editorial content and a contributor on accessories, trends and colours. She joined Material+ as project manager in June 2015, and CTC three months later.