As the second Leatherworld Middle East concluded in Dubai, which attracted 2,270 visitors from 40 countries, the consensus was that this regional leather industry event is gaining momentum despite being a smaller show than last year. That may sound counterintuitive, and the rates at which it is actually gaining varies depending on whom you ask. But despite an overall lower scale and market demand compared with China, the US and Brazil, there was enough enterprise to attract some big international players and build momentum for next year.

The three-day event, with a distinctly boutique feel, put global tanners, manufacturers and designers together among established local companies in one hall at the Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre. And among the 73 exhibitors from 16 countries looking to gain a market share of the Middle East and North Africa’s (MENA) $4.6-billion leather market, was Leatherworld Middle East founding sponsor Al Khaznah Tannery.

Taking centre stage at the event, Al Khaznah, based in Abu Dhabi, is the region’s only tannery that specialises in completely biodegradable camel hide. Operations manager Andreas Lehne said that while overall the market remains down, the second day showed a reason to be optimistic, yet to remain realistic until orders are placed for the new sandal lines. The perception of this positive growth could provide a good spark to ignite a rebound, but time will tell, especially while China remains tight-fisted, which sends reverberations across other markets.

Activities through the halls

Italian company Dani also had a better second day after expressing scepticism on day one. The local sandal market remains strong for it while furniture is also a main focus, but cash flow in the region remains a problem.

“The high-end luxury feel was evident throughout Leatherworld Middle East, where the strong global exhibitor contingent sent a clear message that this is a region worth investing in,” says Ahmed Pauwels, CEO of Messe Frankfurt Middle East, Leatherworld Middle East’s organiser.

Even though this is the Middle East’s only trade show covering the global leather industry’s entire value chain, it’s still in its infancy in an already crowded calendar and there were about 15% fewer exhibitors overall despite a strong European contingent that built on last year’s inaugural show. That alone sends a clear message that echoes Pauwels’ sentiment.

The numbers don’t lie

According to analyst Euromonitor International (EMI), the 2015 estimate of MENA’s $4.6-billion leather trade, of which the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) holds a 67% share, with $3.1-billion worth of exports and imports last year, spearheaded by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, is reason enough for international companies to establish a presence at Leatherworld Middle East.

Just last year, the retail value for the UAE’s luxury leather goods market, including wallets, bags, purses, handbags and accessories, grew 14% year on year, valued at $413 million, which is expected to nearly double by 2020.

With that big picture in mind, Leatherworld Middle East is in a strong position to become one of the fairs that may be able to compete with the mainstays of Milan, Paris, Istanbul and Brazil.

“Many are new to the regional market and eager to test the waters, while some have been around for many years and are keen to grow their business interests, not only in the Middle East, but further afield,” adds Pauwels.

Italhide, for instance, is looking to create a lasting impact on buyers with a new range of exotic leathers for shoes, bags, garments, accessories and interior design production.

“The quality of the production in Italian tanneries is recognised worldwide as the best, and our soft crocodile skins, unique python skins and diamond-dust skins will shock visitors,” said export manager Silvio Rognoni in a statement.

“I think there’s huge potential for our business here, particularly in the fashion industry, because many students from the Middle East study fashion in Europe and the US, and these future designers want the best exotic hides to work with, without having to travel far to find them.”

Second time’s a charm

Now in its second edition, Leatherworld Middle East 2016 has gathered wide support from leading international leather trade and tannery associations, including the French Hides Association (Syndicat General des Cuirs et Peaux), and the French Federation of Tanners (Federation Française de la Tannerie Mégisserie). And looking to add further spark in a potentially global growth market, the international flavour of the event was underscored by country pavilions from Italy, France and South Africa, while the Indonesian Tanners Association presented a handful of tanners and manufacturers that specialise in python and freshwater lizard skins.

Leatherworld Middle East was divided into various segments that span the leather industry’s value chain, while at the centre of the show floor was the Trend Forum, which aims to showcase innovative and unique leather products, from diamond-dusted alligator skin, to gold-embossed crocodile hides.

Another highlight was a pair of blue suede loafers with 24-carat gold woven into the outsole. Hand-crafted by Italian shoe-maker Antonio Vietri, the unique footwear was debuting in the region with a price tag of around $30,000.

A spotlight also shone on the region’s most promising up-and-coming fashion design talent at the Fashion Avenue. Year-two students from prestigious fashion institute ESMOD Dubai lined up an inspiring array of leather garments, handbags and accessories, combining a mix of traditional techniques, leather manipulation and cutting-edge technology.

Also, a dedicated showcase for footwear called the Shoe Box was where Italian designer Thierry Rabotin launched a
couture range of high-end footwear. And the Designers’ Area displaying bespoke designs included some from Swiss designer Martina Wyss, who had a range of handbags, rucksacks, belts and wallets to show.

All in all, the event was a great showcase for the global industry to take notice. 