The 34th edition of APLF fell a couple of weeks earlier than usual, which was a logistical headache for organisers, but deemed necessary to allow manufacturers to choose their materials for forthcoming collections and avoid scheduling conflicts during the Easter holidays. On top of that, people thought it was too close to Lineapelle and Tanning Tech for exhibitors to set up in Europe only to pack up, visit suppliers in China and then set up again in Hong Kong.

Once these logistics were behind everyone, the show faced another more pressing reality: that leather demand is still struggling, and has been since 2015, despite finished leather doing very well. Raw materials and unfinished leather are also struggling despite a 20% increase in luxury demand in China since 2016.

A struggling market

Unfortunately, since the end of APLF 2017, leather prices have gradually declined to levels not seen since the height of the financial crisis. For example, Hidenet reported recently that there are still around four million hides sitting in warehouses in the US that have been sold, but not yet shipped.

This meant there was an air of pessimism and uncertainty in the days before the show. “This had little to do with the venue or the event itself and more to do with a leather market suffering from an oversupply of raw material,” commented organisers. “[This was] accompanied by a flagging demand for leather, uppers for footwear and the dominance of synthetic sneakers in store sales and hip fashion magazines.”

Since late 2014, leather started losing market share to synthetics, pricing itself out of the market. Moreover, despite prices being roughly 55% lower than at peak, it still hasn’t been able to gain back market shares lost, with synthetics remaining strong.

The materials culture has now shifted, and designers are comfortable using synthetics, particularly for trainers. In order for leather to regain market share, it must tackle more than just pricing, it must battle the flexibility of synthetics and the wide varieties available.

Feeling optimistic

Despite these negatives, there were many things to celebrate at APLF 2018. Italy and Brazil, for example, signed a partnership agreement to give mutual recognition to sustainability certification programmes in each country. The day before the show launched, the agreement was signed by the Italian Quality Certification Institute for the Leather Sector (ICEC) and the Brazilian Leather Certification of Sustainability (CSCB), and had the full backing from their respective national tanning industry associations, UNIC and CICB.

Moreover, the 2018 edition of the show was very busy, despite lacking a Focus Country, and the irregularity of some exhibitors setting up in the main concourse.

News from the exhibition floor was that customers and exhibitors got new buyers and saw many new attendees, offering optimism in the spite of market difficulties. Sudan was exhibiting for the first time this year, and Egypt was back after last attending in 2016. Moreover, there were a total of 94 new exhibitors at the 2018 edition.

Ethiopia was in the spotlight this year as Dr Arkebe Oqubay – minister and special adviser to the prime minister of Ethiopia, and former mayor of Addis Ababa – spoke about the tremendous industrial potential in the country, and how investments, opportunities and incentives are helping to see plans realised, especially with 15 continuous years of 11% annual GDP growth. He made a strong case, highlighting Ethiopia as being the fastest-growing economy in Africa with a lot of investment in infrastructure, including a new railway to the coast through Djibouti.

Oqubay also said that half of the federal budget goes towards the energy sectors, including wind farms, as well as the railway network and environmental issues since Africa is the continent most affected by biodegradation, making renewables vital investments. Ethiopia also has a highly educated and eager workforce that is a vital element to strengthening valuable industries. For leather, there must be more investment in tanneries to buttress the strong presence that Pittards and other well-known companies have there.

Busy and successful

The second day of the exhibit was especially busy, exceeding expectations. There was, however, much battling in terms of pricing, with many sellers having to stand their ground, which led to a lack of contract signings. This is also indicative of the times. The struggle against synthetics and speed to market are increasing in intensity, and were certainly important talking points in the main halls, as well as at the seminars and breakout sessions.

Also on the second day, the Global Leather Coordinating Committee held its biannual meeting; the International Council of Tanners elected its new president for a two-year tenure; the International Council of Hides Skins and Leather Traders Associations held a cocktail event; and the UKLF and Leathersellers’ Company had its cocktail event at the British consulate.

One session that had particular resonance was the Leather Naturally breakfast seminar. The initiative’s steering committee, along with key manufacturers and suppliers, were in attendance and the keynote talk was delivered by Smit & zoon’s Egbert Dikkers. Despite the longevity of Leather Naturally – the initiative has been active for ten years – an updated website, increased membership and a strong social media following, its real work has only just begun. Its prime focus is building industry cohesion and staying on the front foot against false narratives such as those issued by Peta, which said that leather is next on its hit list after the decline of fur among designers and its ban in San Fransico.

“Evidence accumulates [regarding] the difficulty leather is having in recovering market share,” wrote Leather Naturally’s Mike Redwood. “But one of the biggest impacts of the last decade of discussing routes to promoting leather and raising its image is that the industry around the world has stopped hiding, and gained a very positive attitude.”

Awarding excellence

In addition to the main leather exhibition, Materials+ – the recently relaunched components and accessories section for the manufacture of footwear, leather goods and garments – built on its inaugural show that took place last year.

The combination of APLF Leather and Materials+ covering the manufacturing supply chain was well received, and bodes well as materials are brought together by designers that need such events to source them and receive inspiration from the many exhibitors displaying their products.

APLF together with the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America also organised the fourth edition of the Global Footwear Retail Conference, a half-day event aimed at highlighting the latest developments in the global footwear sector.

And it wouldn’t be a modern-day APLF without the Gala Dinner for the sixth Tannery of the Year Awards. This event has become one of the most important events on the calendar of the leather industry as it serves to highlight the best in leather making, sustainability, compliance and social commitment to the surrounding community.

The 2018 winner of this prestigious award was Interhides Public Company Limited from Thailand. This tannery was built up from being a small operator in the Bangpoomai tanning cluster, to being a company capable of processing 4,000 hides and 20,000 pigskins in a single day.