A problem of perception

28 February 2019

Leather remains in demand, despite fashion trends, negative media commentary and new alternative materials. Andrea Guolo reports from Micam and Mipel in Milan, and looks at how leather can compete in the sustainable markets of the future.

Leather has to deal not only with fierce competition, but also with negative media perceptions. These days, in the view of some of the press and in certain profiles on social networks, it seems that producing a dress or a pair of shoes from recycled plastic, food scraps or other waste materials may be the most fascinating thing in the world.

This vision, however, has two basic limitations. The first is that to satisfy the global demand for bags or shoes, it would be necessary to renounce eating pineapples, transforming them into material to make handbags with uncertain market success and equally uncertain environmental consequences (not to mention ethical ones).

The second is that leather is a recycled material, in that whether it is used for fashion, automotive or footwear, it begins as a by-product of the meat industry. The market also speaks a different language to that of pro-animal influencers and opinion-makers, as was perceived in Milan at the latest edition of Micam and Mipel, dedicated to the news for the autumn/winter 2019–20.

As far as footwear is concerned, the gradual increase in synthetics replacing leather or marginalising leather in footwear is because of economic and performance considerations, thanks to the extraordinary research applied on fabrics and synthetic materials, and thanks above all to the knit construction techniques at which the biggest sport brands have been aimed.

And yet, from what we saw at the Milan fair, it is evident that the substantial substitution of leather is linked above all to the at leisure trend dominating footwear markets. Time will tell if this could represent a paradigm shift. In the meantime, however, there are those who are reviewing the theory of the predominance of knit construction, due to all the advantages that it markets, assuring consumers of its comfort and to producers of its margins, in light of the reduced costs of cutting, sewing and assembly. “After two years of constant growth of the knit upper, we are observing a return of the traditional shoe upper,” says Sergio Esposito, general manager of Sketchers Italia. “Probably, our customer needs a more structured product, especially for the winter season.”

Market trends

Fashion changes, and in recent seasons leather has paid the price. In the footwear sector, there is still a tendency to mix materials, with combinations of fabrics where once leather dominated, while the boot has almost disappeared from the panorama of women’s footwear, replaced by sneakers with oversized soles.

In leather goods, however, this has not happened – or at least not in the upper range. Anyone who wants to sell a €3,000 ‘it-bag’ cannot save money on materials, and will have to insert more perfect skins or leathers, which are difficult to find on the market. Prices for the best calves have soared and are the reflection of an intense demand for a low offer.

Just under the top of the range, the use of fabric enriched with stones, embroidery and accessories of all kinds has accompanied the sales boom enjoyed by Gucci under the artistic direction of Alessandro Michele. Gucci definitely did not remove the skin from its collections and if we consider the purchases of the brand as a whole, it is very probable that the quantities have increased and not decreased.

The capacity of the tanneries to enable second and third-grade selections, including adult cows, created an increasingly attractive leather, available at a low cost. Buying a leather bag, even in the accessible range, can constitute a real investment in the eyes of the final client. At Italian independent Ripani, the winter season offerings are mainly based on natural leather, purchased from certified Italian tanneries.

“A leather bag has no time; [it] can be passed from grandma to granddaughter,” says Gabriella Ripani. “It is a value destined to survive and this characteristic protects it from more aggressive trends towards other products, while footwear is more exposed to this.” When fabrics and synthetics are included in the Ripani collection – as happens for a particular coated polyester that recalls the padding of the outerwear but has been used for the most visible part of a bag – this does not depend on price but instead on the will to satisfy a precise request from the most extravagant customers; but this is still a marginal request. Another Ripani innovation consists of the differentiated shoulder strap: you can buy three different ones for the same bag and change it according to the occasion. “This is never a déjà vu,” comments Ripani.

Made in Italy

Sobriety and elegance remain the dominant traits for those labels that, with the added kudos of ‘Made in Italy’, are strengthening their presence (especially in Asia) as an alternative to the usual luxury brands. This is the case with Anna Virgili, who limited the use of the fabric to the licence of the Guillermo Mariotto brand (now in its second season) and then, on all the rest, maintained the ‘Made in Italy’ identity as a specialised leather company. Is the strategy paying dividends?

“For the Italian market, maybe not, because the price factor remains decisive, but for other markets, there is no doubt,” says Ermanno Gaetani, owner of the company that exports 30% of its production and in the next two seasons expects to reach 70% of the quota.

“The classic bag no longer excites our customers. But it’s not a matter of leather or fabric; if embroidery and accessories are applied in the leather surface, the woman rediscovers the love for the product and buys it.”

At Mipel there was certainly no lack of alternatives, and we were not only talking about pineapple waste. Dalaleo, a manufacturer of ecobags, has exhibited products made from beer can tabs. BGBL makes products from used basketballs – for every three used, one is given back to amateur teams – and has combined them with plastic and real leather to make a truly sustainable product.

Then there are those who made leather goods by recovering the waste from luxury yacht shipyards (not a particularly new concept, if you think about the success of the Freitag brand more than a decade ago). The Mipel organisation has given space to these and other products, putting the idea of sustainability at the centre of the scene, with one specification.

“Leather is sustainable, this is our mantra,” says Danny D’Alessandro, general manager of Mipel and Assopellettieri. “And compared with the alternatives, leather has an undoubted advantage: we know everything about it and its production cycle, while for the others we still have a lot to understand on a scientific level. Furthermore, for us, luxury is equal to leather. A fabric bag cannot be real luxury, or it can rarely be, even if we find a luxury brand on it.”

The leather/luxury equation

For Italian leather goods producers, the luxury/leather equation is particularly true, and at the same time desirable. The data for 2018 indicates a new historical record in the Italian leather goods sector, driven by exports (+10.3%) and by leather products, which account for around 80% of the total.

“The production of fabric bags h as increased, but also increases that of leather bags,” says D’Alessandro.

It is therefore misleading, not to mention false, to focus the discussion on the sustainability of a product on the choice of the reference raw material.

“Sustainability must be faced with a complete vision,” says D’Alessandro, who emphasised all its meanings: environmental, social and labour. Thus, inside Mipel, the creations of the artist Enrica Borghi have found space, as a result of the recovery of waste materials, but also support for the ‘LeaTher’S Work’ project made with UNIC leather and the zip closures of Ykk, both donated to the leather goods workshop of the Il Girasole social cooperative in Florence.

“Those who say leather is not sustainable don’t know the essence of leather,” says D’Alessandro.

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