Finishes are everything!

16 May 2004

Exhibitors and buyers alike are awake to the uncertainties created by terrorism. The events of September 11, 2001, occurred one week before the shows then and, again, the Madrid train bombings preceded the Mipel, Micam and Mifur exhibitions, showing accessories, shoes and fur clothing respectively. The difference two years on is that the US dollar cannot fall much further, so exporters hit by events two years ago have little to fear. Raw materials, traded in dollars and bought with a strong euro, are plentiful and the demand for product is always stronger in the winter buying cycle. Putting aside the real worries regarding cheap Chinese imports and counterfeit products, Italian manufacturers are optimistic about the prospects for the enlarged EU from May and signs of improvement in the Japanese economy. Asian buyers looking for exotic merchandise have been replaced today by well-dressed Russian and middle European visitors. The watchword of all three exhibitions was Choice. 'Combining the incompatible' was one description of the variety on offer. The new globalistion of world trade means that some products are universally available and differ little from country to country. Others seek an international flavour but insist on individuality or 'something different'. In terms of leather, this means that imperfection can be a virtue. Striving to keep costs down as volumes have declined, the exhibitors offered a host of leather combinations. The overall trend in handbags is towards softness and medium proportions. Rather than using expensive, blemish-free leathers, designers seek perfection of form and function. Harness leather may be used for a strap while full grain calf appears on a front panel and gussets embrace flexible suede. Finishes are everything. With a need to cap price increases, the responsibility of creating visual interest falls squarely on the shoulders of the tanner. Washed and overdyed leathers were much in evidence. These, in the form of either stone washed, heavily distressed, corrected leathers or, alternatively, vegetable tanned calf which is then washed and heat treated to give a unique 3D finish. Enhanced through deep coloured hues of purple and blood red, these leathers take on a plush opulence, all the more attractive when you see the value-for-money price tags! Heavy emboss crocodile prints re-emerged (although it is difficult to remember when this finish was not popular for winter). This time around the material is used in either gloss or matt finish as panel decoration on chunky city bags. Frequently appearing with extra-wide handles/straps and finished with over-sized buckles and rustic metal rings and studs. Alternatives include raised, embossed ox-grains and glazed calf with or without rub-off effects. The fascination with ethnic/rustic treatments continues, with embroidered and stitched additions continuing the popularity of the coming summer season when flowers and floral motifs are popular. Leather appliqué of familiar petal and traditional Indian designs pay retrospective homage to the flower power era. But these are usually in subdued colours. The continuing importance of laser etched and cad stitched finishes must not be forgotten. These were most notable in the creations of furriers, where the flesh side finishing is as important as the colouring and construction of the fur side. Rubbed off, antique tartan printing, using faded metallic corals and greens, proved popular on the catwalk. Pitted and etched surfaces again mirrored some of the cracked and slashed finishes seen in handbags and ankle height boots. Having finally disentangled themselves from a clash of dates with GDS, Micam grew yet again with around 8% more stands. Trend spotting among 1,400 exhibitors is never going to be conclusive. There are always extremes of height and length to attract attention. Officially, though, the industry says comfort is the objective for the season ahead. Fewer points and more curves. Flatter, more comfortable soles and rounded lasts. A trumpeting of 'the English look' which apparently implies either country brogues or somewhat staid slip-ons. Rather than achieving the look of the season through variations in leather finishes, many choose the accent of colour to create impact. Purples, cobalts and blacks are the first choice but there are accents of almond and woodland greens. Splashes of colour which can be used for the young and trendy or older retro styles with equal impact. Where the handbag designers have chosen to marry and mix two or more leathers, shoes frequently combine leather with fabric (particularly velour) and fur trims. While crocodile prints prove once again the best way to hint at elegance and opulence, pony skin is the ideal base for applied colours and printed effects which benefit from the rustic textural appeal of the hair left on. The Italian shoe industry says rumours of its demise are premature. However, with a decline in production volumes of some 7% in 2003, the picture is far from happy when it comes to high value shoe production. The world trend in footwear is towards lower priced 'fast fashion' designs. To this end, there has been some aggressive price cutting among Italian producers without compromising the design process. But there is a warning for tanners in the trend towards synthetic and lower priced footwear. To stay in the frame, leather must remain price competitive as well as visually appealing. Durability is now less of an issue than wearability. Next Milan Fair dates: 18-21 September 2004.

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