Leather is yesterday's material

The Redwood blog
Published:  27 November, 2013
Mike Redwood

"Leather is very much yesterday's material. The future lies with coated materials, yarns and hybrid structures". I was sitting in an office in the historic City of London where a group of current and retired executives from the glove industry were pondering the educational needs of the sector. 

I do not think I am breaking any confidences in saying that these words were spoken by the founder of one of the UK's largest modern glove makers and distributors. No one else from around the table, representing many of Europe's top historical and current glove makers, made any attempt at contradiction. What had been said was nothing but the truth.

In these blogs we talk a lot about there being a ceiling price for leather, which draws in cheaper materials. This avoids articles in selected segments becoming too expensive for what it is believed the consumer is willing to pay. Standard substitution based on rising prices is not uncommon and is something seen in many markets. Replacement because the alternate material is technically better, as well as cheaper, is quite another matter.

While leather has been losing its primary role in many end uses for thousands of years - remember stone tablets, coracles and leather beer tankards - losing end uses today because of better coated fabrics and clever textiles is another matter. Kevlar took a chunk of market share and we accept it to be a very clever fibre but how come coated fabrics are advancing and leather is not? Gloving is a tiny market covering 4% or less of the consumption of leather. Yet we are seeing the same elsewhere.

Leather has been a minority material in footwear for a long time. Microfiber in clothing is an increasing trend. MBA-Tex and Artico Leather (an illegal term in many places) are now featured in top end Mercedes cars around the world while probably the best known non-woven is Alcantara from Italy. Alcantara has been made in a suburb of Rome since 1972 and has built a reputation for luxury in many end uses from fashion though interior design to upholstery. It is hard to think that the leather industry has left it unchallenged for 40 years. I came across it as Ecsaine in Japan in the 1990s when I was given the opportunity to visit Toray to look at materials for golf gloves. Toray first patented it in 1970 and now sell it as Ultrasuede around the world, leaving Alcantara as the premium name out of Italy. Only small amounts in Japan retain the Ecsaine name. Its technology has been updated many times and without doubt it is a formidable material.

Coated textiles

Even some of the coated textiles are getting better with consumers saying they prefer them to leather in automobiles. From what I can learn there is a tendency to crack after about 50,000 miles and other problems with durability. But from what I remember in the golf glove industry the synthetics were regularly better on bright colours and gave a more consistent fit. So while leather always gave a superior feel as the substitutes closed the gap it became less compelling. In automobiles and aeroplanes temperature control, specific gravity and traditional durability all need consideration.

It is a timely moment to remember that not all the materials waiting around to fill the market space left by diminishing growth in leather are at the low end. Some of them have technical properties that surpass leather so that they can challenge at multiple levels. And they are produced by companies who do invest in marketing. With this changing landscape it is time to look again at the way we make leather and start to think of improved features and benefits to meet our customers needs and expectations better than any cheapskate competition.

Challenged at the top and the bottom ends of the market, leather is at war.

Mike Redwood

mike@mikeredwood.com

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