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As consumers move relentlessly from buying things to paying for experiences, one thing I expect to start doing well is Sleeper trains, certainly in Europe. A couple of years ago this suggestion would have been laughable as it looked as though their time was over. Yet, I am writing this in the dining lounge of a sleeper train heading from London to the north of Scotland. After supper and a taste or two of whisky with friends, I will retire and return in the morning for breakfast as we hurry through the Scottish highland scenery as dawn is breaking.
The big deal that travellers and providers have grasped is that this journey replaces a both a flight and a hotel with a relaxed town centre to town centre journey. Rather than giving up on such services, I hear the plans are to improve and extend them throughout Europe.
Shift to experiential
Given what is happening in hotels and coffee shops, as well as on regular trains and planes, leather should play a big part. It is comfortable and luxurious as well as being long lasting and sustainable, with very low maintenance compared with textiles. A hundred years ago, these trains would never have used anything other than leather but since then standards have slipped as short-term cost savings moved to the top of the agenda. On this elderly train that I am on, with probably the same rolling stock and fittings that my father travelled on some decades ago, it is largely a textile emporium where the frequently renewed material is perfectly serviceable but does not contribute to a memorable experience.
This continuous evolution is what we have to expect to see more of in coming years. As less leather, proportionately, goes into footwear and the automobile market restructures after 100 years of the self-piloted internal combustion engine, new areas will open-up. Some of these, like in transport, may well be old markets suddenly rejuvenated but all will require major innovation in leather. 21st specifications for leather for trains are very different from 19th century ones.
And all innovations in the leather industry have to recognise the variable nature of our raw material. When we began Leather Naturally, I remember we were told that all leather was easily sold, and promotion would only create demand for which there is no additional raw material. The future would lie, it was argued in pushing leather towards the so-called luxury sector. What this fails to see is that only the top grades are accepted in the luxury segments. Like it or not, the 20 billion plus square feet of leather made every year include a wide variety of grades each of which needs to find a profitable home. Often, the innovative work required for what we define as the lower grades is much greater than that at the top, where classic leathers sell more easily. The traditional route of hiding defects with plastic coatings is closing down, as synthetics and other alternates increasingly fill that space. Innovative leathers need to find ways of capitalising on leathers’ two key strengths: performance and beauty.
Dr Mike Redwood
7th November 2017
Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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