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"A glove turns an event into an occasion" says Andrew Lawson of Cornelia James. He is standing in the sunshine outside the small factory in the south of England where he and his wife Genevieve produce the gloves regularly worn by the Queen, the Duchess of Cambridge and dozens of celebrities and pop-stars.
The business was started in 1946 by Genevieve's mother who had come from Vienna with glove making skills and a suitcase full of leather. Yet the success of the Cornelia James brand comes not from leather but from fabric gloves making the designer luxury affordable for the ordinary consumer.
Gloves constitute just one of many areas where the rising price of leather and the lack of updating and innovation is leading to leather being squeezed out of end uses. Tutenkhamen's gloves were linen and the Pope's have always been silk so leather and textiles have shared the marketplace forever, but clever developments with merino, cashmere and coated fabrics are now letting textiles pull ahead. In work gloves and some sportswear, new materials and techniques have totally disrupted the market; and since the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late 20th century we are now consuming over 160 billion disposable latex gloves each year. Some of these new materials and fibres mean that gloves can be constructed from the ground up to meet requirements for fit, dexterity and performance. Computerised knitting machines can create a glove in just six minutes from a huge variety of fibres.
Today it is estimated (accurate leather trade statistics do not exist any more) that four percent of the 23 billion square feet of leather we make annually goes into gloving. For how long? Think of the millions of square feet of pigskin (pigskin is 11% of the total) that goes into work gloves. It is hard to believe that this market for pigskin will exist in ten years time. And we do like to eat it. Is the future for pigskins, other than small quantities for footwear and garments, to be left on the carcass and eaten as food?
There are other markets threatened such as athletic footwear where new materials are outperforming leather as leather rises in price. It is a moment of change and as tanners we need to think it through and respond with new product development and appropriate product positioning.
Leather in gloves is far from dead, but it has a changing role. In the areas of luxury, lifestyle and some performance categories leather remains supreme. But we cannot let it stand still. We need to stop assuming the supremacy of leather and start to prove it through great products day in and day out. Fabric gloves by Cornelia James are fantastic value and are complimentary to leather: they should be in every ladies' wardrobe. If more consumers bought Cornelia James' gloves there would be far more "occasions" at which leather gloves would also be perfect.
But if we do not think about these things and continue to think of leather as a commodity then we are doomed. Deservedly.
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