Mike Redwood


International Leather Maker

News of the death of Franco Rosati of Italian tanner David Group, aged 97, has meant a weekend of contemplation in our family. Born in Santa Croce sull’Arno, he was one of the creators of the Renaissance in Italian leather after the Second World War. From simple backgrounds, they captured a heady mix of creativity and modernity in the production of leather. Press reports remind us that he founded Il Veliero with two partners and then went on to create the Rosati Group (subsequently renamed the David Group) in the early 1970s.

Franco Rosati – the gentleman

My early memories of Franco Rosati come from around 1974, when we were persuaded to join the Rosati Group and move to Italy. The unfurnished apartment they found for us in Florence had no power for the first couple of weeks and, when he discovered this, he immediately intervened and found portable lights and other things we needed to get through this and settle in happily.

In the hot summer period, a siesta was normal where workers and staff took an extended lunch break to rest at home in the hot part of the day; something that may become more common all round the world given current global temperatures. This gave me two problems. First, it destroyed my evenings as, in suggesting we live in Florence, I had an hour’s drive after the extended and, second, figuring out where to go while everything was shut in the day.

Mr Rosati dealt with the latter by arranging that I had lunch at a local restaurant called Bei (I have no idea if it is still there). There, the friendly staff allowed me to sit and read my copy of The Economist over an extended coffee, and I made many friends among others doing the same thing. He offered a solid, available presence for advice in all matters and was a gentleman who I greatly respected for the simplicity and openness of his approach to all matters.

An infinite feeling of creativity

The Rosati Group, at that time, comprised about a dozen tanneries but only one lime yard with most of the plants involved in retanning plus some or all finishing. Specialist units were used to carry out operations that the tannery did not have. This could be anything from shaving, vacuum drying through to printing and pressing. This system of small units and third party working allied to close contact with stylists meant an almost infinite feeling of creativity in all that was being done.

Equipment was kept up to date and processes were designed for effectiveness and efficiency rather than being trapped in unionised rules, such as those I had left in England. The structure offered opportunities to experiment, and the concentration of activity meant that ancillary services such as machinery, chemicals, packaging, transportation and simpler matters such as rapid cutting of swatch books were all to hand.

The concept of Santa Croce leather

The area focused on veal skins and quickly developed sources of adjacent material types they could import that would fit this mentality and customer base. This meant making use of smaller hides from emerging markets around the world whose much lower grain quality tested the tanner’s ingenuity. With clever use of prints, drumming, staining and other techniques, great leathers were produced without resorting to heavy pigmentation. All the leathers remained natural in look and touch. The concept of Santa Croce leather was born.

Lanfranco Catastini

Another of the founders of the Rosati Group that I joined was Lanfranco Catastini, who died in 2017, also at a great age. His career did not start on the land but in journalism as a foreign correspondent. He entered the leather business across the river Arno in Ponte a Egola trading hides and sole leather before getting involved in the setting up of Conceria David and linking into Il Veleiro. He appeared to be the senior decision maker in the group, often to be found working at the end of the measuring machine, while contemplating the next strategic move.

I last wrote about Santa Croce in this way in 2014, hoping that the wider leather industry was getting more interested in being truly innovative and creative. With only a few exceptions that has not happened. Trade is difficult today. Consumers are conserving their cash. China’s economy is in some trouble. While inflation may be falling, it is still high and many consumers are struggling with energy costs and food bills. And the latter will increase and get scarce after Russia’s decision to weaponise food.

Part of the current problem for tanners has been complacency. Continuing to make only the same beautiful classic leathers works for some consumer groups, but not for the younger, urbanised global citizens who dominate today’s purchasers in most categories. Losing those pioneers who started the Santa Croce tradition is a marker for change. The world is different in the 2020s from the 1970s so there is no going back. But we must revitalise to retain and grow market share. New leathers, new approaches, new collaborations and some new thinking are all needed.


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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