All Italy was exceptional but Santa Croce was without any doubt the world leader in the process of continuous innovation. It relentlessly brought products to market that perfectly hit the spot. More often than not the leathers were produced from less than perfect raw material. The term “making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” could have been invented on the banks of the Arno at that time. It was certainly always being quoted.

Visitors pretended to buy machinery or chemicals from the local producers as they fought for a chance to see round the tanneries and discover the secret. Designers were hired to sneak onto their stands at fairs and get swatch books, or secretly cut pieces off the hanging leathers. An English tanner published a full page colour trade advert (who does those any more) saying Arrivederci Santa Croce to try and stop their customers from fleeing to Italy for all their leather. Occasionally an individual leather might get copied but the process was never understood. It was the amazing mix of explicit and tacit knowledge that makes great companies unassailable as long as they never get complacent.

The power of Santa Croce was the ability to look at a raw material and build a leather out if it that the consumer would love. The shoe and bag makers were part of the process, willing to take a leather and see where it could take them.

But then somehow globalisation took over and sameness became the norm. Top grades were full aniline, bottom grades were corrected and in between were semi aniline and pigmented. What is a consumer to make of names like that?

This is the inevitable route to commodities and as Leather Naturally! argued from the beginning commodity leather is vulnerable to substitution. As hide prices rise, low-end leather sees margins shrink and plastics start to steal market share from leather.

Sunrise again

At last week’s All China Leather Exhibition in Shanghai perhaps we are seeing a change; the Santa Croce spirit was back with a contemporary twist. Tanners are again thinking about innovation with the end user in mind, and working on showing the consumer the characteristics that prove they really are buying leather and not any old material. Suddenly what was the problem low-end looks like an opportunity.

Let us hope that these launches in Shanghai is followed by success in Milan and Paris. The leather industry needs to build consumer benefits out of the natural features of hides and skins. And with it comes volume and profit.

Mike Redwood

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood