He went on: they solemnised the rite of driving, adding tactile delicacy to the matter of addressing the steering wheel, the prime interface between man and machine. Ponder the real and occult meanings of ‘steering wheel’;  it speaks of authority, of a personal destiny inflected by the deft manual movements of a proprietor. But before long, in the driverless car, the wheel (and the gloves) will be obsolete. So what will replace it as the cult object in the religion of the car?

Whether we talk of gloves, steering wheels or upholstery, leather is involved with a role that is more than a matter of mere performance. “Tactile delicacy” and “prime interface” are complex concepts that mix the mental and the physical. Yet, there is nothing tanners can do if changes in the automobile market are indeed going to kill off the need for driving gloves (if that did not end with the arrival of air-conditioning) or steering wheels; and this has happened to countless uses for leather over time. One hundred years ago, Bayley would have written something very similar about horse drawn vehicles, talking about riding gloves and saddles.

Quite apart from technological drivers, society and consumers evolve. Despite all the negatives, there remains today a significant section of society who want materials like leather to become more prominent for such reasons as its natural origins, its health benefits or delight at its touch or appearance. Where innovation and marketing in the leather industry must combine, is in translating these latent needs into modern leathers with the appropriate physical and experiential properties for every changing end uses.

Increasingly, the needs that must be met include the immediacy requirements consumers have come to demand from the digital society we live in. This was discussed in 2016 at the Tannery of the Future session at APLF, and sometimes feels as though it has been quietly overlooked. It was anticipated that tanners would have to rethink some of their working routines and bring an end to the “comfort areas” in a tannery, such as work in process and various other stocks around the plant that do not contribute to faster delivery.

But there is more to be added here. Consumers want to engage with brands in a wide variety of ways, and the tannery must support brands to create personalised purchase journeys be it in on line, or in store. While some sectors can still support large orders, this new environment increasingly requires smaller orders allowing for a more personalised service.  As we have seen in sports footwear and in some automobile sectors, leading brands set themselves up to work with co-producers rather than viewing the public merely as potential consumers. This means that in many sectors the blockbuster new leather that comes from a laboratory and sells with little variation in large volumes may now be a thing of the past.

Dr Mike Redwood

April 4, 2018


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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