Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


If you want to attract a bit of controversy and a lot of readers in the leather industry, produce angry articles and speeches. Label every type of biomaterial or biopolymer as plastic and therefore an enemy of leather to be attacked without restraint. Leave no room for ambiguity, compromise or the actual facts. Yet cellophane, invented just over 100 years ago, is a biopolymer and is perfectly biodegradable.

I support maverick thinking and off the wall ideas but being deliberately controversial or using anger as a marketing tool is quite different. Nor should we expend effort chasing readers or followers on social media through this deliberately divisive approach, which sadly now appears seems to be the standard even on LinkedIn, which has lost the gravity and usefulness it once had.

Last week, I asked the leather industry to avoid enshittification and stay embedded in the best of old values and remain embedded in their community, making wonderful leather. As usual, I received a few comments through a variety of routes. These were all simple messages about the joy of making leather, which has always been a uniting factor in our industry, but it was the passion with which so many identified with leather that was outstanding. It may be that people are switching jobs during their career, but this is less likely in leather and often, as in my own case, any switching is within the industry.

Proud to be making leather

The tanning group Boxmark let it be known that it was proud to have been making leather “for over 200 years. And we will never apologise for it!” while the head of sales at Olivenleder just added his self-started hashtag #lovemyleatherjob, which is a reminder of the successful Cotance “Leather is my job!” campaign that ended about 10 years ago. In this industry, employees talked about how they came to be working in the leather industry and came to love the material and all the career opportunities available in leather.

We have always known that leather creates delight via its unique sensory characteristics of touch, appearance and odour, all of which can be varied depending on raw material, processing and purpose. While tanning has become an engineered product, it has never lost the need for the human touch and that judgment by which a clever tanner can turn a beautiful product into a work of art. When consumers are asked about their favourite leather item, the answer invariably relates to something they have had for many years. An item like a sofa that has become the family location for end of the day reflection, or a handbag that has lasted years gaining familiarity and character with every outing.

A mysterious term

I remember talking some years ago with the President of the Italian vegetable-tanned leather consortium as he explained that if two consumers bought identical handbags within a month the bags would be quite different. Heavy or light usage, the varied weight and shape of the contents and the look of the leather itself would adapt – that mysterious term, “patina”, which mixes normal aging with a seeming ability to adopt every mark and stain as a natural evolution rather than a blemish. And nearly always the bag would change from a mere useful carrier to a cherished possession, a trusted friend. Herein lies the love and the joy of the material we produce.

Somewhere in the background lives that other technical term – meaning the love of natural things – “biophilia”. It is a term more used in buildings and cities, and not one much used in leather, but we do see it in the heavy consumption of leather to cover our technological gadgets and give them some humanities. Increasingly, leather has been moving into interior design in modern buildings in furniture, reception desk coverings and floorings, where it helps soften the echoing acoustic of metal and glass. Leather is increasingly used in public transport, since cameras have reduced mindless vandalism, as it offers low cost via longevity and easy care along with a feel of luxurious comfort for the commuter.

And the versatility of leather is also one of its delights. What other material has turned its hand to so many things over history and is asked to help fill gaps as we go forward? Just as now there are thoughts that an updated cellophane should return to replace the polypropylene, which displaced it in packaging, the short life and end of life issues created by coated synthetic textiles are starting to demand more use of leather.

As we move through what looks like a tough round of trade fairs, with some closures and consolidation on the cards, we need to remind ourselves that it is the joy of leather making that brought us here, the beauty and the resilience of the material we work with. I hear it from the young designers involved in the competitions and workshops around the world and see it in the myriad hobbyists and startups who want to use leather in different ways. Let us spend less time attacking windmills and more time celebrating the wonder that is leather. It is infectious.

As you travel, step aside now and then from the day-to-day worries, take the opportunity to enjoy as much leather as you can and live the thought #lovemyleatherjob.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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