At the first World Leather Congress held just a few years ago in Rio, the Chairman of JBS Couros proclaimed loudly during his keynote speech that Brazilian tanners had to start selling like the Italians. My contribution to the event was just a three-minute intervention but it did allow me to say that what was really meant was not “selling like the Italians”, but basic marketing.

With a back drop closely integrated with world leading fashion and style, the Italian tanners built an industry of medium sized, highly flexible plants. When I worked there in the 1970s, my company had twelve “tanneries” some of which would be very quiet until the next new leather had been developed and then rush into action when a leather had been successfully developed to make use of a raw material purchase; the contracting out system meant that some tanneries were just equipped with a few retanning drums and some spraying equipment, with most other tasks done in workshops around town. Some eighty percent of the raw material used was imported from all round the world, so the life of the Italian tanner was largely built around making leathers of great character suited to premium Italian brands, mixing classical leathers on European veal and calfskin with clever development work on much lower grade material often bought in spot lots.

Italian inventiveness

The Italian tanners were famed for this inventiveness with leather, creating elegant sumptuous items from what others considered inferior raw skins. Their close working with customers, an approach much commended today, meant that no item was sold as a “commodity”. Every piece of leather made in Italy was special, and was sold at a full price that allowed the tanner to keep investing in new buildings and equipment. Their use of trade shows, their packaging, logos and sample swatches (I still have samples of all three from those days as it was some of the best branding I have seen) as well as the whole innovation and product development process was quite excellent.

What Italian leather had then, some fifty years ago, was not merely clever Italian selling but the best of marketing; just as we are seeing today. As I am writing this Lineapelle is holding its outreach trend show in London. Additionally, the Genuine Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather Consortium from Tuscany, despite its incredibly long name, does excellent work with fashion and design colleges around the world and in the design world in general with its extensive activities.

Since the first World Leather Congress in Brazil there have been many changes, not least the Chairman of JBS himself, and the Brazilian CICB is now a leader in using a wide variety of marketing skills to push the leather industry into a more desirable position.

The Congress in Shanghai, taking place on August 29, will be organised by the co-hosts TILA and the China Leather Industry Association (CLIA), under the broad banner of the ICT with APLF as Founding Sponsor. Quite a complex structure but it looks like the attendees will get to understand just how far the industry has moved in its understanding and application of marketing since the first congress in 2011. An important event to attend.

Mike Redwood

12th July 2017

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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