The language of leather

Redwood Comment
Published:  24 June, 2020
Dr Mike Redwood

A few weeks ago I was intrigued to see an unexpected response to an item I wrote here from Gustavo Gonzalez-Quijano, the longstanding Secretary-General of Cotance.

When writing about the need to promote the craftsmanship element in the production of leather and items made from it, he felt that the word ‘craftsmanship’ does not reflect all the facets involved in these complex activities. He suggested that the French term métiers d'art’ embraces more of the concepts involved. Made famous by its use by Chanel for some of its shows, ‘métiers d'art’ does indeed better express the artisanal skills and traditions that are, as he describes, “the source of wealth and employment in our countries, and the origin of beauty and culture in our society”. Precisely the skills that Chanel have been preserving in the workshops, most of them leather related, they have been buying up since 1984; how many other countries must wish they had a Chanel over the last 50 years!

The French terms ‘métiers d'art’ and ‘la filière cuir’ are exceptionally expressive and do seem perfect for our leather industry with its special ancient and modern combination that mixes nature, work by hand and the scientific approach to manufacturing that leather needs from its many partners in a complex network. We certainly require a way to incorporate these wider concepts into our language, through better translation or perhaps appropriation of the French.

At the same time, the relaunch of the leather industry into the uncertain world of the post-Covid era needs us all to up our game, whatever the language.

Our trade stands have changed little in the last fifty years, and our sales talk still often sounds as though we are living in the past. While most tanneries have modernised processes and equipment, so that the modern tannery is totally different from the ‘dark satanic mills’ of history, the vocabulary we use externally about our material is steeped in history and introversion.

Those who have done even a basic business management course will recognise our insider language – corrected grain, semi-aniline, full grain – as technical terms used in manufacture; when they slip into customer education and sales or marketing literature, they soon become incomprehensible to a customer whose interest lies in the look and the feel of the leather, and whether it is fit for purpose.

This is taught as indicative of a business approach that relates to business life in the middle of last century when consumers were slowly getting richer and products for them to buy were only starting to become available. In current times, we need to have language much more oriented towards the consumer; designed to excite them with its relevance to their current lives. Increasingly, now tanners will be dialoguing directly with consumers, so this is now urgent.

The beauty, the patina and the longevity of leather
While a few remaining skilled buyers may still like to converse in industry jargon, the language we use outside the tannery needs to change completely. We certainly need to be honest and transparent about the origins of leather. That is exactly what the new legislation in Italy on the term ‘leather’ is all about, and we must be clear about matters like suede and velour etc., but our language must relate far more to the beauty, the patina and the longevity of leather rather than chrome tanned or synthetic tanned.

Allied to this is ensuring that our language does not slide into ‘greenwash’, which is a great danger when we heavily promote leather as sustainable. Properly made leather certainly deserves that title, but marketing ‘chrome free’, ‘vegetable’, ‘biodegradable’ or ‘heavy metal’ free is fraught with risk if the terms are not carefully defined. A chemical industry study on ‘heavy metals’ identified 36 different definitions and concluded it was a confusing term that no chemist should use. Throwing such terms into a sales document because we think it sounds good or will make a quick win damages the integrity of our industry.

The comment made added that “we need a new start based on authenticity, beauty and goodness”. Taken literally, this is absolutely right.

Mike Redwood
June 24, 2020

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

Publication and Copyright of "Redwood Comment" remains with the publishers of International Leather Maker. The articles cannot be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the publisher.