The problem for sheepskins is in everyday life
In the high fashion world, sheepskins have actually managed to stay quite prominent, and at that top end of “luxury” with which the leather trade has been besotted for the last decade, leather continues to do well. The problem for sheepskins is in everyday life. For centuries a leather coat has been the essential item to get out at the start of autumn. It was the affordable material that got the everyday citizen – and the wealthy – through the cold and the damp. It even withstood heavy rain, although took a little while to recover. It lasted for years, and when ripped or torn, if it could not be repaired, the leather was repurposed into purses and small leather goods.

Two things appear to have driven leather garments from this regular street wear: technical textiles and plastics. In many instances the umbrella term plastic covers both. The arrival of fleeces and quilted jackets sourced in huge numbers and offered at very low cost into both mature and emerging market places quickly marginalised the role of leather into defined categories; but away from the one that shouted quality and value in this space. The consumer was being driven by … well… “modern consumerism”.

For those who still liked to buy an autumn leather jacket, this evolved in some markets into a casual black coat mixing bomber, varsity and flying jacket styles, often using rather unappealing, heavily painted leathers. Elsewhere, it remained a more upmarket formal look using aniline nappa from sources such as better Spanish skins. The larger, lower price market has recently taken a hit by the extensive introduction of synthetics. What is worrying is that like some of the people in Helsinki, this is seen as progress.

A national nightmare and planetary disaster
Zara, owned by Inditex, are one of those using more of this synthetic, but they are also committed to getting to a more environmentally sound position by 2025, although their definitions at the moment look weak. If you see a contradiction here, you are right. The first move back to sustainability would replace all that damaging oil-based synthetic material with leather, available locally and offering better performance and longer lasting beauty. Spain is a country that is famous for its wonderful leather and its style. To have a Spanish global fashion leader ignore it in the pursuit of fast fashion and short-term profits must be seen as a national nightmare, as well as a planetary disaster.

In a time of steadily rising global temperatures, using more leather makes environmental sense, but also has become more practical. The heavy quilted coats become overkill, the polyester fleece becomes less useful – not helped by shedding microplastic fibres with every wash. Rising temperatures offer a gap for new styles and new leathers at different thicknesses and performance levels. As an industry, we should recreate a new space for all categories and prices of garments made of leather.

Back in 2007, the UK produced a report entitled The Great Sheep industry and the Juicy Fifth Quarter. It noted that nearly all UK skins were being exported and wanted to develop home capacity for at least 500,000 pelts per annum. This has never happened, but what is worse, no one in the world actually wants these skins. And the UK is not alone in this dreadful dilemma of having sheepskins that are unsaleable.

This is the moment for an industry to rethink. Are we so short of innovative ideas that we cannot create products and markets for all of our available raw material. Climate change makes it imperative and suggests the sweet spot in the market.

Mike Redwood
August 7, 2019

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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