When I first started to visit Spain for business I regularly attended a great niche exhibition in Barcelona called Pielespaña. The show took place in a single hall of the Fira de Barcelona and was largely a showcase for Spanish high quality small skin tanners of sheep/goat nappa, doubleface and suede. There was also some fur.

Pielespaña took place each January and the warmth of the Mediterranean even in January was a lot more preferable to the frozen north of Europe.

Off the back of my trip to Pielespaña I would often visit the Spanish Tanners’ Association, CEC-Acexpiel (or at least the Catalan majority part of it) and then head off to see some tanners around Barcelona and further inland to the tanning towns of Igualada and Vic.

These were the pre or early Internet years of the late 1990s and CEC along with the recently merged association representing tanners around the Valencia region, Fecur-Fecurex had about 400 active members and the sheep and goatskin tanners were among the best and largest in the world. Spain made leather can be defined by a blend of quality production, southern European design flair which is produced by a backbone of hard working family owned businesses.

Fast forward 15 years or so and the picture in Spain is very different today. It could almost be seen as a microcosm of the way the whole Spanish economy has changed particularly since the banking crisis of 2008 which led to Spain and others in Europe to receiving a financial bail-out from the EU.

Today, the Valencian arm of the tanners association exists by name only; Pielespaña closed its doors for the last time years ago. Famous tanners such as Colomer y Munmany are now based in China and the once tanning hub of Vic only has one tannery left that I know of. Well known names such Rodrigo Sancho, Genis Antel, Curtidos Nules, Tenerias Alfa, Colomer y Munmany, Curtidos Codina and many more no longer make leather in Spain under their own name or have gone completely.

Today, there are barely 60 members of the Spanish Tanners’ Association, Acexpiel. That’s a decline of more than three quarters in around a decade.

So what went wrong? Well I guess there are a number of reasons why some tanners found a way through while others fell by the wayside.

Many Spanish tanners, especially in the garment sector failed to see or react to the growing presence and competition of Chinese and Turkish tanners. The Chinese took the volume orders as the garment makers headed east while the Turkish offered fashion and design but at a better price.

It was the same in the footwear sector. Many tanners failed to see the shift East and the closure or relocation of cheaper footwear producers out of the footwear centres of Elda and Elche. Some shoe makers went to North Africa, others to Asia and many went bust. Meanwhile, Spain is tied to the euro and exporters had to live with the single currency and all the pros and cons that came with it.

Many tanners in Spain did not adapt, sold only black and brown and were killed off by the competition as the domestic market shrank.

Lessons learned

Although the experience in the Spanish tanning industry has been painful, some lessons have been learned by those remaining. Those that adapted, went for high fashion, technical innovation and luxury are doing much better today. Tanners such as Inpelsa, La Doma, Fontanellas I Marti, Riba Guixa or Incusa are still regarded as world class and the number of tannery closures has slowed down recently.

A classic case of survival of the fittest.

Martin Ricker