Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


“James said ‘I got these sofas in the 90s’. My reply ‘That’s now vintage!’”. This conversation between a colleague and her husband, which she reported on her social media, begs a question on the whole life value of the things we buy, and how they should be viewed and even defined during their lifetime.

In the leather industry, it has long been understood how long leather items last. Most tanners have many cherished items that have been with them or their families for many years, even decades. Only in recent years has it been understood how significant this is in sustainability terms and how fundamental it is to an honest story about leather as a material.

As studies continue on the circular economy, what was first called “product life extension” about 40 years ago is now recognised as one of the most important elements in reducing emissions and slowing the depletion of scarce planetary resources.

Most leather articles we own have spent the years wearing in, not wearing out, and have become a natural part of daily life. A couch where the family gathers at the end of the day or a favourite chair to spend the evening watching the television in. These objects gather personality and become friends. Whether they should be classed as vintage is largely irrelevant, although people like labels. It is the value of the longevity which really matters.

Longevity matters

With longevity comes the thought of maintenance, repair and refurbishment. It is much discussed that consumers should buy less but pay a little more to buy lasting quality. There is evidence that this is starting to happen here and there as inflation and political/economic worries make consumers cautious and move away from an overly large proportion of impulse purchases. Certainly, some middle and lower cost brands are finding long overdue food for thought as sales slip.

At the expensive end, some famous brands that I grew to admire in the 1980s and 1990s have reduced quality, using cheaper components and poorer construction to increase margins and shift more income to advertising. This has reduced product lifespans and is now impacting sales. In high quality areas of the market, the integrity of the materials and the product is everything.

There is an active discussion going on in the UK around footwear repair, as one repairer is now able to repair over 90% of all leather footwear. What remains unresolved is the cost and convenience. If the repair will cost £50 (US$63), a pair of shoes costing £200 (US$253) or more will likely be repaired, but how about a pair that costs £70 (US$88) or £100 (US$127)? Footwear is one of the most complex items made using leather to collect and recycle at end-of-life so a solution must be found.

Consumers who prefer to buy articles that last are more likely to seek out items that they see as actual or potential “classics”. This is born out now by some of what is happening in the complex luxury market in China. Here, the high-end luxury companies appear to be outperforming the so-called “accessible” luxury sector.

I have recently seen it noted that China’s second-hand luxury market has jumped to over US$8 billion in recent years – a phenomenon now being seen in other parts of Southeast Asia. This is very much a market of “classic” articles. It also all goes to explain why we saw more “quiet” luxury on recent catwalks, and solid colour long “trench coats” from many brands – including some in leather – at the Milan Fashion Week.

In as much as we have definitions, “antique” would be over 100 years old and “vintage” over 40, although clothing, cars and furniture all follow different rules. Vintage in clothing, for example, is normally representative of the style of the period and, for cars, the word classic is often used and sometimes even has a definition for taxation purposes. For more recent items, we often use the word “retro”.

Buy things we will use and maintain

What is important is that we start to buy less, take longer over considering each purchase and buy things we know we will use, maintain, repair and not replace for a long time.

It is hard to imagine what my colleague would make of our house, where most furniture we bought over 40 years ago. Even if she does start to class articles as vintage after only 20 years, if this represents that she, and other consumers, see long term value in them, we are starting to win.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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