Mike Redwood


International Leather Maker

As the leather industry gears up to return to Hong Kong for APLF next week, International Women’s Day has reminded us that Mao Zedong was right when he said that “women hold up half the sky”.

In many ways over these past four decades, APLF has led the way in putting skilled female staff in key roles to run this vitally important trade fair. The work that Perrine Ardouin and her colleagues like Ida Kwok did to keep APLF relevant through fast changing, and sometimes difficult, times has been outstanding. I am proud to see that, as times have advanced past Covid and the itinerant days, the new team has steadily evolved to still include many of those I have known over the years and view as friends.

Throughout the leather industry, such a transformation has not been so apparent, and it is arguable that the current situation has not substantially improved since when Catherine Money, Betty Haines and, further back, Mary Dempsey rose to prominence. Areas such as marketing and sustainability have brought in more women, but we are still a long way off from seeing them holding a significant proportion of senior technical positions or trade organisation leadership.

Women in prominent industry roles

It would be wrong of course to ignore the outstanding achievement of Chiara Mastrotto in winning the 2023 EY Entrepreneur Award or of Debbie Burton taking on the role of Chair at Leather Naturally. Equally, Deborah Taylor has also made a prominent statement with her exceptionally competent establishment of the Sustainable Leather Foundation.

An even newer group could be set to make a mark with new thinking on supply chains. I was delighted to find myself sharing a platform recently with Alice Robinson, author of Field, Fork, Fashion and co-founder of British Pasture Leather, which carefully chooses raw material from regenerative farms whose processes and husbandry they are comfortable with and conducts them through to a finished product that creates a transparent total supply line with deep integrity. Working on a somewhat similar basis in the U.S. is Danielle Dotzenrod of BEHUMANE Leather, who was very well received at the 2023 Annual ALCA Convention.

While Europe and the U.S. may hold the lead in a poor situation, the skills apparent in the APLF management do leave a question mark over the general situation in Asia. The large number of Chinese students I have seen going through business management, luxury and leather undergraduate and Masters courses have always led me to expect them to make a major impact before long. It is certainly good to see one or two in place but so many outstanding students should have been able to move forward more rapidly.

A decade ago, for a few years I used to give a visiting lecture to the Southampton University Masters in Luxury Brand Management taught on their Winchester Campus. There were normally one or two Japanese or Taiwanese students among a group of about 20 otherwise entirely Chinese students, mostly women with no more than a token man. There may well have been a number of rich youngsters passing time as “permanent” students, but the majority were alert, active and clearly intelligent.

The sessions I was involved in always felt electric while they came to realise how deeply high-quality leather penetrated almost every luxury sector as the main material or a major subsidiary one. Discussions and questions always went well beyond time. The Chinese management students at Bath University were similarly bright but less vocal and it took a while to persuade them that management required forming their own judgement about situations rather than regurgitating theory. Once past that hurdle, the intellect and application were apparent.

So where are those women now? Why is the Financial Times calling them invisible? Despite having a daughter schooled at Harvard, Xi Jinping appears to have taken a different approach and retreated back towards an ancient patriarchy. The International Women’s Day in China spent little time looking for female business leaders and largely promoted a shift towards natural cosmetics for the mature Chinese woman, or the freedoms offered by the artistic aspects of life.

Changing landscape

As we look forward in leather to what clearly continues to be a fast-changing landscape driven by thoughts on sustainability and resilience that are visible in supply chains throughout the world, the leather industry must ensure that women get access to senior roles to help drive the changes we need. We have started to see some major generational handovers in the leather business, but it has so far still mostly been the patrilineal primogeniture. As this continues, we need to see more daughters and, when we look at our institutions, there are plenty of places where strong leadership will be required and a full and open list of candidates must be considered.

We have one other person we should acknowledge, a tanner with experience across the globe – Dr Christine Anscombe, who remains totally dedicated to the leather industry. Currently working for SATRA, she is supportive of all the main industry bodies and has been taking a lead role in getting the industry together to consider the implications of the recent announcements about the future of leather at the University of Northampton.


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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