For our final business meeting, we visited the leather organization called Lineapelle. Specifically we visited their headquarters which they call the LP Fashion Studio where they keep their catalogues and archives. Lineapelle is famous worldwide for its leather convention, where vendors can showcase their leather products and also where a committee decides the trends for the following year. In our meeting we heard about the leather tanning process, the different kinds of leather and the different designs that can artificially be put upon them. Our speaker emphasized that these patterns could never be reproduced artificially, so the natural leather industry would likely persists through innovations in synthetic leather materials.
One thing we learned is that natural leather is so unique and irreproducible that synthetic leathers will likely never offer noticeable competition to natural leather producers. The process for taking an animal hide and turning it into usable leather is complicated and messy, though the same general process has remained the same for the last three thousand years or so. First the hides are cleaned and scrubbed of waste. Leatherworkers only want to use the dermis of the hide, so the epidermis and hypodermis are removed. Then the dermis is sliced into two halves; the upper half retains the pattern of the skin and is more smooth, while the lower half is rougher, more fibrous, and does not resemble the animal’s skin in its appearance. Both parts of the leather have their uses. The lower half is normally thicker and more durable so it can be used to make linings or shoes. The outer part is usually thinner so must be made into products that will not experience as much wear, like handbags and gloves. There are two type of tanning baths, vegetable and chromium. Vegetable baths tend to take longer, sometimes up to six months to give the leather a larger volume. The Chromium bath, which is used for 90% of the leather that is tanned, makes the leather more flexible. After this process, the leather can be treated with finishing chemicals to keep it preserved. Then leather workers can use mechanical techniques to color, imprint, emboss, cut, and otherwise alter the appearance of the leather.
Yesterday we heard that some students had found a method to take grape husks from the wine industry and turn them into leather, and we wondered whether innovations such as this would greatly impact the business of the natural leather companies. Our guide at Lineapelle said she doubted this new type of leather would catch on significantly because the natural look of leather is so unique, varied, and would be impossible to reproduce. In the hundreds of samples we held there must have been forty different animals, and each have their identifying characteristics. For example, the sting ray leather has a hump that cannot be dyed, so it is always white on the final product. Ostrich leather has bumps where feathers pierced the skin. Even when leatherworkers try to reproduce some of these types of leather by imprinting the feather bumps or the sting ray hump, even a novice to the leather business can identify a fake. For this reason, natural leather will always remain in business. The industry has even adapted to calls by animal rights activists and environmentalists to reform their practices. Water and energy use are down 20% from the last twenty years in the tanning of leather, and the suppliers of Lineapelle get their hides as the byproducts of the food industry. This means that the animals whose hides the company uses were raised and slaughtered for food. Since the industry can evolve to become more sustainable, it is not even necessary that new synthetic leathers are developed and popularized. More good news for the leather industry, it is not becoming obsolete as technology advances. In fact, the industry incorporates new technology into the production process all the time. For example, powerful lasers are used to cut intricate holes into leather, which was more time consuming before laser technology developed as it is today.
When we visited the Scuola del Cuoio, we learned about how leather is made into bags, belts, jackets, etc, but our visit today to Lineapelle taught us the processes which are used by people further upstream in the supply chain. Revolutions to the leather industry like synthetic leathers or leathers made of fruit will likely never be able to compete with natural leather because the patterns and textures of natural leather are just not able to be reproduced. Instead, natural leather tanning processes will continue to become more economical, sustainable, and environmentally friendly.