Years ago, when I was the designer at Mulberry, I remember showing some important customers around the factory in Somerset. One of them was fascinated by the fact that the leather wasn’t supplied on an endless roll, like fabric would be. Of course, she quickly realised the impossibility of this but, with the fashion industry all about fast and seamless (no pun intended) production, I can see how she was thinking in this way…
I recently took an MD from the fashion world (for a company I’m doing some consulting for) to a leather trade fair in Milan. He was stunned by how many tanneries were showing, the scale of the leather goods industry, the vast selection available. And bowled over with how to choose one from another (and this was a tiny fair compared to the main one!)
So with such a specialist material, the huge selection and endless suppliers where do you start when choosing a leather?
After 18 years I know quite a lot, and I like to think I know what’s good. I certainly know what I like and why I like it.
But the tanneries themselves are the real experts. For me, the skill of turning a by-product of the meat industry into a beautiful leather is akin to turning water into wine.
It is, when done well, a kind of miracle.
And just like wine, a good leather is not just about the type and colour of the raw ingredients, but also the water, the climate, the people, the preferred taste of the region. Those little ways of doing things that make something individual.
So, the first secret is knowing the ‘good’ tanneries. What’s good for you may not be good for someone else, of course. But you need to choose your tannery to supply the look and feel, the signature, you are after. And then developing a trust that what you are buying is really going to age well and, if you are after a ‘vintage quality’, get better with time.
A lot of countries have a tanning history but Italy, for me, still has the best selection, the most creative craftsmen, and a genuine love for making something special still intact.
I always like to get a trip in to the tanneries near Florence when I can… not the prettiest Tuscan experience, admittedly. But there is something wonderful about the making of a beautiful leather out of these ancient processes…
And what’s lovely is you can see and feel, and even smell, this history in the character of the finished bag. It’s part of it, wherever it travels.