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Exotic leather's predicament dealing with environmental image

1st Nov 2012 , Frik Kriek; SCOT

Recently I attended the Le Cuir and Lineapelle leather fairs in Paris and Bologna where I was pleasantly surprised by the number of young designers who showed an interest in leather in general. Their interest in exotic leather (close to 20 species were exhibited) was notable. As many of them had limited or no knowledge about exotic leather, a special effort was made by the Italhide (SCOT’s agent in Europe) sales staff to explain the process of dealing with exotic leather.

Quite a few of these young designers knew more about the anti-leather campaigns than the real facts about leather in general and even more to the point, exotics in particular. They appreciated the textures of exotic leather, but did not know whether it is “cool” to work with it. Once they had the correct information that the exotics exhibited are legitimate and that there are official structures controlling trade, they were more at ease but not as yet convinced. We hope that with time a realistic perspective about exotic leather will develop.

To address this problem the South African ostrich industry has been co operating for the with several European fashion schools for the past three years to educate students about ostrich leather. This is further backed by industry advertising on a generic level and the industry role players follow in the wake of this with brand marketing. I dare to say that the current strong demand for ostrich leather in the European market, particularly from leading fashion brands can be partially attributed to this project.

In the case of a three-day leather fair, such as Lineapelle one can end up with anything from 250 to 300 enquiries. This does not include those visitors who simply strolled through the stand to browse. The ability to communicate with as many visitors as possible is essential and on the SCOT/ Italhide stand a total of 8 languages could be spoken. For good reasons my Afrikaans was well enjoyed by the Dutch and Flemish speaking visitors.

It was interesting to see how designers approach the different types of exotic leather exhibited. Some will immediately say what they like and don’t like and then there will be the group that have strong negative opinion about exotic leather. Fortunately the latter is a minority. Several designers work through the leather unassisted and will later take up a lot of your time to make sure they understand the product. This is also an opportunity to see how these creative people approach their tasks.

The fashion houses have groups of 3 to 5 designers moving together from stand to stand, usually accompanied by a person from purchasing department or a senior designer. As they move through the stand they discuss how samples of leather in various shades and textures can make a contribution to their next collection. It is much easier to work with designers that have already decided what the main themes of their brand’s next collection will be.

Top, well-known designers seldom attend these exhibitions personally, but their associates do and they are essentially the messengers as to what leather should be considered for their upcoming collections.

There is always a special interest from designers in new finishes and especially new colours. At the most recent Le Cuir and Lineapelle, SCOT presented its new ranges for Spring/Summer 2013 and Autumn/Winter 2013/2014. It was interesting to hear designers’ opinions on these new colour ranges.

Being exposed to this creative environment is an incredibly positive experience. From a commercial perspective, it is interesting to note that one does business with fashion houses whom enjoy double digit growth, which is in most cases driven by the their leather accessories divisions which can represent anything from 40% to 60% of their total turnover.

This is when one realizes again that the real money is not made in tanneries but at these extremely creative organizations.

Back at the tannery one wonders why tanneries are not being properly compensated for the effort they put in to manufacture leather. Further analysis of the situation will bring home the point that technical staff are overwhelmed by having to meet a myriad of government- and customer specifications, for example, what the environmental impact of your operation is, to meeting leather safety specifications of customers. Marketing and sales departments expect that the tannery will meet all these standards, but when one sees to what extent technical colleagues are bogged down in admin to ensure compliance, one wonders were will it end.

I am not saying that these specifications should be removed, but what truly concerns me is how far government and customers are willing to push tanneries to meet even more unrealistic specifications.

The problem in general is that there are several organizations (Greenpeace and PETA) and individuals (Stella McCartney) attacking the leather industry for its environmental practices. This increases pressure on the sale of leather goods by fashion brands and they retaliate towards the tanneries by introducing ever-stringent environmental and safety specifications.

This brings me to the predicament of leather – The industry as a whole is overburdened with controls. Limited resources do not allow for quality time to be spent on projects which require high levels of creativity. The lack of creativity is the reason why tanneries are not properly compensated for the product they produce at great expense. Tanneries simply do the regular thing, going through the motions as it were, as this is what they have time for, and this is what they can sell, even at a loss. Quality improvement of leather is also undermined as a result of this, as there are no new creative steps taken to improve quality and increase the value of the raw material received.

Creativity is the new money and it will be a good investment for tanneries from both a technical- and marketing perspective to organize themselves in such a way to use this wealth-creating ability of being creative to take their businesses to the next level. The normal tasks we execute as management and which we think we are good at just a commodity in today’s day and age - there are many other managers who are also good at their jobs. Creativity is the differentiating edge.

The international leather industry is now through the “Leather Naturally!” campaign establishing an organized departure point to promote leather as a niche-high-value product that is produced by tanneries meeting environmental specifications. This campaign will do a great deal to send out the correct message about leather, which will assist in a more realistic perspective of leather and the manufacturing process. This will allow the industry to spend more creativity on its product and the marketing thereof.




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