Luxury leather goods: How much do we care about provenance?
By Tree Elven
We used to think of leather as a by-product of meat, particularly those of us who grew up in farming country.
Now, the provenance of leathers used in luxury apparel and accessories, and in high-end vehicle interiors, is coming under a lot more scrutiny, with organisations like PETA reporting horrendous animal abuse in the global skin trade – as well as production processes that are harmful to individual workers and the environment.
Behind the Leather
This shocking PETA campaign, ‘Behind the Leather’, became a byword in awareness-building when it came out in 2017. What looks like a regular luxury leather ad for a high-end collection in Bangkok, Thailand, turns to horror as browsing potential customers open the attractive items on display.
“I have two calfskin bags and never really thought of the implications,” admits one UK-based senior solicitor who says she intends to be more cautious in her buying habits now she’s more aware. “Chanel and Bottega Veneta both sell beautifully soft leather bags and I suspect they are from young animals. I doubt they make this clear. The high-end brands will want to be seen to be doing the right thing but if the best product has questionable provenance I suspect they and their customers will turn a blind eye.”
The encouraging news is that awareness really has improved, over the past decade in particular, and alternatives to leather are emerging. One designer making a mark is Joshua Katcher, founder of Brave GentleMan in New York. “There is absolutely no reason to use animals in fashion,” he insists in this video explaining how he sources alternative materials for vegan fashion.
Reclaiming and upcycling is a growing trend: in London, husband and wife team John and Katy Maskell Bell set up Lost Property of London (LPOL) in 2009 with the aim of ‘redefining luxury one bag at a time’. LPOL reclaims and upcycles locally sourced leather, and uses all its own off-cuts and surplus to produce small goods, one-off gifts and artist collaborations in a zero-waste cycle.
In 2016, the Animal Welfare Group (AWG) was set up in the UK as part of the global Leather Working Group, which aims to provide “an environmental stewardship protocol specifically for the leather manufacturing industry”.
Britain’s largest luxury leather designer and manufacturer, Mulberry (main pic at top), states that “all of the leathers used in our collections are a by-product of food production” and conform to high ethical standards. Other luxury British purveyors such as Trevor Pickett and Whitehouse Cox also point to their provenance credentials with pride. An estimated 30 tanneries across the UK continue to ply their trade using hides from home and abroad.
What’s that you just sat in?
Another area of concern in the luxury leather market is car interiors. Top marques are more than aware of the diminishing and even detrimental appeal of real animal hide for car seats. Seats may be made from mature cows whose milk-producing life has ended, but when you think that that animal’s five-year life is spent in an exhausting cycle of calf-bearing and intensive milking, it doesn’t seem too ethical either.
And that’s not to mention the chemical-heavy aspect of production which can wreak havoc on workers’ health as well as the environment.
Innovative alternatives are making their presence felt to fill the gap and to solve the environmental problems.
British auto-maker Bentley (now part of the Volkswagen Group) has partnered with Italy’s Vegea Company for its Bentley EXP 100 GT concept tourer seats.
Also from Italy, ECONYL® uses nylon waste from landfills and oceans around the world to manufacture regenerated nylon that can be recycled, recreated and remoulded again and again, including for car seating.
Fiat is now promoting its Seaqual range, whose interiors are made using Seaqual, a special filament created using plastic waste collected from the sea.
London-based Be For Change has developed an Upcycled Leather Goods collection from surplus leather from the automotive industry that would otherwise have gone to landfill.
“These issues are now mainstream rather than for the vegetarian camp,” says the calfskin-bag owner. “I am much more concerned than I was about ensuring there is minimal impact on the environment and that living things have a place in the world that is respected.”