Leather – to wear or not to wear
In light of the growing trend for a vegan lifestyle, there is an inevitable question a slow fashion designer needs to ask oneself: what material to chose to create sustainable, eco-friendly and ethically made products.
In the EU leather is defined as a by-product of the food industry whose provenance and processing methods are strictly regulated by a large catalogue of EU laws. Arguably, it’s a pretty exquisite waste product and too delicate to refer to as such in the fashion world. I debated a lot lately over the fact whether leather is sustainable or not. Considering the growing hype for vegan products everywhere around Europe and the US, it took a lot of questioning and research to come to my conclusion.
Eating very little meat, I would not consider myself an active contributor to the over-production of meat . And although this is not an excuse to wear a lot of leather instead, it makes me think. Why is so much European quality leather sitting on shelves waiting to find an owner? What makes the leather industry in Europe struggle while the meat consumption hasn’t declined significantly? Clearly there is a disproportion. Is it due to the cheap alternatives from Pakistan, Bangladesh and China where provenance, animal treatment and slaughter processes are rather questionable? And it doesn’t just stop at the treatment of the cattle. It is well known that tannery workers in those countries face severe health risks given the lack of security when exposed to toxic metals during the tanning process?
And what about the plastic alternative PVC and PU– by the fast fashion industry wrongly related to as “eco leather” – helping the oil industry to boost business under a deluding “green” name. Cheap, synthetic and thrown away after a few years! What then? Shipped to South East Asia to land on one of the garbage mountains of non-disposable trash or making its way to Africa to be resold in bulks to local communities to encourage local trade, so they say. I have my doubts on that.
Vegan leather made out of pineapple and apple trims, mushrooms etc. are growing fast, but their quality and longevity still leave to be desired.
I came to the conclusion that there is no right or wrong answer. I have loved leather and always will do for its unique quality: it is a natural product, that ages beautifully over time, it lasts when treated with love, it lives. It’s soft and buttery feel, its rigidity, its elasticity and its unmistakable smell are all reasons why I chose leather to be the primary material of the collection.
But under one condition.
Leather is only the most durable option, IF of high quality and finished without the use of harmful chemicals. IF regulated and traceable.
I chose to work entirely with European vegetable tanned leather. This natural tanning process employs plant based extracts from tree barks and berries as opposed to chrome metals. A hide may take as long as 6 weeks to be tanned this way while a chrome tanned hide can be ready in less than a week. A costly affair, indeed. Vegetable tanned leather costs often twice as much and makes production cycles particularly challenging. Ask a tannery to reveal their recipe to you, they will smile and probably give you a generic answer, just like your favourite Italian place won’t tell you how they make that delicous “pasta della nonna”? Some things are better kept secret to stay as good as they are.No skin ever looks the same, because - helas - nature doesn’t come all-equal. I sometimes dream of the colour ranges chrome tanned leathers have to offer as well as they sublte softness. But those are details that only stimulate a designer’s creativity for the better. Less choice, more room to challenge and invent yourself, right?
Vegetable tanned leather has one unbeaten quality; it becomes more beautiful with age. It assimilates the marks of time, of weather and care and develops a patina that makes no bag look the same. Over time, it will create this buttery, shiny and soft allure that chrome tanned leathers flatter you with in their beginnings but then tend to fade. Thanks to the died-through colouring process, a scratch might leave its mark, but will keep the same colour. A drop of water will make the colour variations look more vibrant. The sun will tan your bag sometimes more, sometimes less. A leather bag hence lives and stays alive.
After all for me, sustainable consumption is a choice about quality that lasts, a design that talks to you even after years, and a solid manufacturing.
Buy less for more! It will pay off.