The Leather Trend To Dye For

From this season’s rich colours to feather-light folds, now there’s no hiding from leather. Tara Sutton finds out why

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Vats of dye at an open-air leather tannery in Fes, Morocco. Courtesy of Getty Images
Vats of dye at an open-air leather tannery in Fes, Morocco. Courtesy of Getty Images

It’s her pants that kill me. Inky blue and incredibly supple, they’re tight but not too tight, erasing any bumps and lumps to almost surreal effect. In short, I have never seen anything quite like them. These pants, I feel—in one of those deeply shallow shopper’s-high moments—could change everything.

“They’re leather,” Elisa Dahan tells me. I should have guessed. I am, after all, sitting in the Montreal studio of Mackage, talking to Dahan and Eran Elfassy, the leather-heavy brand’s co-designers.

Leather has been having its day on the runways for the last three seasons now, showing up practically everywhere—from high end to high street—and doing a lot of new tricks, as evidenced by leather T-shirts and leather-sleeved dresses, laser-cut mini- skirts and shorts. But why exactly is this ancient textile suddenly so pervasive?

Much has been made of the Lisbeth Salander effect—referring to the hacker- chic heroine played by Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, who wears leather like a second skin. Then there’s the organic elemental draping of maverick designer Rick Owens, whose iconic leather jackets have launched a million imitations and make you look as though you’ve oozed into your clothes rather than merely put them on. But really, this is putting the cart before the horse. What has actually happened is that leather as we know it has undergone a dramatic structural change, one that is doing for it what Lycra did for fabrics.

“The leather being produced now is so much finer and suppler than ever before. So it can be shaped so much more closely to the body than in the past,” says Panos Mytaros, the Amsterdam- based CEO of ECCO Leather—which supplies many of the world’s high-end brands, including Iris van Herpen— who has been watching this evolution first-hand. Many of these game-changing innovations—such as machine-washable leather, and supple stretch leather—have been developed over the past few years, giving designers more leeway in terms of what can be achieved. “Leather is like a fabric. Finally!” says Dahan. “Before, you couldn’t make a T-shirt. It was too thick.”

In a studio packed with bolts of leather in all shades, Elfassy picks up a swatch of black and hands it to me. It’s miraculous: buttery thin, bonded to a stretch backing that allows it to extend in all directions without puckering. It’s from this little patch of genius that those wonder pants are made.

This invention comes courtesy of French leather designer Jean-Claude Jitrois. As the story goes, he was fiddling with the tablecloth in his grandmother’s kitchen one day and noticed it consisted of a cloth outer layer, bonded to a thin cotton backing, which strengthened the cloth and made it pliable. He applied this idea to his work, et voila, stretch leather was born. However, many labels, including Mackage, didn’t start using it until 2010, when its thinness finally reached optimal levels.

Our attitude towards leather may have also stretched. “People used to be scared of leather, it was like a fancy thing. Now, we wear leather T-shirts to work on a Tuesday,” says Dahan. As well, the ever- upward climb of price points positions it more favourably. “Someone might spend $400 on a dress, so the leap to spend $600 on a leather dress isn’t so great.”

Mytaros posits that the European debt crisis has also had an impact on its desirability. “Because of it, the luxury sector has had slower growth. The solution, as these labels see it, is to become even more luxurious to attract buyers,” he says. “One of the ways to do this is to use more leather. And in the lower end, well, leather is the trend and everyone wants to be a part of that trend so they can increase their sales.”

Photos by Anthea Simms
Photos by Anthea Simms

From left: Leather’s newfangled forms were seen at Proenza Schouler, where it was laser-cut to look like lace. Strict and structured at Calvin Klein, in rich shades of forest green. At Marni, leather was bonded to velvet for a soft, austere effect.

Until I started researching leather for this article, I hadn’t given much thought to how it came to be; instead, it just existed as a base element on fashion’s periodic table, right up there with jet- black mascara, perfect jeans and the right heel—and far away from its fleshy beginnings. But once I started looking at the leather supply chain, I began to see how primal a product it truly is.

The global leather industry is worth $80 billion U.S. annually, with clothing using up just eight percent of the world’s supply. The lion’s share goes to shoes, followed by furniture, then cars. Anywhere in the world where people eat meat, there are skins. North America’s supply, however, is dwindling year to year due to the fact that we’re eating less beef. “We are a by-product of the meat industry,” explains Stephen Sothmann, director of international affairs for the U.S. Hide, Skin and Leather Association, an affiliate of the American Meat Institute in Washington, D.C. “Our supply is constrained by how much meat is being sold.”

North American skins are known for their quality—our cows typically produce sizable, blemish-free hides. With less of these on the market, the door has opened for producers in other countries. In places such as Brazil, China and India, where eating meat has become a status symbol, leather production is on the rise.

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Clockwise from top left: Vegan: Stella McCartney, $1,170, net-a-porter.com. Ecologically Certified: Green Carpet Challenge for Gucci, gucci.com. Vegetable Tanned: Brave bag, $225, braveleather.com.  Remnants: One Fated Knight, $198, onefatedknight.com.

The journey those skins make from breathing beast to bag (or shirt, or skirt) is a long one, strewn with environmental and ethical landmines. The vast majority of leather products will have criss-crossed the globe by the time they land at the sales rack, travelling from herd to slaughter- house to tannery to factory.

Tanning—in which the protein structure of the skin is altered, transforming it into leather—can be a toxic stage, especially if any chemical by-products aren’t properly disposed of. This process is one of the main reasons that Blacksmith Institute, an international environmental non-profit, lists leather-making as one of its top 10 environmental polluters—more pollutive than pesticide manufacturing, but less so than industrial agriculture. Last year, Human Rights Watch produced a report on the tanning region of Hazaribagh in Dhaka, Bangladesh, call- ing it “one of the most polluted urban environments in the world.”

Every day, more than 21,000 cubic metres of untreated waste water are released by the Hazaribagh tanneries into Dhaka’s main river, causing nearby residents to suffer from fever, diarrhea and respiratory, skin, stomach and eye conditions. (That’s in addition to the serious health complications experienced by workers.) The report called for foreigner buyers to purchase only from Bangladesh tanneries that comply with international standards. The problem is, no such standards exist. Leather is a huge money maker for the country, which annually exports roughly $663 million worth. In 2001, the High Court of Bangladesh ordered its government to force the Hazaribagh tanneries to install adequate waste water management. To date, no such systems have been implemented.

“Leather needs to clean up its act,” says Adam Hughes, a facilitator of the London-based Leather Working Group. The group—which has members from leather-heavy fashion labels both luxe (Mulberry, Burberry, LVMH) and lower-priced (Nine West, H&M, Dr Martens)—sets environmental standards for farms and tanners.

Leather doesn’t have to be an environmental problem, insists Roberta Fulthorpe, the graduate chair of the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough. It’s a good way not to waste the skin from animals we eat, she says, noting that the industry can be far more enviro-friendly through the use of waste water treatments and vegetable dyes.

All of that said, there’s still the matter of where leather comes from—an issue that some producers, such as Rowan Gabrielle, the founder of Organic Leather, are attempting to address. There is no government standard for “organic” leather, so she created her own set of protocols. The animals are grass- fed and come from small organic farms; all the processing and tanning is done using organic materials.

The company’s costs run high, largely because the tanners Gabrielle uses—one of which practises the traditional Native American process of pre-smoking hides before tanning—are located far away from the farmers who produce her hides, making transport pricey.

As I was brought face to face with the realities of leather production, I felt my stomach lurch. Yes, I eat meat, but I buy it from butchers who can pro- vide some background info. However, I know nothing about the life of the animal used to make my beige ballet flats or my children’s running shoes. And it’s no wonder—it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint where a specific piece of leather actually came from. Price point is one indication; leather tanned in countries such as Italy and France—which will most likely have used quality animals, strict environ- mental safety regulations and vegetable tanning agents—is typically of higher quality than that which comes from Bangladesh and India. (Unsurprisingly, no-name shoe manufacturers most often use low-cost leather.) Sothmann says that parts of Asia, especially China, are now producing and exporting high-quality leather, with many tanneries adhering to sound waste management standards.

In Japan, clothing labels must indicate where the leather came from, but this just means where the final tanned product originated (meaning that a skin from Pakistan that was tanned and dyed in Italy would be labelled “made in Italy”). So far, there is no move to make this type of information, limited though it may be, available here. For now, I’m trying to determine if leather, due to its tangled environmental and ethical issues, has entirely lost its lustre for me. But then my thoughts turn back to those inky blue Mackage pants.

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