In the bustling world of fashion, where trends come and go like fleeting whispers, one thing remains steadfast: quality craftsmanship. As the proud owner of a brand specializing in exquisite leather bags, I understand the essence of timeless elegance, and it starts with the materials we choose.
Today, I invite you to delve into the heart of our artisanal process by exploring an exclusive interview with our esteemed leather supplier.
1. Can you provide an overview of the tannery's history and experience in the leather industry?
Our company has over 30 years of experience working in the leather industry. In the late 80s we started with designing and manufacturing leather clothing. As the leather clothing trend started to decline in the mid 90s, our focus has shifted from making leather jackets to selling leather for upholstery furniture and leather goods. At that time, the majority of Slovenian tanneries shut down. Consequently, we had to source leather outside of the domestic market and thus expanded the range of leather offered for our customers’ needs. Over the years we have gained knowledge and expertise about leather processing from raw material to a variety of different types of leather. Based on all this experience we find, make and supply leather that is most suitable for the products that our customers produce.
Three generations of women.
Our company is a family owned business with decades long tradition. After World War II, our grandmother Sonja and her Singer sewing machine began to produce slippers, bags, gloves and headwear. Sonja's daughter Irena was fascinated by leather in her mother's workshop. After graduating from fashion design, Irena used this naturally soft material to make fashionable clothes. Due to market conditions in the 90s, the company redirected and evolved into leather trade and production of children's slippers Rolly®. Today, the third generation with Irena' daughter Nika at the helm is leading the family business on the road to modern and sustainable practices of leather production and building fashion brands.
2. I remember, how I fell in love at first sight with the glossy looking leather named Kenya. We are using it for our crossbody and work bags. Could you explain the unique characteristics and applications of this leather?
Kenya leather is like any other real leather, an organic material that improves together with its unique characteristics over time. This leather is vegetable tanned leather, which means that it is tanned using natural tannins from plants. Its properties are durability, long life and nobility. This leather has due to plant based tannins a distinctive woody smell which adds to its high value character. Kenya leather is full grain. Full grain leather is the highest quality level of leather that the market has to offer because it includes all of the natural grain and none of it has been buffed to remove imperfections. Kenya leather develops a patina with use and bags made from this leather forge their own unique character and appearance.
3. Sustainability is becoming increasingly important in the leather industry. How does your tannery address environmental concerns and promote sustainable practices in leather production?
Sustainability, nowadays, is a very commonly used term, sometimes also misused. It carries the idea of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It goes without saying that sustainability affects business strategies of leather industry and fashion brands which have the aim to provide a positive impact and outcome towards environment, workforce and society.
Leather is made from organic, naturally renewable, raw material - the hides of animals. Our company promotes the use of leather for several reasons. Leather is a by-product of the food industry that is up-cycled, and by using the skin for leather, we reduce waste. If skins were not processed into leather, the world would be left with nearly 8 million tons more waste each year. Moreover, fewer chemicals and environmentally harmful substances are used in the processing of leather than in the production of artificial leather - especially if we are talking about vegetable tanned leather. Furthermore, leather products last incomparably much longer than similar ones made of artificial materials such as “vegan” leather. For instance, a quality leather bag has a lifespan of more decades, whereas a bag made of faux leather will last only a few years (if you're lucky), will be thrown away, end up in a landfill where the material will release toxic chemicals into the environment and will take decades to degrade. On the contrary, leather products are eminently repairable.
The facts listed above can categorize leather as a sustainable material. However, the difference between sustainable and unsustainable leather lies in how the leather is processed. Professionals in the leather industry are aware of the fact that in the tanning process a substantial amount of water is used and water wastage represents a major environmental threat in the industry.
Because of new processes and technologies, the leather industry has decreased its water usage for almost 40% in the last 25 years and is improving constantly. The suppliers that we work with in Italy are included in the central regional cleaning system for wastewater. This means that the tanneries are connected to a cleaning system in their area that cleans the water used in tanning processes. Purified water is reused in leather tanning processes and all other waste is collected, sorted and controlled by the respective authorities. Nowadays, tanning processes and substances used are strictly regulated in order to protect workers and not cause pollution.
4. What tanning methods do you employ in your leather production? Could you elaborate on the advantages of each method, especially regarding vegetable tanning and chromium-free alternatives?
We use several different tanning methods that give us different results and types of leather. The main three are mineral tanning with chrome, vegetable tanning and synthetic tanning.
Chrome tanning has become the most widespread tanning process. It is the fastest and the most inexpensive of all methods. In addition, only with chrome tanning we are able to produce a wide range of different leather types for various purposes. Misinformation about the leather industry sometimes suggests that hexavalent chrome (cr VI) is used in tanning processes. In this day and age since 1989, tanneries are only allowed to use trivalent chrome (cr III) which is a safe substance. Moreover, the industry has clear and effective guidelines set to prevent the formation of cr VI during the tanning process and in leather post-tanning. In order to ensure the legal consistency of chrome our leather undergoes tests on a regular basis.
Vegetable tanning (which is chrome-free) is the oldest tanning method still used today in the leather industry. Various plants have tanning substances called tannins which we can find in bark, wood, leaves and roots. This way we use tannins made of for instance oak bark or olive leaves for the vegetable tanning process. The main advantage of vegetable tanned leather is that it is the most durable and long lasting of all leather available on the market. The leather has due to plant based tannins a marvelous natural, woody smell. Vegetable tanning also ensures that leather develops a patina over time and that it gains more over time than it loses. Vegetable tanned leather is able to develop a sophisticated character with use like no other.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the leather industry began to use synthetic tannins in leather processing and this type of tanning is called synthetic tanning. In this process we use glutaraldehyde compounds instead of chrome minerals and for this reason this method is categorized as chrome-free. Aldehyde tanned leather is the leather that the industry refers to as “wet-white” due to its pale color in the production stage before coloring. Chrome tanned leather on the other hand has grey blue-ish color in the middle stage and is for this reason called “wet-blue”.
In addition to the main methods described above, we also practice combined tanning, i.e. vegetable tanning which continues with mineral tanning or vice versa.
5. Leather quality is crucial for various applications. How does your tannery ensure the production of high-quality leather that meets industry standards?
We always provide (on demand) a REACH declaration of conformity which declares that our leather is in accordance with current EU regulations. Majority of our partners are members of the Leather Working Group and obtain respective certifications. LWG is an organisation that focuses on environmental impact and social responsibility of leather manufacturing. In order for a tannery to become certified, their supply chain must be traceable to a high degree, and they must have implemented programmes for wastewater. In addition to many general standards that apply in the production of leather, our company ensures individual control of the leather by physically inspecting the leather in a tannery before it reaches the end customer. Hides that do not meet our quality standards are returned to the tannery.
6. The art of leathercraft relies on the development of patina over time. How does your tannery ensure that the leather develops an appealing patina, particularly in the case of full-grain leather?
Everything starts at the very beginning of the leather supply chain - with a proper breeding of animals. It is important, especially when it comes to full-grain leather, that animals live in a quality environment. If they live in an environment surrounded with insects, this will be seen on the hide itself after it is finished. When animals are bred on poorly maintained pastures where they get scratched by thorns, this will also ultimately contribute to skin being damaged under or above its epidermis. Consequently, the epidermis is the main indicator for the quality level of leather. If we properly preserve it, we get full-grain leather, which has, as already mentioned before, excellent characteristics. Full-grain is not sanded, buffed, corrected with color and embossing, thus it preserves the best that leather has to offer: warmth, suppleness and patina, which develops with use over time.
Happy and well-treated animals in their natural environment. (Photo from Pixabay).
7. In recent years, consumer awareness of chemicals in products has grown. How does your tannery ensure the use of safe, non-toxic substances in leather production, particularly in the case of chromium-free leather?
Tanning processes are nowadays strictly regulated. In the case of vegetable tanned leather, the consistency of chromium is 0, which can also be proven by testing in accredited laboratories. When using chrome tanning, the leather is regularly tested in laboratories qualified for this purpose, and it is checked that the chrome consistency is well below the regulated value. Chrome-free leather is leather that meets the industry standard for this classification. This means that the minimum or no amount of chromium is used in the production itself.
8. What steps do you take to maintain ethical practices throughout your supply chain, including sourcing animal hides and collaborating with local communities?
When it comes to our supply chain we work with Leather Working Group certified partners which provide us traceable and transparent material sourcing. In Slovenia we have a number of talented designers and great leather craftsmen that we are proud to have them as our customers. We have for many many years been serving them with our knowledge and expertise to find and make what they are looking for. However, when it comes to the local community in a broader sense, we have noticed especially in the last few years that people are not educated about the leather industry, jump to wrong conclusions the second they are being green washed without even knowing and are misled extremely easily. That is why one of our biggest aims and goals in the upcoming years is to provide consumers and our audience practical and valuable information that will help them make smart consumption decisions.
9. How do you ensure that your workforce is well-trained and equipped with the necessary skills to handle the intricacies of leather tanning and maintain consistent quality?
We are fortunate to have young employees that are naturally curious, eager to learn and stay up to date with the latest trends and new possibilities in the industry. At the same time, the knowledge and expertise gained by our founders in the last 30 years hold its own value as well. We believe that the mixture of traditional and new, old and young, experienced and inquisitive is the winning combination for facing any challenge that comes along the way and continuing to grow towards long term success.
10. What challenges or opportunities do you foresee for the leather industry in terms of sustainability and innovation in the coming years?
The biggest challenge but also opportunity for the industry is to build a transparent and strong circular economy. This is not only essential for the leather industry, but for the fashion industry which is one of the most polluting industries as well. Here we can see the opportunity of working closely together to help companies, brands and consumers move towards awareness, slow fashion and mindful consumption. Another challenge is to keep reducing waste, look for healthy processes and to strive towards a positive environmental and social impact. Last but not least, the rise of AI and digitisation can be an opportunity for development of more advanced and efficient manufacturing processes.
11. As a parting thought, what message would you like to convey to consumers who are conscious about making responsible and eco-friendly choices when it comes to leather products?
By choosing a leather product, they decide for something that will last for years or even generations. They choose quality, timelessness and longevity. And with this we significantly reduce seasonal products of much lower quality which are forgotten and thrown away way too quickly. Let yourself give meaning to your consumption decisions.