It’s crazy to think that the world’s most luxurious handbags and high heels share the same primary material as footballs and motorcycle jackets. Only leather could meet such diverse needs—tough enough to last lifetimes and functional enough to suit many types of products. Plus, when you buy the right pieces, it never goes out of style.
Leather is durable, growing softer as it wears and made to be passed down through generations. The real stuff
comes from the hides of animals, while faux leather is a popular material for cheap, trendy and vegan alternatives that are popping up that run the gamut of quality for those who prefer not to use animal products at all.
Leather goes through an intensive process based on the product it will eventually become to reach its end stage. And it’s not all created equal. Even when sourced from animals, cheap leather can wear easily, while higher-quality products can last and even gain value over time.
Luxury brands like Hermes and Yves Saint Laurent design lines of leather bags, shoes and accessories that are made to grow in value over time. Take Chanel’s Medium Classic Flap bag. In 1990, according to an article in Soxheby’s’s, the iconic bag was sold for $1,150. That’s a far cry from the $8,800 the same bag goes for today.
The leather-making process of making it takes time and a specialized skill set. Lee Efronson, the president of Miami Leather Company, explained that hides must first be taken from an animal, dried out, tumbled and softened. Next comes the tanning process, which defines the moisture levels and overall quality of the material.
“Leather is tanned with natural tannins, and the longer it sits in the tannins, the tighter the grain will be,” Efronson said. “It can be between a month or a year-long process. A longer tanning process will make the leather last a hell of a lot longer, but it will also be a hell of a lot more expensive.”
Tanning is followed by another lengthy process: dyeing. This is when the hide is colored and re-moisturized, before being finished under high temperatures and pressure that in turn holds the color and texture that has been created.
In the couture world, the region leather comes from greatly impacts the value it holds. But not all countries or regions have the capacity to produce real leather.
For example, University of Miami luxury marketing professor Trinidad Callava said that while China is the top leather producer, quantity-wise, Italy is widely regarded as the top leather maker in the world.
“A pair of Italian leather shoes will last lifetimes,” she said. “Chinese leather will fall apart in a week.”
As the fashion industry faces issues like animal cruelty and environmental violations, leather has become a source of debate. But the well-made stuff, Callava said, isn’t likely to end up in a landfill.
“Sustainability is the management of waste; nothing is more wasteful than something that is not durable,” she said.
“Buying real leather is an investment, it will last for a long time and hold value.”
For example, UM sophomore Kate Pickens said that she was gifted a Louis Vuitton leather purse from a family member. “I wear it on special occasions and treat it better than I do myself,” she said. “Owning a luxury item like this means a lot to me because I know it can be in my family for years to come.”
Efronson added that leather makes use of the parts of animals that may have otherwise been discarded.
“The cowhide is a by-product of the beef industry,” he said. “They would not kill a cow for the hide alone. If beef had no value, we would not have leather. Leather making uses a part of the cow that would otherwise go to waste and the tannins used in leather making are natural. This is a sustainable process.”
Of course, the sustainability of the American beef industry itself begs other questions— but we won’t go there right now.
While authentic animal leather is the tradition in many cultures and regions around the world, a surge in vegan
alternatives is reshaping the way some consumers interact with this material.
Many luxury brands have even found themselves dabbling in the world of vegan leather. For instance, French brand Hermes recently launched a mushroom leather bag, and Stella McCartney has been making well-loved animal-free bags like the Falabella for years. Some leather alternatives include synthetics, cactus, bark and even cork.
“In the 21st century, there are so many options for leather alternatives available,” said UM sophomore Ellie Sundell. “I do not understand why anyone would feel the need to wear another animal’s skin. I have had the same faux leather bag for years; nobody can tell the difference and no animal was harmed in the making.”
While some brands have dipped their toes into vegan leather, others are sticking firmly to their ways.
“We take pride in our company’s home of Florence, the leather making capital,” said Giovanni Hernandez, a Gucci representative. “We don’t offer any vegan leather alternatives.”
Callava also expressed doubt about vegan leather’s ability to penetrate the luxury market, specifically noting that it hasn’t yet proven itself to hold the longevity of its animal-skin counterparts.
“Leather can be made of mushrooms or used plastics, but how durable are they? And will they be cherished and cared for to the extent real leather is?” she asked.
Ultimately, how you choose to wear these classic products is up to you. Given its years of history, leather itself is here to stay; with that being said, it’s not immune to being part of trends that don’t have the same staying power. A quick trip through Forever21 will likely turn up a handful of faux leather garments that won’t last more than a few
If you’re looking for a piece that lasts, you don’t have to spend Hermes-level money to get a good product, but doing your homework, digging into the brands and reading reviews are good ways to make an investment you can keep for years.
words_grier calagione. photo_ jacob singer-skedzuhn. design_lauren maingot.