MILAN — Italy’s premier leather and components fair Lineapelle, which closed here Sept. 23 and diminished to the dimensions of a micro two-day fair amid exceptional circumstances, was a testament to the Italian entrepreneurial spirit in the face of crisis after crisis.

Despite reporting a 72 percent drop to a mere 320 exhibitors, compared with 1,160 companies in February 2020, just as COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on Lombardy — organizers seemed confident that the fair will rebound in the medium term. Attendees, who swapped elbow bumps for double kisses and handshakes at the Fieramilano Rho grounds, hailed primarily from Italy. And any signs of robust foot traffic was attributed in part to Lineapelle being held in conjunction with footwear trade show Micam, leather goods show Mipel and HOMI Fashion & Jewels.

“We normally have 400 foreigners, of which about 100 are from China, Brazil, India and Pakistan. Aside from COVID-19, as a fair, we need to continue doing what we have been doing. And until consumption rebounds, we need to invest in research, sustainability and the style we are known for,” said Lineapelle chief executive officer Fulvia Bacchi.

Economic data painted a grim outlook for the January to May 2020 period that factored in Italy’s lockdown, when many factories were forced to shut their doors for at least a month. In the first five months of the year, the Italian leather industry’s revenues plunged 32 percent and production volume dropped 24 percent versus the same period a year before.

Exports plummeted 35 percent in value and 26 percent in volume. In the continuation of an already negative trend, regardless of the coronavirus crisis, the Italian leather industry registered a 7.3 percent drop in the value of production in 2019. Companies present at Lineapelle said they are holding strong and are reacting by embracing sustainability and tech innovation.

“Since our tannery was closed all through April, we weren’t really able to recover that loss. And so our revenue for the first part of the year, until today, dropped about 20 percent. That was better than we expected quite frankly. I think this is because we have solid contacts in Japan and here in Italy and we have a lot of high-end customers,” said Andrea Tempesti of Tempesti SpA, a family-run company based in Ponte a Egola, near Florence.

Some of the industry’s harshest critics, like sustainability champion Giusy Bettoni, the founder of the C.L.A.S.S. (Creative Lifestyle and Sustainable Synergy) Hub, said companies are now on the right track toward a more eco-conscious industry.

“People at Lineapelle were really proud to show that they had made improvements in finishings and dyes. There were so many solutions, innovations and strides toward traceability on the trade-ground floor. The virus has accelerated plans that were already there and today, there are even more possibilities to improve the industry,” commented Bettoni, whose press and networking agency serves as a reference for the industry. In addition to the sustainable fabrics library, her agency connects brands with sustainable textile producers.

One such project of note, Bettoni said, is Evolo, the “wet blue” eco-sustainable suede dyeing process that reduces chemicals to 29 percent from the standard 65 percent, eliminates CO2 emissions, reduces chrome and the water used by up to 65 percent. Evolo took eight years of research and development to complete and was founded by Sciarada, a Tuscany-based, world-leading suede purveyor, which was founded in 1977.

Fashion brands present at the fair were also keen on expanding their sustainable range of products and were hungry for solutions.

“I want to keep the level of my products high and expand my sustainable range. And I am willing to spend more on leather if I have to,” said Allison Hoeltzel, an American designer from Corpus Christi, Tex., who started ODP Officina del Poggio, a Bologna-based leather goods brand that sells high-quality bags inspired by vintage utilitarian styles.

Looking ahead, companies forecast real change by the end of 2021, as small and medium-sized players fighting to stay alive take advantage of government-backed bank loans to survive.

Antonio Quirici, president of Consorzio Cuoio di Toscana, the Tuscan cowhide consortium, cited a 45 percent drop in revenue and consumption and forecast a return to normality in 2021. Companies with sales reps in key markets such as China, Japan and the U.S. are well-poised to survive this crisis, Quirici explained. “Every crisis has its own quirks. This one is defined by a severe drop in consumption, in which the real economy just ceased to operate.”

Juan Poveda of Spain’s Juanpoveda Group, which designs and manufacturers textile products aimed at footwear and leather goods, echoed this notion.

“The high-end brands we supply to are rebounding well. It’s the medium-sized companies that are having a hard time, perhaps, because they don’t have international retail space,” Poveda said.

Quirici remained confident that the Tuscan tanneries that have long-perfected the vegetable-tanned leather processes and circular economy practices such as using the leftovers of the food industry for fashion hides, is also well-poised to meet customer demand for eco-sustainable materials. In addition to its vegetable dyed hides, Cuoio di Toscana guarantees traceability through technology with innovations such as its “Smartshoe,” an invisible device that is inserted inside the sole and allows the customer to trace its leather origin, processing method and learn more about the shoe manufacturer.

For many, this pandemic, which is isolating countries, continents and families, has served as a catalyst for change. In the struggle for sustainability, Bettoni said, it may have come at the right time.

“It’s sad, but great things really do come from tragedy. This isn’t a war where people are fighting a revolution, but this is definitely a war. People have had time to think and learn and improve….We’ve been fighting the industry for a long time and now things are finally starting to change.”

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