MILAN — Italian tanneries are reacting to a global slowdown in the sector, which is being impacted by international geopolitical instability and a shift in customers’ demands.
Natural, grainy finishes and earthy tones were among the key trends at the 97th edition of the Lineapelle leather trade show, as exhibitors aimed to spotlight the quality of their products. The ongoing spin on sustainable processes also stood out, at a time when trade show organizers put a focus on the sector’s circular economy.
“Today the sustainability label is used schizophrenically, and yet our sector has been committed to eco-friendly processes because of Italy’s strict regulations and because tanners are deeply rooted in their territories, which they aim to safeguard,” contended Fulvia Bacchi, general director of Lineapelle-Unic, the association of Italian tanneries. She added that 98 percent of the leather employed by Unic’s associates comes from waste of the food industry, and production leftovers are often repurposed for other sectors.
Held at the Milano-Rho fairgrounds, the trade show welcomed 19,000 visitors, in line with the February edition, hailing from 107 international countries. Foreign buyers were down 5 to 7 percent but that was counterbalanced by an increase in domestic attendees.
“The fair has confirmed again its role as a destination not to be missed for all the operators in the sector,” said Bacchi. “It highlights the dynamism of this industry and its innovation, both in terms of style and technology.”
According to the latest market insight report released by Unic, in the first half of 2019 the country’s leather production dropped 7.3 percent in value compared to the same period last year.
“It’s unavoidable that the sector is experiencing lights and shadows as the moment is unfavorable. It’s hard to be optimistic,” Bacchi contended, pointing to international geopolitical turmoil, tariffs and Brexit, which exhibitors also cited as reasons of concern.
As domestic commerce is generally flat, exports — which represent 75 percent of the sector’s revenues — were down 8.7 percent in the first half. In particular China and Hong Kong dropped 22 percent, with the latter region hit by the ongoing political turmoil there. The U.S., the U.K. and Germany declined 9 percent, 4 percent and 8 percent, respectively, while a small growth was registered in exports to France and Vietnam, both up 1 percent, as well as India, up 17 percent.
As sneakers still have grip, leather hides destined to footwear saw a contraction in volume although they were up 2 percent in value, signaling a renovated focus on luxury, high-end materials for the formal shoe category. The footwear slowdown has also impacted the number of buyers dedicated to the category which, according to Bacchi, represented around 40 percent of attendees in October, compared to 70 percent in previous editions.
Hides destined to leather goods and accessories showed the highest growth rate, increasing 29 percent in the first six months of the year, while leather apparel was stable, although representing a small portion of the business.
Among the 1,270 exhibitors hailing from 46 international countries was storied tannery Bonaudo, which banked on the strength of its custom made service to offer exclusive products for the range of luxury brands it counts among its clients.
“We’re reducing our stock service and banking on exclusive products for our partner brands instead,” said Alessandro Iliprandi, chairman and chief executive officer. “Knowing our clients and their style allows us to build an effective relationship,” he added, touting the company’s nimble structure, which enables Bonaudo to answer the market’s seasonal demand.
For fall 2020, the company developed a line of leather hides in natural tones such as rust, burnt brown and burgundy. A collection of calf hides was treated with a water-based coating compound for an inside-out effect while super soft and thin calf hides were offered as a substitute to nappa leather. A range of metal-free lambskin, as well as traceable kangaroo hides, nodded to the company’s sustainable efforts.
“It’s essential to invest in R&D which can support sustainability; premises have to be modern so that the whole process is, otherwise it’s just quick-fixing the issue we face,” the executive noted, highlighting Bonaudo has been reducing its water, methane gas and energy consumption by 52 percent, 20 percent and 18 percent, respectively, in the past 10 years across its three units located in Montebello and Verona, in the Veneto region, and Milan.
“The company is growing despite the sector’s slowdown, proving that we’re probably working better and offering better products,” he said, noting the company is expected to post a 5 percent sales increase in 2019.
Despite voicing his concern for the current economy, Simone Castellani, ceo of Tuscany-based tannery Sciarada expressed confidence, noting that “overall business did not collapse and while it’s hard to make prediction as markets show uneven performances, there’s still room for hope.”
The company expects to close 2019 with revenues of around 24 million euros, in line with the previous year, and Castellani touted both Sciarada’s stock service as well as its focus on sustainability as among its strongest assets.
In addition to a line of flocked 3-D batik-effect suede tapping into fashion’s tie-dye trend and loose shammy hides in red and orange that were particularly appealing for the footwear category, Sciarada introduced the Evolo collection of suede made with lower carbon dioxide emissions. Priced at between 5 to 10 percent more than traditional suede, the line was labeled as “sustainable suede.”
“Sustainable leather? Everybody wants it, but no one wants to pay for it,” said Castellani sarcastically, noting he expects the company to shrink the price gap once production is at operating speed.
Acting as a loudspeaker for the entire sector, Gianfranco Dalle Mese, ceo of the Montebello tannery based in the Veneto region, stressed the circularity of Italian tanneries.
“Leather has been demonized and abhorred over the years, but the sector is indeed cruelty-free as we employ hides that would be burnt and buried otherwise, causing pollution,” he said, adding Montebello has been ramping up its green ethos as of late.
Among the most recent accomplishments, the company has doubled down on its salt-free policy, enhanced its logistics and used refrigeration to preserve animal skins before they are treated. Employing the roller coating technique has enabled the tannery to reduce the amount of finishing compound by 30 to 40 percent.
Spotlighting the high quality of its leather hides, Montebello developed its collection for fall 2020 using aniline dyes, which avoid plastic chemicals and produce a raw and precious effect. The finishing technique appeared on a range of shiny hides with a “glacé” effect, similar to products treated with glass buffing, and on a lineup of leather hides with a grainy surface. Marking the debut of the collection at Lineapelle, Montebello teamed with the Milan-based La Lucina theater company for the “Teatro — Opera Anilina” dance performance in which dancers were tasked to interpret the leather’s tactile feel with their moves onstage.
“Leather is not dead, but the industry behind it should adapt and evolve and enhance its know-how to return to growth,” said Dalle Mese, sharing the same cautious optimism as other exhibitors.
“Trade shows are losing their role as mere business-making opportunities, rather they are increasingly moments to exchange ideas, learn from competitors and understand where the sector is going,” said Bacchi.
To this end Lineapelle continued to showcase a lineup of initiatives aimed at offering insights to Unic’s associates and visitors alike. Through its Innovation Square space, the trade show organized a series of talks and roundtables on such topics as innovative processes for leather tanning, nanotechnologies, circular economy, bio-based materials and upcycling, among others.
In addition, Unic and Lineapelle teamed with a number of international fashion and art schools, including Florence’s Polimoda, Venice-based IUAV, Istituto Marangoni and New York’s Parsons New School of Fashion to showcase works and projects realized by the students that put Italian leather under the spotlight.
Highlighting the cross-pollination between different industries, a number of companies from the accessories, components, alternative fabrics and chemicals sectors showcased their latest products and services at the fairgrounds.
Marking its 25th anniversary, Italian Converter, the Lombardy-based company specialized in high-tech textiles and finishing techniques, debuted at Lineapelle its E.c.o. Kosmos green collection, which counts 11 highly innovative textiles.
Among them, a blend of cotton and Amni Soul Eco polyamide 6.6 biodegrades in five years, while the stretch GRS-certified Newlife textile is crafted from a yarn coming from recycled plastic bottles repurposed through a mechanical process. Both fabrics are fully traceable.
“The sustainability factor is essential to grow and expand our reach, that’s why we currently invest around 30 to 40 percent of our revenues in R&D,” explained Claudia Manara, from Italian Converter’s marketing department, noting the line of sustainable products has gained the interest of 60 percent of the company’s buyers at the fair.
In 2018 the company posted revenues of 26 million euros, with Europe accounting for the largest part of the business, and Manara projected a 3 percent increase in 2019.
The next edition of Lineapelle will take place Feb. 19 to 21.