PARIS — When it comes to exclusive Russian exports, the luxury market is well-versed in the likes of Beluga caviar. But what about the mythic, long-forgotten luxury hide: “Russia leather?”
Russia in 1922, following the Bolshevik Revolution, halted all production of this symbol of the old regime, a prized skin used for the leather goods of nobles and royal families in Western Europe from the 16th to 19th centuries, as well as the Russian Army.
Almost a century later, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton is set to revive the leather under a new name: Borodino Cuir de Russie. A special line of bags in the skin by the group’s luxury leather goods maker Moynat — under the moniker Cuir Imperial (Imperial Calfskin) — is due to launch in January.
The initiative grew out of a conversation two years ago between Jean-Baptiste Voisin, LVMH’s director of strategy and president of LVMH Métiers d’Art, and Moynat’s creative director Ramesh Nair, after he had been brought in to collaborate with one of the structure’s “métiers,” Les Tanneries Roux.
“I asked him, ‘What is your dream? You’ve been in this industry for 30 years, what is the best leather we can do for you?’ And he mentioned one: Russia leather,” said Voisin. “In the old days, you had the glass and mirror coming from Murano, the porcelain from Saxony, and the leather from Russia. Russia leather became such a myth because of its quality, as a soft, supple leather that was extremely resistant to humidity and water. It also had a certain magic to it because it was a closely guarded secret by the Russians,” added Voisin. “Shortly after the launch of No.5, perfumer Ernest Beaux developed a fragrance for Chanel called Cuir de Russie; Aime Guerlain created a scent called Cuir de Russie…”
The team set about compiling a bibliography of anything they could find on Russia leather, gleaning information on ingredients and production techniques from a range of sources, going from the Louis Vuitton archives to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where they came across “compelling reports” on Russia leather written by “so-called scientists who had been sent over to Europe to spy.”
They also managed to lay their hands on a book about the scientist’s findings published in the 19th century and featuring a detailed chapter on how Russia leather was made.
“They used birch bark and seal fat. The process at the time was very long — one to two years — which is totally incompatible with today’s rhythms, and was extremely labor intensive,” Voisin said.
The adventure even led them to Plymouth, England to meet with an old diver who in the Seventies had recovered some skins from the wreck of a ship loaded with Russia leather. He sold them one of the skins, which had been buried in mud 60 meters deep for 230 years.
Once they had the samples and recipe, Les Tanneries Roux, which is based in Romans-sur-Isère in the South of France, set about working on the redevelopment of the leather, which took six months.
“It’s tradition and modernity; the aim was never to produce Russia leather exactly the same way it was produced in the past, using the same machines, we want to do it with modern methods. Today we use drums and chromium, which were not yet invented at the time. It’s a question of adapting or complementing our savoir-faire processes to revive Russia leather,” said Voisin.
“The result,” he said, “is more generous, round and oily, which is hard to do with modern technologies. But there is a price to pay: the scent. In the past, leather had a smell, and this used to be a smelly leather, otherwise Guerlain and Chanel would not have created their Cuir de Russie fragrances.”
Seizing on the theme, Voisin tapped one of LVMH’s three noses to soften the scent and develop a range of perfumed leathers. “If you have a smell, it’s because there are properties in the material that can hold the smell, which is the base for a perfumer. The Borodino Cuir de Russie is the first leather that can hold scents,” he declared. When asked if the concept could be developed for accessories or objects, he replied: “I know that some maisons are thinking about it.”
Aside from securing the group’s access to key suppliers, the mission of the fledgling LVMH Métiers d’Art structure — created in January 2015 — Voisin explained, is also to stimulate creativity and innovation through a variety of initiatives with its partner suppliers — ranging from artist residencies to opening up conversations between the tannery and people from the outside to spark new ideas.
“The risk in any sector is to become a commodity. The only way to survive is to do or have something nobody else has. You may have the best materials, you may have the best savoir-faire that nobody can copy. Or you bring ideas and innovation that nobody else has.”
The structure has a dedicated team of four people including managing director Daniel Peterlin, who has held key production roles at brands such as Louis Vuitton and Dior. “Their mission is to identify opportunities. They’re also the link between the métiers and the maisons. Many of the maisons have dedicated people on their design team working on specific innovations or developments with the métiers.”
Along with Les Tanneries Roux, LVMH has invested in Spanish tannery Riba-Guixà and has a controlling stake in Heng Long, a Singapore-based supplier of fine crocodile leather. The group owns a crocodile farm in Florida and has a joint venture in a farm in Louisiana. The group also owns two small farms in Australia and partner farms in Australia, the U.S. and Africa.
Another part of the team’s responsibility is overseeing the cross-sector fertilization of production techniques across the various métiers. “We hear about technologies and ideas that we may inject in other sectors of our industry,” said Voisin, adding that some of the techniques discovered producing the Borodino Cuir de Russie leather are going to be used to enhance the group’s existing range of leathers.