Written by Analu - Angela Burlizzi
21 February 2018
There is a sublime quality to leather; it has something to do with its smell, texture and versatility. Leather can be smooth or grained, printed or painted, laser cut, embossed or embroidered. You find it in cars, airplanes and boats, and you can wear it as a jacket, a handbag, a belt or shoes. It is in your house as a sofa or a chair, adorning your wall or in the form of accessories.
No other material is as versatile or customisable. In the world of fashion, think of Gucci, Hermès or Chanel; these brands have been producing exquisite leather goods for almost two centuries, making a statement with their unique emblems and styles.
Who could fail to recognise Chanel’s iconic diamond-quilted leather pattern or the legendary Hermès Kelly leather handbag? In automobiles, consider Ferrari or Bentley and their stunning leather interiors which complement their ultra-performing vehicles. And when it comes to furniture, world-class brands such as Poltrona Frau and Baxter feature entire collections made in the finest leathers by skilful hands.
But what is leather, exactly? Real leather is a natural product, both breathable and warm, obtained from an animal rawhide and skin. Initially used by primitive man to make clothing, footwear and shelter, unpreserved hides would rot and become unusable. Vegetable tanning was discovered as a way to convert its protein into a stable material, shielded against the effects of acids, alkalis, heat, water and the action of micro-organisms.
The growth of industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries created a demand for many new kinds of the material, such as belting leathers used to drive the machines being introduced into industry, special leathers for use in textile looms, and leathers for use in transport and furniture upholstery.
By the end of the 19th century, the demand for soft, supple and colourful leathers was gaining momentum, thanks to the recent invention of the motor car, and new fashions for comfortable, lightweight footwear due to a general rise in the standard of living. The traditional, vegetable-tanned leather was too hard and thick for these novel, fashionable items, so new dyestuffs made from coal tar and chromium salts were developed to deliver a colourful and soft final finish, soon becoming the standard for modern footwear and fashion leathers.
Although there is a great variety of leathers, the material can generally be classified into one of three categories:
Aniline leather is the most natural-looking variety. It feels like real skin, is light and flexible, and has natural unique surface characteristics. It is, however, less resistant to soiling and spillages and is usually used to make clothing by luxury fashion brands.
Semi-aniline leather is more durable than aniline and has limited stain resistance, while still retaining a natural appearance.
Pigmented (protected) leather is the most durable and is used for the majority of furniture upholstery as well as for most yacht and car upholstery. The durability is provided by a polymer surface coating that contains pigments, making it more resistant to scuffing or fading, but making it feel more like faux leather.
The type you choose depends on the style you desire, the application and the usage which the product receives. When buying a boat and selecting a custom leather for your saloon, if you have a young family, an aniline leather is probably not the best choice for you. If you wish to add texture to a space or make a feature such as a wall or a bed head, decorative leather – whether embossed, embroidered, quilted, laser cut or pleated – is a beautiful option that can transform the ambiance yet maintain the practicality.
Nowadays, we are spoiled for choice and, as if that weren’t enough, there is also the option to create your own design.