The fascination with Italian leather

The fascination with Italian leather

by Stacy Roman
Stripes Europe

Perusing through narrow alleyways in almost any city in Italy, you’re bound to smell it first — the subtle, yet indelible musky scent of leather. Brightly colored handbags hang precariously from market stalls, belts are neatly hung on racks against the walls, wallets and coin purses lined up on shelves, all waiting to be purchased as the perfect souvenir. Italian leather is synonymous with high-quality and luxury. With secret processes dating back thousands of years, it’s no wonder there’s a slight obsession with these fascinating goods.

History of leatherworking

The art of making leather is handed down from generation to generation. With the industry beginning its boon during the Renaissance and Middle Ages, leatherworkers and tanners found their niche in the lush countryside of Tuscany. Intricate handiwork and practices were so closely guarded, many laborers formed special guilds and associations for their trade. Currently, more than 15% of global and two-thirds of all European leather production originates in Italy.

Most Italian leather is processed using vegetable tanning. Derived from the bark of oak and other trees, as well as various native plants, tannins are drawn out and mixed with an acidic solution to preserve and protect the leather. Tannins are also responsible for the varying and distinctive hues. Leather is made from various animal hides, but primarily cows from the surrounding area. The tanning process can take anywhere from 20 to 30 months to complete before the material is ready for cutting, stitching, embroidering, cobbling and more. 

When shopping for leather, there are two main types to look for: top grain and full grain. Top grain is thinner where the outermost layer of hide is removed. Because the leather is thinner than full grain, it is easier to work with. This type of material isn’t as expensive, yet it is much more stain-resistant and yielding — making it much more appealing and practical to the masses.  Full grain leather is the highest quality leather you can get.  Once tanned, you still have the rough spots, rawness and toughness of the animal. 

Famous purveyors of Italian leatherwork

Most notably known for over-the-top designs, killer sky-high stilettos and stunning haute couture, many Italian fashion houses have humble beginnings tracing back to the leather trade. One of the oldest icons, Prada, was founded in 1913 in Milan. Brother Mario and Martino Prada opened “Fratelli Prada,” a store supplying luxury leather bags, steamer trunks and other travels goods to the local upper-crust society. Similarly, in 1921, Guccio Gucci began selling luggage and custom-made equestrian equipment in Florence. Gucci expanded his vision and has become known for exquisite fashion and merchandise.

One of the first to expand into the U.S. was Salvatore Ferragamo. Starting as a novice apprentice in a cobbler’s shop, Ferragamo opened a small business repairing and creating made-to-measure leather shoes and boots. His designs proved so popular, he moved to the States and quickly became favored with the Hollywood elite. Starlets such as Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo gave his creations an air of glamour.

Another recent designer more known for his sand-blasted jeans also began his career working with leather. Showing artistic talent from a young age, Roberto Cavalli was destined for fashion greatness. He had a knack for working with intricate designs on various types of textiles. He pioneered and patented a unique way of printing designs on the supple material. He also came up with a trademark patchwork pattern created of different types of fabrics, including leather. He quickly expanded his business to include high-end fashion. Although many of his flagship stores in the States have closed, he still maintains a strong presence in his native Italy.

Granted, not everyone can afford to walk away from their dream Italian vacation with a Prada bag. However, there are plenty of affordable options to choose from. With vendors filling the stalls at local markets, and plenty of shops tucked along cobblestone streets, the opportunity to browse and pick the perfect piece of handcrafted leather abounds. Most goods are still made the old-fashioned way — by hand. You’ll be sure to have an incredibly unique souvenir which may have just been made by a future famous Italian designer.

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