June 15, 2021 8 min read
Buzzwords get thrown around all the time in the leather industry. Questions always arise from these words, and Andar wants to help you understand exactly why Italian leather is held in such high esteem and why you should understand the bigger picture.
When you hear the term “Italian leather,” your mind probably flashes to a myriad of images: the intricately lined interior of Italian sports cars, the elegant handbags in the hands of international models on the runway, the sleek gold band bracketing the timepiece on the wrist of a seemingly wealthy man-about-town. While these images are a bit exaggerated, the use of this term is not. Still, the question might be in your mind: What is the fascination with leather claiming to be from Italy? What is and is not Italian leather? Does it matter if it is made in Italy or made in Germany, Kentucky, or Sri Lanka? We have some answers to these questions.
Firstly, there is no prerequisite condition necessary to be considered Italian leather other than the fact that it is tanned in the country of Italy. This may be straightforward enough, but it begs the question: Does that automatically make it higher quality leather than leather tanned elsewhere? The answer to this question is not as straightforward.
Italian leather is considered higher quality mostly because of its historical significance. We can start in the city of Florence in the middle ages to begin to understand the history of Italian leather.
The Arte de Cuoiai (or the leather-working guild) was founded in 1282. Tough, hard-working people created this guild to share the craft of leatherworking with one another. Due to the particularly foul-smelling production, top grain leather was relegated to the fringes of the city proper (the smell of real leather doesn't start off with the pleasant aroma found in a high-end leather shop). Florence had ready access to the particular minerals needed for tanning cowhides to create leather. Skilled artisans developed and honed the many methods from these smelly hide factories still used today by many leather companies --including Andar!
The story of Italian leather, however, does not stop there. These factories and guilds pop up throughout northern Italy, and the legend of Italian leather starts to spread throughout Europe as artisans use more of it to create leather products such as sofas, purses, sandals, belts, and wallets. Many even connect the explosion of intellectualism and art in Florence to the affluence resulting from textile production in the area, particularly leather processing.
In short, the history of this area is so steeped in the history of its ability to produce a large quantity of high-quality leather that the particular reason why it is so famous is not as readily available as you may think.
The access to minerals and chemicals needed for processing, the formation of guilds to pass information about Italian leather products, and the time required to hone to necessary techniques for creating high-quality leather were all factors in the historical rise of Italian leather. However, what does this history mean for leather produced in Italy today? Aren’t all of those factors no longer special to Italy but available to most leather producers today? The short answer is yes. However, the long answer is slightly more complicated.
So what are these particular and age-old artisan leathermaking processes passed down in Tuscany's dark and gloomy guilds that have given birth to this idea of Italian leather being superior? The first and most common is the use of vegetable tanning of the cowhides to create vegetable tanned leather.
The natural oils found in the particular vegetables of the region--called vegetable tannins--allowed the leather to remain quite elastic but strong. In addition, the use of full-grain leather really allowed these masters of their craft to take full advantage of the new processes that they had uncovered.
Today, these tactics and meticulous attention to detail are known to many outside of Italy. However, many of the traditional leather tanning houses take special pride in never having sold out to quicker, less expensive ways of leather tanning, even if their neighbors did. Because of this, it is difficult to claim that all leather made in Italy is superior to other leather-makers. Andar has learned these vegetable tanning methods and the use of full-grain leather to create products that rival the Italian masters by paying homage to their commitment, craftsmanship, and passion for the process.
Sourcing when it comes to leather has always been a contentious topic. Obviously, traditional leather-making has been sourced ethically and from the same cow. You can imagine that if a medieval leather maker were to make leather, they would source the cowhide from the same cow that was within the village or small city.
It would have been difficult to find other ways of sourcing or finding cowhides that were not, in some sense, local and organic, as the advent of non-organic farming and breeding was not until the scientific advancement that allowed such processes. However, because of the advancement, there has been a movement away from locally sourcing and from sourcing the whole of the item from the same cowhide.
For leather companies today, it is common to have a piece of leather stitched together from a myriad of different Italian leather hides. The finished product can be characterized as akin to the monster of Frankenstein, with a hodgepodge of mismatched pieces cobbled together to create one item while violating the integrity of each piece. However, the masters of Florence from long ago would scoff, throw a hand, and cry at the idea of this passing for leather (and “genuine” leather at that). While there are advantages to sourcing like this, the quality of the leather is generally compromised.
The alternative to this patch-work leather is now known as “full-grain” leather and it is the best quality leather available. This term denotes that the piece of leather is made from a singular piece and that the processes of tanning and caring for the piece of leather are of a higher quality. This full-grain difference was common among the Italian masters of old but has been almost forgotten amongst modern leather makers, especially those claiming the moniker of “Italian leather.” Luckily, there are still companies that champion the holistic and pure form of leather making, imperfections and all. Andar is committed to treating their leather the way that Italian artisans would. By offering a full-grain difference with their leather, Andar creates quality, traditional, and functional products that stand the test of time because they care about the history of leather.
Once word got out that Italians were great at making leather goods, the clock on when people would start gaming this system started. While it is nearly impossible to know when the first imposter strode in, a familiar name could be pointed to as one of the first to truly use the term “Italian leather” as more of a marketing tactic than a signal of quality leather. The House of Gucci is well-known to have used the term back in the 1930s. This marked the true graduation of Italian leather from a sign of craftsmanship to a signal for luxury.
This is where we still are today. As you could probably personally speak to, leather sellers will claim their leather is “Italian leather” as a selling point. While there definitely is still quality leather coming from the country of Italy, the exclusivity and know-how that the original leather masters of Italy claimed are no longer only found in Italy. It is instead the processes that these masters personally passed down that leather makers from all over the globe use to create high-quality, valuable leather goods. “Made in Italy” is truly no longer a signal of quality but rather (usually) an excuse for higher prices.
While the term seems to be thrown around quite loosely, Italian leather could be associated with a distinct style. This style is not always present when somebody is trying to sell you Italian leather, but there is a general understanding within the industry of what is considered the Italian style of leather. This refers to the finished product, but not always the process. We have previously been exploring the process, so this verbiage is slightly different from the previous sections.
The most common place to find the style of Italian leather is in furniture. The general style is a soft, pliable leather that stretches over couch cushions and backs easily. This creates a soft, comfortable piece of furniture that allows you to really and truly sink into the cushions. While truly Italian leather could easily be non-pliable and more rugged and durable, the style of Italian leather is generally characterized as soft and pliable.
Another more common arena to see the style of Italian leather is with shoes. We all know Gucci and a few other Italian designer brands that produce elegant, luxurious, and expensive leather goods. Dress shoes are a staple of a lot of these brands’ lines of products. They will stress that all of the goods produced are of Italian leather, but the shoes will have special distinction because of the style.
The style is a very chic, sleek, and glossy leather on the shoe that will shine without looking like plastic. The tanning process using vegetable oil allows the leather to be pulled taught without losing the supple quality of the leather. This makes the shoes easier to shine and able to keep a consistently new look. This is where the work of a shoe shiner would make all the difference.
While there is a distinct look for Italian leather, leather made in Italy can take on varied looks and textures. For example, the picture on the left of a shiny leather shoe from Gucci boasts a “made in Italy” tagline in the shoe’s description. You can see that this shoe does not seem supple and goes more for an intense and stark shine. In contrast, the shoe on the right, also a Gucci shoe, boasts an “Italian leather” tagline in its description. This shoe appears to be much more supple, truly looking like the traditional Italian works of tanning and treating the cowhides were used.
Because these two Italian leather shoes appear to be so different, it can be confusing to know what style of Italian leather descends from the original Italian masters that spent so much time painstakingly honing their craft. It can also be difficult to know if any Italian leather you see, even at high-end retailers, is genuinely the quality that fits the name. Luckily, there is solace in the fact that this allows you to explore the vast world of leather and Italian leather if you so desire. Unluckily, it shows that there is very little to trust about the term Italian leather.
What you should take from this minor look back into history is something you may already know: the marketing tactic of name-dropping does not always equate to honest, good work. Instead of looking for Italian leather because you know it is supposed to be good, look for evidence of quality craftsmanship in the process of these leather workers. Like anything good and made to last, the people boasting about Italian leather should be transparent and honest about their leather, the process of its creation, and the lineage it comes from.
However, know that there are luckily easier, less expensive, and less pretentious options for you if you are looking to get a quality piece of leather. Andar is transparent with its process and wants to help you find the fine leather goods that suit your needs. On top of this, Andar pays homage to the Italian leather makers that truly honed the craft, not the marketers that used other’s hard work as a way to upcharge their own cut-rate leather. This homage and care for real Italian leather sets Andar apart and honors the practices and art that made Italy the traditional leather kings.