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In Fashion Footwear, Leather Gets a Makeover

Innovations in leather finishes took center stage at FN Platform this February. A far cry from the suedes, nubucks and pebbled offerings of seasons past, some of the show’s creations didn’t read as leather at all.

While consumers are increasingly demanding functional features in their footwear, like weather-resistance and durability, they’re also looking for “material interest that makes the product pop on the shelf,” said Leah Larson, Ross & Snow’s creative director.

“Everyone does a black boot or a brown boot—why should it be plain and basic?” asked Larson. Her question is of course a rhetorical one—she’s been working through the answer while creating the brand’s line of fall boots for both men and women.

Consumers want classic silhouettes that are nonetheless on trend, she explained. Textures and finishes are a way to grab their attention. “When you’re going to spend money on a great pair of shoes, you want something that you’re going to wear a lot,” she said. Neutrals like brown, black, navy and grey are a staple in any collection, she said, “but chances are, people have something like that already. To get them to come in and invest more, you’re going to have to do something different.”

According to Larson, patterns, foil finishes and embossing are a way to spur a real reaction. For brands and consumers, beautiful materials can “trigger the emotion” behind the design process and the purchase, she said.

The line’s standout material is its twin-faced shearling. Rather than layering the sheepskin with leather or a synthetic for thickness and structure, both sides of the material are outward-facing. “It molds to the foot better because there’s no backing and no glue. It’s almost like a sock,” Larson said. Playing with texture and shine adds dimension to the malleable material. Women’s boot and sneaker silhouettes feature metallic-coated shearling with varying degrees of roughness. Some almost mimic snakeskin, while others have a glossy yet organic effect, like pebbles glinting under water.

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The men’s line features its own textural takes on the luxe material, like a stone-washed shearling reminiscent of “jean’s from the ‘80s” and a deep brown, antiqued finish that looks like the surface of a “weathered bomber jacket.” The inventively-named “ghost camo” pattern also plays a major role in the line, adding a mere suggestion of the familiar military pattern to black, brown and white leathers. All of the materials are weather-resistant, Larson explained, and some are fully waterproof.

Other brands at the show experimented with richly-hued patent leathers, some treated with the trend-forward “wet” effect. French line Arche brought a vibrant, cerulean patent to its oxford style with a soft, deconstructed feel. The brand’s slouchy gunmetal boot displayed an almost lizard-like texture, which was also patent-coated for a mirror finish. Donald Pliner’s heeled Chelsea boot featured a rich oxblood patent with an ombre effect, while Andre Assous’ lace-up combat boot featured an all-over, snakeskin-textured patent in rich burgundy. When asked about the prevalence of patent in all its forms, Shena Louissaint, a rep for the Assous, explained that consumers are looking for something “different and daring” in their materials this fall.

“People are more willing as of late to take more of a risk with their footwear,” Larson reflected, adding that it’s “tough to find inspiration in basic, black leather.”

Regina Romero’s owner, Jorge Romero, agrees that inventiveness is key to grabbing the consumer’s attention. He’s spent the past 40 years in the Mexican shoe industry working with local tanneries on developing “one-of-a-kind textures and finishings” to personalize the brand’s leathers.

The brand would appear to rely heavily on exotic animal skins, except for the fact that they’re imitations of the real thing. The use of genuine exotic skins is against the brand’s values, Romero said. The process by which its leathers are crafted includes a combination of embossing and printing on calfskin, much of which is a by-product of Mexico’s meat industry. “Once the leather is tanned and colored, we can choose or create different prints or indentations for the leather press,” Romero explained. Detailed textures, from “exotic animals to intricate shapes or monograms,” are an oft-used design feature.

Regina Romero also employs foil treatments to create metallic or mirrored finishes on its leathers. High-gloss patents and vintaging effects are found throughout the line, too. “Quality and style are our top priorities when selecting leather,” he said. Romero explained that tannery samples are subjected to “stretching, bending, radical temperature changes,” and constant manipulation by different hands and machines. In choosing the right leathers, the brand has to make sure they “won’t lose saturation, elasticity or resistance” through both production processes and rigorous product testing.

That’s another reason why the imitation animal skins are ultimately a better investment, he added. “We want our shoes to last for decades,” he said.

According to Romero, real exotic skins simply don’t hold up as well as treated leathers, and the brand “aims toward sustainability.” Ross & Snow’s Larson agreed, adding that embossed leathers offer a “much higher consumption rate,” or less material waste, than genuine exotics. She used the example of ostrich leather, where the usable parts of the bird’s hide are limited. Embossing can mimic the desired textural effects on cowhide, which is cheaper, more durable and more ably sourced.

“This is the kind of stuff that I get excited about,” Larson said, adding that innovative materials are often the inspiration behind her design process. “Things like prints and patterns are emotional. You connect to them.”