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Leather Lit Up NYFW Runways But Is it Appealing to Conscious Consumers?

Leather styles were a key trend at New York Fashion Week, even as imports of apparel made with the material to the U.S. shrank in 2019.

Leather has also come across as not the most environmentally friendly material, although new methods of production and alternative materials have seen that thinking evolve. There has also long been the question of whether leather’s runway appeal equates to consumer desire.

Runway to consumer

Runway-ready leather looks will appeal to consumers at the commercial level, Kai Chow, creative director at Doneger Group, said.

“Leather is long lasting, functional, comfortable and timeless,” Chow said. “Leather has also been an investment luxury that fits into today’s lifestyle.”

According to Edited market analyst Kayla Marci, leather’s durability makes it easy for pieces such as a jacket or boot “to resonate in consumer wardrobes as a seasonless item.”

“For the past few seasons now, designers have elevated the fabric by showcasing head-to-toe leather looks on the runway,” Marci said. “The most recent examples at NYFW include Marc Jacobs, Rag & Bone and Coach. This all-over dressing style has continued across London and Milan.”

The consumer is beginning to accept leather in items beyond the basic leather jacket, Sharon Graubard, creative director of MintModa, noted.

“The fall collections are full of leather slip dresses, leather tops, pants, shorts and culottes, tops and skirts, and all of these are readily translatable beyond the runways,” she said.

Eco effects

Chow believes choosing leather doesn’t mean brands or designers aren’t being sensitive to the environment.

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“There are so many different ways to be eco-friendly,” he said. “Brands should be able to create their own story while also being transparent with their customer on how they are keeping the environment top of mind. A great example of a brand that is doing this is Veja shoes. The leather used to create their shoes comes from a tannery that is audited and certified gold by the Leather Working Group. They also perform random checks throughout the year to monitor the level of chrome.”

Graubard said the association with “pleather” as being a cheap PVC fake made by toxic chemicals has been replaced by the perception that faux leathers are a desirable, sustainable choice.

“There are so many interesting alternatives out there,” she said. “Many are plant-based and biodegradable, like Pinatex, made from pineapple leaves, or mushroom leather made from mycelium cells, like Muskin and Mylo. Mylo is already being used by Stella McCartney, who has lead the way with all things vegan and sustainable.”

Chow noted leather’s historic environmental track record, as the chemicals long used to treat leather aren’t known for their eco-friendly properties.

“However, brands have been increasingly aware of this and have taken action to ensure that the process from skin to leather is done responsibly and humanly,” he said. “Fast-fashion brands will look to use vegan leather and pleather to recreate the look. Also, instead of just trying to create something that looks just like leather, fast-fashion companies can be a bit more playful by adding shine, dimension and stretch to their faux leather fabric of choice.”

Marc Jacobs's F/W 20 runway show.
Marc Jacobs’s F/W 20 runway show. WWD/Shutterstock

There does seem to be a dichotomy of major brands are using leather, most frequently associated with fall and winter wear, in their collections even for spring.

“People are choosing to adapt a plant-based lifestyle for a variety of reasons,” Chow said. “Different cultures around the world have been producing plant-based leather for centuries. Hopefully, today’s technology and yesterday’s history will merge to create a leather like fabric that is durable, functional, fashionable and most importantly, sustainable.”

Sourcing shifts

Due to the high cost involved with producing leather, mass-market retailers have been able to replicate the look and feel using synthetic materials, Marci said. With the rise of vegan diets, these faux alternatives have resonated with consumers looking to extend their animal-free lifestyle into their wardrobes.

Since 2018, U.S. mass market of products described as “vegan” has seen continued growth, she said. By the end of January, this number had grown by 64 percent year-on-year.

“On average, vegan leather outerwear, trousers and skirts come in more than three times cheaper than 100 percent leather products online at U.S. mass-market brands,” Marci said. “Retailers such as Banana Republic and Topshop offer both vegan and 100 percent leather options to entice audiences with different price points.

“While this growth signal the fashion industry’s process of moving away from the use of animal hides in production, there is still the question of sustainability within vegan products,” Marci added. “The use of recycled synthetic products reduces the negative impacts incurred in production such as energy, raw materials and labor. But designers are yet to find widely available alternatives to vegan leathers that are both cruelty-free and eco-friendly.”

This could have contributed to leather apparel imports plunging 17.5 percent to a value of $311.75 million in 2019, with wild swings in where it was manufactured.

The top three suppliers saw their shipments decline in the year, but none as dramatically as China. Slipping from its perch as the top supplier for at least the past seven years, China saw its fortunes change in 2019. Leather apparel imports into the U.S. from China plummeted 48 percent to $62.45 million last year compared to 2018, as tariffs pushed companies to look elsewhere to get their merchandise made.

With China dropping to third place, Italy claimed the No. 1 spot among leather-producing countries, even as its shipments to the U.S. dipped 2 percent to $71.94 million. India moved into second place, but its shipments also dipped, falling 11 percent to $71.13 million.

Pakistan and Turkey gained ground with slight gains, while France, Indonesia and Vietnam saw modest declines.