After months of trotting around with a broken handbag, I finally found somewhere to mend it. It was a basement shop called Clever with Leather in Brighton. The proprietor examined the piece and announced that “cheap yarn” was the problem. He stitched it beautifully and it’s now back in service.
Among his heavy-duty machinery for the punching, stitching and repairing of some of the toughest hides known to mankind I spotted a reddish leather embossed bag, such as a New World postman might have carried. It reminded me of the cavernous, buckled handbag my mum once had. This bag (along with her) was a constant reassuring presence at the school gates for the duration of primary school. From it she was always able to produce tissues, change for the bus and hair pins on the occasion of Wednesday night ballet class, like a 1970s Mary Poppins.
There will be no such jumpers-for-goalposts memories for future generations. The leather handbag – once a coming-of-age gift that held almost as much significance as a wedding dress – has been swept up in fast fashion’s relentless pursuit of the microtrend. In the past 12 months 31% of Britons bought a handbag or manbag, making them our favourite accessory, with UK sales reaching £1.34bn last year.
To fans, leather is the ultimate heritage material in which the patina only becomes more interesting during its long life. That’s the trade off, if you like, for killing an animal (that and the fact that the skin is a byproduct of the meat, like the tallow – cow fat – used in cosmetics and toothpaste). But the leather handbag is no longer a bag for life. To luxury fashion houses, leather goods are the rocket fuel of their huge expansion over the past decade. To high street fashion brands they represent an unrivalled cash cow. To consumers they’re just another disposable fashion product. The fact that they are made from the skin of a beast is incidental.
A rising global middle class means more crazy-ass consumption of bags – and more cows. Presently around 290m cows are killed every year from a global herd approaching 1bn. Projections tell us that in order to keep us in wallets, handbags and shoes, the industry needs to slaughter 430m cows annually by 2025.
Leather is the material of the moment. Its grip extends throughout the wardrobe: from patchwork leggings (Chanel) to Kanye West’s joggers. The way to fashion credibility is apparently to pile on animal skins (the other current favourite is shearling), so you look like an extra from The Revenant.
And you can do this almost without censure in a way that wouldn’t wash if you were swaddled in fur. Despite a defiant surge in fur-wearing, it still remains a mainstream taboo. However luxe the setting, we’re more likely to interrogate the reality of a fur product and think of fluffy animals trapped in cages. When it comes to leather, honestly, who really thinks about cows?
Pop star Leona Lewis does. Since she came to fame via The X-Factor she has continually spoken up for animal rights. She now fronts a new Peta campaign video, Hell for Leather, which, unsurprisingly, is a grim watch. Filmmaker Manfred Karremann, a seasoned campaigner, tracks a pathetic caravan of cattle between India and Bangladesh as they are driven along dusty roads for hours and hours, abused and tortured with every mile. Finally the animals are skinned (in front of each other) in the back streets of Dhaka. The skins are processed in makeshift tanneries with workers, including children, knee deep in toxic chemicals.
Jason Baker established the Indian branch of Peta in 1999. He claims this film represents the reality of leather production in much of the region, rather than a horrifying anomaly. He himself has seen these kind of conditions again and again. “But what still shocked me,” he says of this latest footage, “was that the Bangladesh leather industry doesn’t just mean cruel conditions for animals. We documented workers, including children, performing hazardous tasks such as soaking hides in toxic chemicals and using knives to cut the skins.”
This research serves to highlight India’s particular paradox. Each year some 34m bovines (including buffalo) are slaughtered, which makes it one of the engines of the global leather trade, attracting millions of dollars. But at the same time in 24 of 29 states cattle slaughter is illegal, as framed by the constitution. So how can a state such as Rajasthan, which has the only government cow department to look after freely roaming sacred cows, and one of the biggest gaushalas (shelters for stray cattle), also be home to hundreds of tanneries?
For centuries, low-caste Hindus (“untouchables”) have been left to deal with dead cows and beef has been widely (though clandestinely) consumed, with skins going to the mainly Muslim tannery owners. Sometimes slaughter is undercover, in “informal” slaughter houses. The system is fraught and suffers from a lack of transparency. The religious overtones of beef consumption are frequently played for political gain. Last September a man in Uttar Pradesh, Mohammad Akhlaq, was killed by fellow villagers, lynched for storing and eating beef. And it’s a system that creates the situation exposed in Peta’s film – where an estimated 2m cattle a year are driven into Bangladesh for slaughter.
I know what you’re thinking: I would never buy anything made from leather produced in these hideous conditions. But in reality we buy leather goods without knowing where the hide originates or what conditions the animals were kept in. We’re comforted by “Italian leather” stamps, but this could mean that the leather was imported and finished in Italy. I’m fond of saying that if all the “Italian leather” merchandise was of true provenance you wouldn’t be able to move for cows in that country. They’d be drinking from the Trevi fountain.
Skins are bought and traded across the world, from Ethiopia to Brazil, processed into the soft, buttery leather we associate with upscale European-made accessories. Nearly half of the global leather trade is carried out in developing countries – from Ethiopia to Cambodia and Vietnam – where, despite a backdrop of exploitation of animals and humans and the extraordinary level of pollution caused by unregulated tanneries and processors, the pressure is on to produce more.
This shouldn’t just perturb vegans, but anyone with a passing regard for the planet. We know that raising livestock in increasing numbers is unsustainable, purely from crunching the numbers around greenhouse gas emissions. But in 2009 a seminal Greenpeace report, Slaughtering the Amazon, made a direct connection between leather and the environment. Researchers used satellite imagery to show how the Brazilian cattle industry (with around 200m head of cattle) was responsible for 14% of the world’s annual deforestation. Moreover, associate products, including leather and tallow made in deforested rainforest, were finding their way into the supply chain of major brands.
This is where I’ll make a case for eco-pragmatism. It is unlikely that the world’s consumers (an ever-increasing demographic) will be immediately dissuaded from buying leather (and eating beef) altogether, so part of the solution is to make the product more sustainable – and to buy only pieces we can cherish and wear throughout our fashion lives, like our mothers did.
This is the stance of ethical fashion campaigner Livia Firth in her new eponymous collection for M&S, which includes two leather bags, a roomy handbag and a clutch. The bag carries its own “passport”, detailing the sustainability of the leather’s Brazilian supply chain. “I am completely wedded to the idea of using the same classic pieces for ever,” she explains. “If you use the same handbag every day, like I do, it has to be simple and it needs to be roomy without being huge.”
To produce the bags she spent time with rancheros on giant ranches in the state of Mato Grosso. “It might sound like an odd place for someone designing fashion, but for me it’s key to getting to grips with the supply chain. For 40 years the ranchers were told to settle the land by the government and to chop down as much rainforest as possible. Now they have us telling them to stop. But the thing I learned is that there is huge capacity for change, and that change works.”
I’m not the only one searching for a more ethical approach. On weekends throughout the spring in Dartington, south Devon, you’ll find people intently focused on hole-punching and riveting as they learn the ancient art of leather working. The weekend I visit, Leather School has never been busier, as people from a wide range of professions decide that their way of taking control of this issue is to get their hands dirty.
The teacher, John Hagger – also known as Tanner Bates, the name of his leather brand and shop – is a third-generation leather worker who trained as a saddler in Walsall (the West Midlands is the home of equestrian saddlery). He admits he’s been asked to make pieces before out of synthetic materials, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. “There’s something about the material…” he says, showing me a piece of leather from a Devon cow tanned using the bark of an English oak tree at Baker’s, in east Devon, one of the last surviving British tanneries. His best-selling product is a an oak-bark tanned leather belt. “Look at the way it catches the light,” he says lovingly. “And the patina will change: you see this is now just at the start of its life. It’ll get better and better.”
I wonder about the poor cow, whose life has been ended so the belt’s can begin. It is not a subject this craftsman takes lightly. “I was very aware from the start, when I knew I wanted to be a leather worker, that this wasn’t just fabric I was working with. This was once the skin of a living animal. I wanted to know where this amazing material comes from and that wasn’t discussed at all during my training.” As part of his quest he has driven animals to the slaughter house – and slaughtered some himself. Some of his most beautiful pieces, large leather bags, are made from roadkill deer.
I find his approach to provenance enormously respectful of the animal. For me it’s the antithesis of the chaotic global supply chain. It feels like the humane way forward. Not everybody is convinced. “Simply put,” says Baker, “there is no such thing as humane leather. No matter where it comes from, leather is the product of a cruel industry. And with so many synthetic materials available today, there’s no need to wear leather at all.”
I’m not convinced it’s possible to bypass leather completely. Surely Leona Lewis must find it challenging, especially when so many of the luxury brands worn by pop stars on photoshoots are heavy on animal skins. “It’s really not difficult,” she says. “I see a lot of innovative designers and brands using beautiful fabrics that don’t involve animal skin – and that gives me hope.”
It’s true that there are quite a few fresh new brands staking their claim on “fabrics that don’t bleed”(a Peta phrase). Faustine Steinmetz, the LVMH prize finalist for 2015, has been persuaded to apply her considerable talent to vegan bags. “I saw animals being killed for fur in a video and I cried,” she says. “Leather and fur are the same thing… It’s really not sustainable to raise an animal for a bag, it’s crazy. I decided I had to stop wearing leather. But I think the decision has to come from the customer. If the customer doesn’t buy leather any more, things will change.”
Some longstanding UK vegan brands, such as Beyond Skin and Bourgeois Boheme for shoes, and Matt and Nat for bags, have developed and grown in confidence in their designs. Bourgeois Boheme’s look-book for the forthcoming season has a cool aesthetic and a lack of “vegan” gimmicks. You’d be hard pressed to discriminate between a chunky classic leather sandal and the Stella – their cotton-backed microfibre cruelty-free version made in Portugal.
Montreal-based accessory brand Matt & Nat began producing vegan leather bags for the fashion market 20 years ago. The UK was the brand’s first overseas conquest and remains the biggest market overseas. Co-founder Manny Kohli, who has just returned from a Berlin trade show selling their Fall 2016 collection, says they are the busiest they’ve ever been. “We’re really now starting to make a case that there’s just no need to kill animals.”
Most brands cite Stella McCartney’s eponymous accessories collection as a game-changer. “Here you have a luxury brand where people are prepared to pay £1,500 for a bag, and it’s not made of leather,” marvels Kohli. And anyone who has ever held a Stella McCartney bag and had a good look at one can testify that they’re every bit as alluring in weight and softness as a top-grade leather; that they do appear to be as good as the real thing – better, if you factor in the environmental damage and loss of life they’ve displaced.
Synthetic leather really is on the up. Many patents have been registered for potentially groundbreaking materials. These are worlds away from the plasticised synthetics of a decade ago. Kohli is particularly excited by the biobased PU polyurethane leather that forms the new unstructured Loom collection for Matt & Nat. It’s soft and supple, yet built to last. Sounds a bit like leather, without the mayhem.