Now we know

Peter LaightI always wondered who went round defacing the posters I put up for my successful campaign for election as President of the Students Union at Leeds University back in 1968, but now we know. But in his excellent talk to the UK SLTC last week Dr Peter Laight who was my contemporary at Leeds let the cat out of the bag. Reminding us of how the leather industry used to look like in those days he took us through a little reminiscence of how my campaign based on “change, progress and responsibility” evolved in sex, drugs and rock and roll – along with thrift, blood and haggis!

Peter spoke to a packed house and certainly the largest audience I remember at the University for a cold November meeting. Lots of students were present and they took a full part in questions which were curtailed when the Chairman decided we had run well over time.

In comparing the UK industry from 1968 to today Peter had estimated that tanners had fallen from about 2000 down to 20, some of which are quite small. He skimmed over some of the reasons for this decline and then looked at what the UK brand leather might look like today, providing a mix of opposing adjectives to help the audience along although he had some strong personal opinions which had to be factored in. He also discussed uses and perceptions of leather which interlinked neatly with the research being done at University by Anca Roberts on leather and subjectivity,

But Peter had an argument on how a new segmentation might help maintain and develop the industry in the UK, or at least parts of it. This was to go back to do the days of tanners and curriers or perhaps more like the relation of tanners and glovers in the days before the first world war.

Changing the industry segmentation

One organisation would be responsible for tanning up top crust and another would then take it forward to the finished article. Perhaps even in the UK the farmer or the abattoir would do stage one. Peter’s own work with advanced digital printing he argued has a roll to play here as it can now do solid colours as well as individualisation of effects. He is scaling up to small factory size in early 2009 and hopefully will site his plant in Northampton where the University could buy some time for students to work with it. He argued that some dark colours create a leather in which the dye is up to 15% of the dry weight of the leather.

The system works most efficiently with cut components hence the value of splitting the cow to consumer at the crust stage, having made a simple sustainable crust. Work on the post crust operations is going on in Florida for Nike and for the US upholstery trade. Peter talked of a $0.75 price point per foot but wanted to be evasive as the price really had to be seen in the context of the total value chain in which may other conventional costs might be eliminated and specific extra added value provided to the final consumer.

It is a fascinating and feasible approach which certainly had the audience sitting up. Digital dyeing and finishing may not be for everyone but it has at least been proven. The last time I remember a shoe company starting from crust as a strategy was in the 1980s at ECCO in Portugal with the Multimac dyeing machine which was very hard to make to work. Remember it? United States Patent 4763370 filed in 1986. A good idea that did not work and destroyed a strategy. So ECCO worked from blue and then in the 1990s from raw, which is essentially what they still do today.

Mike Redwood

25th November 2008

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