Raw conceal: a leather worker in a tannery in Dhaka poses with hundreds of skins. Photograph: KM Asad/ ZUMA Press/ Corbis
Im not the only one searching for a more ethical approach. On weekends throughout the spring in Dartington, south Devon, youll find people intently focused on hole-punching and riveting as they learn the ancient art of leather running. The weekend I visit, Leather School has never been busier, as people from a broad range of professions decide that their route 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 store is a third-generation leather employee who trained as a saddler in Walsall( the West Midlands is the home of equestrian saddlery ). He admits hes been asked to induce pieces before out of synthetic materials, but couldnt bring himself to do it. Theres something about the material he says, indicating me a piece of leather from a Devon cow tanned utilizing the bark of an English oak tree at Bakers, in east Devon, one of the last surviving British tanneries. His best-selling product is a an oak-bark tanned leather belt. Seem at the way it catches the illumination, he says lovingly. And the patina will change: you see this is now merely at the start of its life. Itll get better and better.
I wonder about the poor cow, whose life has been ended so the belts can begin. It is not a subject this craftsman takes gently. I was very aware from the start, when I knew I wanted to be a leather worker, that this wasnt just fabric I was working with. This was once the scalp of a living animal. I wanted to know where this amazing material comes from and that wasnt 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, big leather pouches, are made from roadkill deer.
I find his approach to provenance enormously respectful of the animal. For me its the antithesis of the chaotic global supply chain. It feels like the humane route forward. Not everybody is convinced. Simply set, 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, theres no need to wear leather at all.
Im not convinced its possible to bypass leather completely. Surely Leona Lewis must find it challenging, especially when so many of the luxury brands worn by pop starrings on photoshoots are heavy on animal skins. Its truly not difficult, she says. I find a lot of innovative decorators and brands use beautiful cloths that dont involve animal scalp and that gives me hope.
Its true that there are quite a few fresh new brands staking their claim on textiles that dont bleed( a Peta phrase ). Faustine Steinmetz, the LVMH prize finalist for 2015, has been persuaded to apply her considerable talent to vegan purses. I saw animals being killed for fur in a video and I screamed, she says. Leather and fur are the same thing Its genuinely not sustainable to raise an animal for a purse, its crazy. I decided I had to stop wearing leather. But I think the decision has to come from the customer. If the customer doesnt 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 pouches, have developed and grown in confidence in their designs. Bourgeois Bohemes look-book for the forthcoming season has a cool aesthetic and a lack of vegan gimmicks. Youd 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 making vegan leather container for the fashion marketplace 20 years ago. The UK was the brands first overseas conquering and remains the biggest market overseas. Co-founder Manny Kohli, who has just returned from a Berlin trade display selling their Fall 2016 collection, says they are the busiest theyve ever been. Were really now starting to make a case that theres just no need to kill animals.
Most brands cite Stella McCartneys 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 its not made of leather, wonders Kohli. And anyone who has ever held a Stella McCartney bag and had a good look at one can testify that theyre 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 theyve 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 especially excited by the biobased PU polyurethane leather that forms the new unstructured Loom collection for Matt& Nat. Its soft and supple, yet built to last. Sounds a bit like leather, without the mayhem.