The Biology of Fashion: Back to Basics with Leather

It seems like recently we’ve been enamored of leather, and with good reason.  There are some wonderful new products appearing in the marketplace, all of which carry the important attributes that a designer wants when they specify leather over man-made or synthetic materials.  We even saw something that would normally be regarded as offal turned into a higher-value product (rumen leather).

But leather is a commodity that is not without its detractors.  Animal rights supporters, vegans, and others who believe that animals should not be slaughtered for human use are adamantly opposed to leather.  Ecologists and environmentalists sometimes oppose leather, not only because of the substantial amount of pollutants and toxins the tanning process can produce, but also because leather has a substantial ecological footprint.   They argue that land, which might be better used to grow crop plants, are instead sequestered to use for animal pasturage.

Of course, in dealing with these commodities, it’s never quite as simple as ‘yes leather’ or ‘no leather.’  Leather itself is a byproduct.  Leather is created with a multi-step process from the skins or hides of animals.  With the notable exceptions of animals grown for the fur industry or for upholstery, very few animals are grown specifically for their hides.  Instead, their hides are byproducts of the much larger food industry.

Cattle, pigs and sheep are the primary animals grown for food purposes.  The process of harvesting these animals for food purposes includes removing its skin.   The hides of these animals are sold to tanners and the process of converting what would otherwise be waste biomass into something useful begins.  Millions of animals are slaughtered every year for food (beef, pork, lamb/mutton); if their hides were not converted into useful products, it would be difficult to dispose of the waste in any ecologically sound fashion.

While it would be easy to suggest that if people would just stop consuming meat, then there would be no need to address what to do with all of the byproduct skins.  That is a facile response to an obviously bigger issue.  Suggesting that animal leather should be replaced with synthetic or man-made materials is also an overly simplistic answer.  Man-made materials also carry a substantial carbon footprint, as most of these synthetics require extensive oil inputs with large multipliers (from initial feedstock to finished product).  Additionally, synthetic materials rarely approach the overall qualities of animal leather that designers want for their finished products.

Unfortunately, given the reality of how animals are produced for consumption, there’s no real driving market force to develop new ways of synthesizing animal leather – after all, there is already a huge glut of skins in the marketplace.  While the technology does exist to grow leather in vitro, it is expensive, and there’s no market basis to develop this technology into something that will enable huge amounts of leather to be vat-grown when so much animal leather already exists.

This is a pity, since leather that is synthesized from the molecular level would be uniformly thick throughout, have no scarring from living naturally, and could have precise attributes molecularly encoded during the growth phase.  Moreover, many of the steps required to tan leather wouldn’t be necessary, including all the steps required to remove non-collagen molecules from the hide.

Animal skins will continue to be a byproduct of the world’s appetite for animal flesh.  We therefore need to look at different ways of handling this byproduct that is less wasteful and less environmentally harmful.

On Trend: Fashion’s Flirtation with Tattoos

We’ve been head’s down for the past week working on a new concept in region development, and the entire team has been heavily focused on getting our concept region up and running, leaving very little time for blog posts and other noncritical path efforts.

However! To make up for that, we’re sharing some thoughts about one of fashion’s hot topics, namely tattoo art.  We first were exposed to the wider world of tattoo art when we were at the University of Chicago, and we found an absolutely fabulous tome called ‘Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos’, by Samuel Steward.  BB&TT is a wandering, first person report of one man’s pursuit of the art of tattoo-ography to the point where he left his academic career as an English professor to pursue his true love of inking people’s bodies.  What we recall most vividly from this book were the anecdotes of some of the places people chose for their artwork, just how squalid the world of the tattoo artist was, and that his new choice of career, while personally fulfilling, was considered by his colleagues to be almost bordering on the perverse.

Since then, we’ve been watching the evolution of tattoo from being a racy, risqué form of body decoration to becoming not just an accepted but even a highly sought—after form of fashion embellishment.

Looking at the trends for the first decade of the new millennium, this permanent form of body art has moved well beyond the transgressive world of Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos into a world where body art is no longer a risqué right of passage for inebriated sailors on leave from long tours of duty who later hide their misbegotten ‘tatt’.  Now tattoos are proudly flaunted in everything from ink sleeves to full body ink.  No longer something limited to Hell’s Angels and other sketchy characters, tattoos have moved into the mainstream, with young girls getting ‘tramp stamped’ with colorful designs on various parts of their body. Even Barbie got in on the action, in 2009.  (And yes, we know, you have to be 18 and show ID to get tattooed in most states, but we’re just saying we’ve seen a lot of teens with tramp stamps here in NYC.)

As Fashion morphs and manipulates Trend, tattoos have been the source of inspiration for such apocryphal lines as the Ed Hardy brand , with the heavily black lined and vibrant colors used to create trendy accessories and apparel with a strong tattoo bias.

New and interesting trends, which are less permanent, are also being explored.  One we liked quite a lot, which incorporates the present craze for hand-created, slow design accessories, is for tatted tattoo art , which showed up recently on Trendhunter (Trendhunter called it knitted, but anyone with any experience with handwork would immediately recognize the artform as tatting). .   We’re not personally interested in obtaining a permanent memento of our brazen youth, since we’re not at all sure that much of this inked art is going to perform well with age.  Somehow a saggy butterfly or teddy bear just doesn’t seem terribly interesting to us.  Nor are we sure about how tattoo ink in large quantities is going to impact the body’s health as the wearer’s body ages and the tattoo ink is broken down by UV light and the body’s own natural processes.  But a tatted tattoo wearable could be just the right answer to those who want to explore this latest trend towards body embellishment.

How black became a must-have in fashion

Fashion industry people are known for their fondness for black.  We have the ‘perfect little black dress’, the ‘perfect black bag’, and the ‘perfect black stiletto heels’.  But where did this obsession with black as a must-have come from?

There’s a (perhaps apocryphal) tale that fashion’s obsession with black arises from the 1960-70s, when legendary handbag designer Judith Leiber decided to dress her in-store retail sales force only in black.  Her rationale was that what people needed to see in her store were not sales people, but her exquisite minaudieres.  With careful lighting, and her now darkness-clad store associates fading into the background, all one would see was the flash and scintillation of crystals on those tiny works of art, set out like a rare gemstone on a sea of black.

But fashion’s obsession with black goes much further back than Judith Leiber’s glorious little bags, and there’s actually an historic economic basis to our continued obsession with this hue.

Once humanity understood that some materials stained, or dyed, other materials, particularly materials that one might use to adorn the body, well, the race was on to find ever newer and more intriguing colors.  Prior to the invention of the synthetic dye materials, however, getting a good true black was time-consuming, difficult, and very expensive.  This meant that only the wealthiest could afford to wear black, and only the very wealthiest could afford to wear it as more than just an accent color.

Unlike today, when even the retail sales assistants are dressed in black, black (particularly luxury weaves such as velvet) was a premium color.  Wearing black allowed wealthy merchants to show their social and financial status without running afoul of medieval sumptuary laws, which prohibited the wearing of luxury materials by the (lower) classes.   Black screamed in a slightly subtler way than wearing all of one’s jewels on the street, ‘Hello, I am RICH!’  This was the paradigm for centuries that only the wealthiest could afford an expensive black-dyed garment.

The Industrial Revolution certainly changed how dyes were priced.  The invention of synthetic or ‘man-made’ dye materials enabled a cheaper black dye to enter the marketplace for widespread use.  Black became commonly used not just as a trim or an accessory, but also as outfits worn even by the poorest.  Black was suddenly democratic rather than being reserved as a luxury class color.   England’s Queen Victoria’s extended mourning for her Prince Consort, Albert, further  solidified black as an almost mandatory color to have in one’s wardrobe.

With this rich history of being associated with wealth and social position, black remains a perennial favorite to use in collections.  Black has been cast in various roles, but even when it is only lightly used as an accent color, it can never be said to be a ‘bit’ player in the color spectrum.  It still remains an expected basic in our wardrobes, and it is usually the best selling color in most accessories classes.  Most apparel collections include black (even spring collections may use it for an accent color however minimally).  With its rich history, when we wear black, we can be said to be wearing our history on our sleeve.  Old beliefs about wealth and position tend to die hard, and in that context it makes sense that for fashion at least, black will always be an important color.