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.

The Chemistry of Fashion: Leather Tanning

As part of our continuing education as fashion designers, once upon a time we took a leather chemistry course.  This was, hands-down, the hardest educational course we’ve ever tackled, but at the same time it was also one of the most incredibly useful courses we’ve taken.  It was offered through the American Leather Chemists’ Association and we think some version of this should be incorporated into every fashion designer’s curriculum.

Why would we think that? Well, for starters, we learned a lot about what to look for in buying leather: how to evaluate the quality of the leather, how to determine what process was used in tanning the leather, and even how to evaluate the tanning itself.   We also learned quite a lot about the process of tanning leather from the point where the skin or hide is removed from the animal to the point where it is ready to ship as a finished commodity.

Knowing how your commodities get produced and made available for you as a designer to use in your garments is critically important from the financial point of view.  But we think it is equally important for designers to know about the materials they are using in their designs especially if they want to be able to source and use sustainable, ecologically friendly commodities.

Producing leather from raw skins has traditionally been very damaging to the environment.  For one thing, leather tanning requires huge amounts of water starting at the point where the animal parts ways with its skin to the point where it becomes ‘leather’.  The process also generates both physical waste from the biomass by-products released during tanning and from the various chemicals used to tan the leather such as chromium salts.

In the past, this physical waste (tanning salts, biomass) was released with the waste water.  Since tanneries are usually sited on waterways (easy access to enough water), this usually meant the waste water was just dumped into the water source below the tannery.  Pity anyone who lived downstream of the tannery! Not only does the rotting biomass (removed during the early part of tanning) stink as it degrades, but as the biomass is degraded by microbes, excess carbon dioxide is released into the waterways, disturbing the natural balance and causing things like algal blooms and fish die-off.  If that weren’t bad enough, though, the tanning chemicals (like sulfuric acid and chromium salts) are released along with the waste water.  These chemicals are quite toxic and have been linked with everything from birth defects to cancer.

Thankfully, leather chemists and organizations like the ALCA are working to find new ways of tanning leather that don’t use as many toxic chemicals and that enable better retention and capture of the waste chemicals.  Leather tanning today is a much safer process than it was even twenty years ago, and as new technologies and processes emerge, we expect that the tanning process will become even safer.

As designers, we need to understand how our design choices will have an impact, not only on the purchasing consumer, but also on the environment in which our consumer lives.   It is therefore critically important that we learn as much as we can about the commodities we select to develop our designs in.  It is no longer enough to create simply pretty or dramatic fashion.  We also need to design intelligently and thoughtfully, with full awareness of what we are selecting, and the impact those selections have.

Something fishy is going on

As designers, we are always looking for new and interesting materials we can use in our design; materials that may inspire us or excite us in our creativity. Last week we looked at rumen leather, which is upcycled cow stomachs.   This week, we want to showcase a product we used in design school, namely fish leather.

Fishskin leather has been around a long time.  Salvatore Ferragamo, Shoemaker of Dreams, used fish leather before and during the hardship years of World War II when materials and supplies for shoemaking were scarce. He used sea leopard, which is a kind of fish leather, to make uppers when normal calf or kidskin wasn’t available.

Fish  leather is seeing a renaissance of sorts, with emerging designers using it in their apparel and accessories collections.  It’s such a hot commodity, in fact, that the Museum of Design and Applied Art in the Hönnunarsafn Íslands in Iceland presented an exhibition  showcasing local designers’ work made from locally tanned fish leather.

Various species of fish leather from the Atlantic Leather company is currently available to designers.  As a young designer, we had been exposed to Perch leather finished in an open scale pattern.  This has a scale pattern with bits of leather around each scale insertion that produces an almost ruffled surface appearance.  This leather had a lovely hand, no odor, and it stitched up quite nicely into various accessories.  But the other species of fish (salmon, cod, and wolffish) that the Atlantic Leather company in Iceland have available for purchase all have distinctive looks as well.  The wolffish is particularly lovely, with natural spotting over the hide.

We like the entire idea of fish leather, since it is upcycling what would normally be a waste component of the fishing industry into a quality design commodity with much greater value.  We love the whole idea of Iceland’s fish leather industry, because they are largely producing the leather from their domestic resources from their fishing industry, using sustainable and green production processes to create the leather.  The bulk of the fish skins which are turned into leather are Icelandic, and they use both the heated water from local geothermal sources as well as energy from domestic hydroelectric power stations to provide the power and water for the tanning process.

Designers who are looking for a commodity which allows them to have both creative expression and to focus on sustainable design might do well to look into fish leather.  After all, if Ferragamo used it, there’s already a rich design tradition for designers to call upon as an inspiration.

Content, Piracy, and OpenSim-based Grids

We recently picked up a link sent to us of an image shot in an OpenSim-based grid, that showed a 3D model used in the region that looked suspiciously familiar. Upon visiting the region, I discovered that lo, the model was in fact very familiar: it was a model created for our old Shengri La islands (closed in Summer 2010) by a very talented artist who we have supported since his early days in Second Life®.

We approached the owner of the region and let him know that he was harboring pirated content. While he did remove that model, his response made it abundantly clear that a lot more consciousness-raising must occur not only with content creators, but also with consumers. He seemed to think that pirated content was somehow a single creator issue, not a community issue, and we take issue with this point of view for a number of well-informed reasons.

What we did not say, but should have said, to this gentleman is what mothers everywhere tell their children when the kids pick up (and put in their mouth) something they found in the street: ‘Don’t pick that up.  Don’t put that in your mouth. You don’t know where it has been.  Now wash your hands.’

It’s the same thing with so-called ‘freebie content’.  As a consumer, there’s no way to know where that content has been.  Most of the ‘freebie content’ in the OpenSim universe has no provenance to speak of, much of it has been pirated, and the way it is dispersed and distributed creates some massive legal and security issues.

Currently these security issues relate more to DRM and legal considerations, but we can also foresee the day when some hacker decides to create a Trojan horse attached to some particularly attractive bit of content and release it into the ‘freebie pool’.

While we do not yet know of any tech exploits attached to content in this way, we assume it is merely a matter of time before it happens, and when it does, we anticipate that such an exploit will spread quickly given the dispersion rate of content in the OpenSim-based grids.

We will repeat again: there are many good reasons not to pick up content of questionable provenance. Odds are good it is pirated, which has moral, ethical, and legal implications.

But even more specifically for the average consumer, and why they should care, is that there is a very real risk of danger to their personal hardware/software.  We wouldn’t know the exact details of how a Trojan horse security exploit would be built in a virtual world, but we do know that it is something that could be done.  We surmise the average consumer would not be able to detect such an attached exploit until too late.  We also understand how disease vectors spread epidemics. Unconstrained freebie content that can move freely through hypergrid-enabled worlds with no real technical controls is a ticking time bomb that will explode.  We think it is merely a matter of time before it does.

We see the possibility of trouble ahead, so we are speaking up now to warn the community of content consumers that free content may end up not being quite so ‘free’ if the freebie collector ends up having to pay to have their hard drive scrubbed because the content itself was nothing more than a Trojan horse. Whether or not it is better for a consumer to protect themselves by only buying content licenses from known entities is something only the consumer can decide.  After all, ultimately, they are the ones who assume the risks in picking something up out of the gutter and putting it in their mouths.

Rumen Leather: Ick! vs. Fabulous!

Last week one of our trend publications featured a product called rumen leather that we posted about because it was just so ickily cool.

In the past week, we’ve had scores of email messages and conversations about this product, which isn’t one of ours, FYI.   What is curious is the very clear divide between consumer and maker messages.

Uniformly the consumer messages fell unequivocally into the ‘disgusting/gross/OMG you can’t really mean you’d use that’ camp.  The maker messages, on the other hand, wanted to know how much it cost, what the hand was like, it’s availability, how it would wear…in short, all of the questions a designer would ask before trying to specify it as a component in a product.

What was interesting to us about this body of correspondence, and the divide between vile/disgusting and let’s-use-it, is that this is the same historical chasm between creator and consumer that divides us in our understanding.  To a creator, anything can be fodder for a creative endeavor, even something like raw meat to make a dress for Lady Gaga (ok, going open kimono, we thought that was disgusting…cool but disgusting).

A consumer who is accustomed to buying their carefully pressed and folded T-shirt off the rack doesn’t see the T-shirt as its component parts of a pile of cotton fibers and some dye, nor do they necessarily see the T-shirt itself as being a possible future component that could be distressed and upcycled into something new and (one hopes) more interesting.

It is this dichotomy that lead to the Ick! vs. Fabulous! division in the communications about the rumen leather.

Makers tend to know their components come from somewhere – cotton fibers from cotton plants; leather from the skins of animals – and the origins concern us less than the supply chain questions (where do you get it, is it available, how much).  Consumers largely do not know or care about the supply chain considerations and tend to be pretty insulated from the actual ingredients list in their products.

Sure, we can read the labels, but we’re betting that if rumen leather were actually used it would be listed as ‘cow leather’, not as ‘cow stomach leather’.

We’re also willing to bet that if a designer used rumen leather in some fabulous thing like a handbag, and she slapped a pretty name on the specialty leather (velvet leather, maybe) that far from being icky, rumen leather would in fact be trendy and highly coveted and sought after. And we would so want that bag, albeit for different reasons.