Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Untrueisms III

Ask if a briefcase is made with French or Italian calfskin.”

This howler was in one of the recent Esquire Big Black Books, their semiannual compendia of clothing advice.  Unless you are talking to the person who actually made the item, AND can trust that person not to lie to you, this is terrible advice for anyone with any kind of reasonable budget looking for a reasonable layperson’s rule of thumb to use in buying a briefcase.  Rather, this question best tests a salesperson’s ability to ad lib creatively. 

Let me explain why this is an incentive to lie, before I go into the merits of French or Italian calf.  No salesperson in any store I can imagine - including Hermès, the best well-known quality leather goods maker - would know whether an item was made with French or Italian calf, and most would make up a response on the spot.  If the item had an Italian-sounding brand name, like David Brent’s Sergio Georgini, or was tagged “made in Italy,” they would suppose the leather must be Italian.  The same would apply if the brand sounded French.  But, of course, no matter where an item is made, or by whom, its materials are often sourced from somewhere else, for both good reasons and bad.  So even if an item is marked “made in Italy,” for instance, its leather could have been sourced from Brazil, among many other places.  (This leaves aside the thorny issue of country-of-origin labels not always meaning much work was done in that country.)  The only way a salesperson would know where the leather came from would be if some sort of marketing materials for the item in question mentioned that fact specifically – but marketing materials are by definition self-serving too.  I certainly wouldn’t expect a salesperson in a multi-brand department store to be so familiar with the materials used in a specific item, and wouldn't trust one who claimed to be.

While it’s true that there are good tanneries in France or Italy, not all leather from a particular place is the same.  Nor is it clear whether the originator of the untrueism above means to refer, say, to leather from French tanneries like the Tanneries du Puy or, instead, to the source of the raw material, the “French alpine calf” that a few brands refer to the way that Ricardo Montalban referred to the (meaningless) “rich Corinthian leather” of the 1970s Chrysler Cordoba.  But as anyone who’s tried a mediocre Champagne from France, a mediocre shirt from Jermyn Street, or a mediocre Parmesan from Italy knows, origin, especially branded origin, does not determine quality.  There are other sources of quality leather besides France and Italy, including certain German sources (IIRC) as well as English tanners like Stead or (a favorite #appallinglyvulgar name) Crack & Sons. The Glaser Designs bag in the photo uses American hides. A salesperson definitely wouldn’t know which tannery produced the leather for an item or what degree of quality leather from that tannery went into the item. 

Even assuming all “French or Italian calfskin” is created equal (it isn’t), that superiority would only come into play at the very top of the market.  I know of one cheaper shoemaker which attempted to compensate for lower quality leather by using much thicker cuts of it.  The result made for a heavier shoe, but was it really qualitatively better?  We all do want an easy metric, which is why we hope we can rely on essentially commodifying quality, as ignorant magazine writers do when they suggest all English shoes, all Scottish cashmere, or all Italian leather is of similar quality.  The reality is far more complicated, boring, and ultimately discouraging, because brands and marketers use those metrics to substitute buzzwords for integrity.  That has led to, ultimately, the perpetual one-upsmanship of brands like Loro Piana bringing to market new luxury fibers when cashmere was not enough: they announce “baby cashmere,” vicuña, lotus fiber and who knows what else, as well as to the arms race of ever finer yarn numbers (they’re not thread counts like on bedsheets) like Super 150s, 180s and 200s.  A well-finished Super 100s from Lesser will feel better, wear better and look better than a Super 150s from a less trustworthy source.  And unfortunately, Lesser and many other quality cloth houses like Fox and Minnis are generally only available in bespoke.  But Loro Piana and Zegna have found an outlet for their lower quality branded cloth in having it made up by cheap suitmakers whose labels trumpet the brand which produced their cloth, without it having much bearing on the actual quality of make or cloth.  What is the casual punter to do?

Instead, I can suggest a couple easier tests that should apply at all price ranges.  First, use the smell test:  If the salesperson’s palaver smells like bullshit, turn it off.  Then smell the leather.  Does it smell good or bad (chemical-like or rancid)?  Very broadly speaking, if a leathergood smells bad, it’s bad quality.  That’s not to say that leathergoods that smell good are all great quality, but it’s a start.  Next, consider the visual appearance of the leather.  Does it look so shiny it’s plasticky or so dull it’s kind of grayish?  Is it kind of crinkly looking and papery?  Unless you’re looking for patent leather, don’t buy leather that’s so shiny it seems almost glazed on, because chances are that it’s a chemically applied surface that won’t ever take a good polish.  If, on the other hand, it’s dull looking and grayish to begin with, it might never look better than that.  If the leather is supposed to be smooth but has crinkles or ripples in it, it’s probably not very good quality.  These are all very broad assertions with plenty of nuances or exceptions that can be made, but I think they’re much less likely to mislead than the advice in the magazine piece. 

A retired friend who was a bespoke maker recently vehemently declared that Internet-miseducated detail obsessives were missing the point and driving quality artisans to distraction, if not out of business.  A customer, he thundered, should be able to trust the craftsman to make a quality product using quality materials without second-guessing every step in the process.  That’s an ideal, although nowadays most well-known houses may be living off their reputation.  Those craftsmen worthy of trust may not be household names.  Some, such as RBJ Simpson, are available on this site.  In the interest of avoiding future headaches and heartache, I’d gently suggest trying them sooner rather than later.

Words by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans and photo by Glaser Designs


BespokeNYC said...

It was interesting to read your point about the smell of leather as I recently bought a travel wallet whose smell I can only describe as "fishy". It was made by a well-renowned English leather company and looks beautiful, with lovely brass details. The smell isn't altogether unpleasant (and it's certainly not as bad as it sounds!) but it is quite distinct. Is this something you've ever experienced? Is it a sign of lower quality leather?

kds said...

Some of the best leather sold by French luxury houses does not come from France or Italy, but from the island of Osterøy in Norway. Leather from Western Norway holds a higher quality for several reasons, including not fencing in cattle with barbed wire, and tanning experience dating back to 1889.

kds said...

Some of the best leather sold by French luxury houses does not come from France or Italy, but from the island of Osterøy in Norway. Leather from Western Norway holds a higher quality for several reasons, including not fencing in cattle with barbed wire, and tanning experience dating back to 1889.

zatara wood said...

1) I am enjoying these untrueisms very much

2) If as you say there are craftsmen worthy of trust" who "may not be household names" this site should perhaps make it a point to name them, for the benefit of all (& not just recommend brands stocked by SW haberdashery)

3) Why not name the shoemaker which you say attempted to compensate for lower quality leather instead of being coy? A bit of mud slinging is not only more interesting, but also helps keep the unscrupulous in check.

Balfegor said...

If you buy leather goods in Japan from smaller makers like Herz or Itagaki, they generally know where their leather is sourced from. Itagaki's workshop is way up in Hokkaido, but they used to source leather from Tochigi Prefecture, and now have some Italian leather. Herz has a workshop right in Shibuya, in Tokyo (worth peeking into if one is interested in leather goods). One of their lines (Organ?) uses leather sourced in Italy. I think the main line uses Japanese leather, though I forget.

Acornscaptain said...

The leather artisans and merchants in Turkey, it turns out, think it funny to hear about Italian exclusivity regarding leather goods since, it is their claim, they supply a lot of what is sold in Italy as domestic product. In fact the leather goods offered in street shops and even the mercados of Turkey is often first rate stuff. Though you have to look patiently and be a little picky, you will be rewarded with some of the finest leather goods in the world at a fraction of big-name French or Italian houses.

Will said...

Zatara, publications that sling mud usually perish quickly, overwhelmed by lawsuits.

And though we do write about products that are not carried in the store, we must be careful not to send signals that we may intend to carry a line lest it be copied.