Since the recession began the use of leather in footwear has changed. Once upon a time all footwear was made of leather of some sort or another and by the middle of the 20th century when industrial uses of leather and saddlery declined, about 75% of all leather was going into footwear.
With the arrival of trainers that rapidly reduced and a new level was reached with about 50% of leather made going into footwear and making up very roughly about a third of all footwear. The more recent change has come about as a consequence of the high cost of raw material which pushed leather prices up hugely and led many companies to experiment with plastic and textile alternates. And when the prices fell they have not returned to leather.
Look around in most cities, on public transport and in universities and you will see that the percentage of leather shoes being worn is now quite low, especially amongst younger consumers.
It looks now as though the footwear market is splitting in two, with a lower price sector dominated by non leather materials and a higher quality, more hand crafted sector exclusively using leather.
What is exciting is that this premier sector is now using far more vegetable tanned leather. The introduction of injection moulding for high volume footwear production pushed vegetable tanned leather out as it could not withstand the very high temperatures involved as well as chrome tanned leather. In the premium sector which is more about welted, handsewn or stuck-on soles, this is not relevant and a vegetable tanned upper and sole is now making a comeback.
The move of vegetable tanned leather into some specially designed trainers is typical and highlighted in Kicks On Fire. Re-imagining classic styles is just one part of it and many other companies, not just clogs and handsewn moccasins, are looking at vegetable tanned leather to enjoy the touch and the smell of this very natural leather, plus the way it can be worked on the last and will adapt to the foot to give exceptional comfort.
Additionally new creative work is going on with vegetable tanned sole leather such as the exciting example from the Portuguese company Goldmud. A very traditional sector that is coming back to life.
The more the footwear sector splits into the quality upper end using leather and a cheaper plastic volume segment, the more we can expect traditional quality leathers and sole leather to be used in the premium end. Companies will have time to put in the work and the consumers will get used again to paying for shoes that last a long time and can be repaired.