An unsettled political and economic climate has not prevented the Italians from making desirable leathers. Their position as world design leaders was consolidated at last week's Lineapelle, the international showcase for new leathers and components for the shoe, belts and bag trade for summer 2007. Penny Leese reports.

Designer bags are the most accessible and aspirational accessories today, and here the Italians lead. High class luggage and bag leather no longer comes in just basic colours; every season has its new fashion shades. But it is the leather and the leather alone that 'makes' the bags, and the richness is in the raw materials.

The year, colours are pale and matt; and styles are easy with lots of buckles, antique studs, rivets and diamantes. A bit of hand stitching and whipping onto the rich metallic or reptile emboss full grain is all that is needed.

Bags are good business for the tanners. Borge Garveri of Norway has major customers like Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton and has reorganised its lab to make new colour samples for the twice-yearly catwalk shows.

Leathers at Lineapelle had instant eye appeal, their soft touch and handle could be seen even before it could be felt. Soft, natural looking leathers are subtly coloured.

At Lineapelle the tanners surpassed themselves with a mass of different whites, and also whitish finishes (following through from last winter and the summer before). Slightly tinted pastels, simple blue, creamy yellow and muted beige base colours shine though a powdery white coating in the Vanitas collection from Conceria Mastrotto.

After the pales, the leathers shade into the naturals. There are lots of "natural" animal leathers, both real and embossed. Reptile, alligator and croco embosses look even more realistic than before with natural shading, even when the leather is coloured. It isn't uncommon to find five or six toned shades on one skin, with another emboss on top.

Water snake in natural colours and even "animal" prints are coming back again into fashion - but they are more natural looking than before.

Natural wrinkled finishes are also popular. Often there is a whitened finish to the leather where it is creased and folded, like YAK from Rino Mastrotto. Quebec Press from Vesta is oiled and waxy with a lighter creased effect.

In contrast, patent is still moving forward, but almost only in leather and has to look soft and natural. Patent comes in classic black and creamy semi-transparent white, also rich red, but in a sea of other shades too like pool blue, mineral green and sun yellow (Vesta).

Metallics are not going away though. Gold, silver and pewter keep on going, as washes on leathers and as all over colours but always with the underlying material shadowing through.

Textile input
What works well on the shoe samples shown at the fair are the woven textiles. Soft unbleached calico, raw unbleached silk, and slubby linen all work well with the real leather in Western boots and simple sneakers.

The surfaces of these textiles are detailed too, with metallic washes and a hand-made look. Morelli's linen is wrinkled, pressed flat and then partly over-printed with what resembles gold or silver leaf.

In fact textiles are so popular right now that tanners are emulating textiles with abraded jacquard and brocade looking overlays. The base is in real suede, with burnt out patches of textiles laminated on top. Other leathers are printed to look like lacy textiles (Ambassador).

To go with the natural inspired and hand worked uppers, there were colourful soles. Canvas and jute shoes and boots have stacked unpolished leather heels and matching soles - this is all part of the continuing natural look.

On sandals there are rough looking sheet or slab rubber soles, with an almost African look where the sole and footbed are different sizes so they look like they've been assembled accidentally.

Technical notes
Not only were there more "green leathers" on show at Lineapelle, but other companies are utilising environmental principles in both their products and the way they work.

Texon, makers of insole board, offers recycling programmes to customers, and is making products that contain up to 100% recycled fibre. EcoSole 100 is treated with Texon Pro Tex treated to resist fungal growth and prevent skin irritations.

Even germs need to be in balance. Rebac's germ balance system increases the oscillation on surfaces so prokaryotic single cell organisms are destroyed. Apparently it not only helps reduce foot infections, but stops shoes being so smelly too.

It also helps if shoes are breathable. From Spain, the Aloe Vera Sweetskin is claimed to be the fist bio-technical lining. The Aloe Vera is a natural fungicide, moisturiser, and keeps feet fresh.

With all the light colours on show, easy care does not go away, and washable suede from Caravaggio made lovely bags.

Metallic shades suit technical textiles perfectly, and Schoeller's have light reflective and refractive textiles with bronze, titanium and aluminium shining through. Many are also stretchable with polyamide and elastic. For sporty shoes they are often used as overlays with another mesh or material showing though.

It's all in the detail
Tanners work hard to promote their products by showing trend-setting items made up in their leathers. Stud and rivets, especially in antique bronze and gunmetal, look good on natural leathers. Heavy cowboy stitching continues the Western theme, but the feel of the final product generally is much softer than the real Western boots.

But, even though they make wonderful leathers, and anti-dumping tariffs have now been imposed on leather footwear from China and Vietnam, the Italians are feeling the competition.

Lineapelle no longer resembles a 'closed shop' for Italian suppliers, with other countries taking up more of the exhibitor space. And the competitors are not just fighting on price; they often offer items with a point of difference.

The German tanners emphasise the environmental nature of their products, both in manufacture and wear, with companies like Colonia having natural veg tanned leathers with no additives for orthopaedic and baby shoes.

Major German buying chains are some of the strictest enforcers of EU environmental recommendations, and this proves to be a strength for the German suppliers.

Greece is another country to keep an eye on. Greek shoes have instant eye appeal to women who want to look as sexy and beautiful as possible. Innovative jewellery and shoe trims from Greek V Valzedakis were different from the Italian products: glitzy, feminine but with a look of natural antiqued metal and irregular stones, perfect with sun kissed legs and feet.

The next Lineapelle in Bologna, Italy fair will take place from 17-19 October 2006 in Bologna. The organisers also run previews in New York and Milan; and a Lineapelle fair in southern China.

By Penny Leese.