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In fashion and home furnishings alike, the consumer's love affair with leather is heating up, and both industries are taking note. A case in point is Coach, the manufacturer of leather business and fashion accessories, whose high-status brand tag encourages customers to believe, "I deserve the good life." Coach recently teamed with Baker Furniture to make a line of furniture ranging from director's chairs to sofas. Then there's Lee Industries, which is collaborating with Bohlin Leather -- a noted manufacturer of saddles, apparel and home accessories (think "Horse Whisperer") -- to produce two leather furniture groups.

The buzz among leather suppliers, furniture manufacturers and retailers at the High Point Market in April pegged leather as one of the strongest market segments -- and one that's still growing. Jesse Rector, president of Arcona Leather/Sales, notes that one reason for leather's new popularity is that it is becoming much more affordable: "Popularity brings competition. Twelve years ago, when leather represented about 5 percent of upholstery sales, there were only 10 or 12 suppliers. Today, leather has a 15 percent to 20 percent share, but there are 60 to 70 suppliers, and as the price comes down, the demand goes up." His perspective is that while business has grown three- to fourfold, there are seven to eight times more suppliers, so that "it's not quite the fun it used to be."

The president of another leather company, who speaks under the condition of anonymity, is more explicit: "Low price is killing suppliers and manufacturers, who are being beaten down by retailers." His angst stems from having recently lost a $500,000 order because of price. "If you aren't the cheapest, you won't get the sale," he laments.

At Flexsteel, recliner/motion products sales manager John St. John says his leather sales continue to grow while prices have dropped. As he explains it, "Our best-selling motion sofa is $125 less than it was a year ago, and step-up leather is about $50 less than starting leather was three to five years ago, when leather sofas averaged $300 to $400 more than today."

But prices hold in some sectors. Jeff Baron, president of Natuzzi Americas, remarks, "In the early days, most leathers were heavily treated for durability -- and there was a lot of beige. Now, consumers want better, more-natural leathers in a variety of colors, and they're willing to pay for it."

"People are used to it in their cars and offices. Now they want leather in their homes," says Eklain England, vice president of furniture leather for Elmo Leather. He says that in just the past few years, it has become an important segment of the upholstery business, with tanneries and furniture manufacturers looking to show new leather textures and colors on a wide variety of frames. "Leather now takes up a big part of the retail floor, in groups or special pieces, and it makes a powerful statement in a home," England explains. "Our lines correlate to the best-selling fabrics, paint, carpets, et cetera. They aren't just color for color's sake."

22 Shades of Saddle Brown

Not only is leather more affordable, according to Catherine Smoak, vice president of design at Lackawanna Leather, but "it is becoming more decorative." She sees embossed leather being combined with soft fabrics, such as velvet or chenille, for a look that's visually and texturally appealing. More importantly, she says, consumers are just beginning to be aware that leather is available -- and affordable -- in just about any color and grade. Smoak says, "Even brown, always popular in leather, comes in a spectrum of shades."

Arcona, with others, seems to be on the same wavelength; it offers what president Jesse Rector describes as "22 versions of Saddle Brown." Cary Benson, vice president of sales and marketing for American Leather, agrees: "Browns are still big on traditional, classic frames." Almost all suppliers are offering browns (and blacks) mixed with reds and purples that add depth, richness and personality to leather-upholstered furniture.

Over the Rainbow

Hot color in leather is a hot topic. High-fashion accent colors, if not seen in April, will be very apparent by July, and on showroom floors by October. Shades such as porcelain rose, peach, orange, pink and lavender will appear. Benson says, "We surprised ourselves. Contemporary styles are selling well in unusual colors that are bright and whimsical. We came out with 10 colors a year ago that we thought would last six to 12 months, but they're still selling well."

Considered throwbacks, avocado and gold are back. Actually, they never really left. Trendy, electric names will make them new colors, especially in homes. They're retro-hot in fashion. They're eternal in housewares. They've found their way to leather.

On the Floor

Richard Posey, vice president of sales and marketing for Clayton Marcus, which has been in the leather business for only two and a half years, said during the April market, "Leather is our number-one growth category. We're in the most affluent times in the history of the world. Leather represents the best of times. The trend to casual and affluent combines to make leather important."

According to Bob Duncan, president of American Leather, his 9-year-old company has paralleled both the fashion and automotive industries: "Fifteen years ago it was vinyl and fabric," Duncan says. "Now, leather is so popular you can't get fabric seats in luxury cars, pick-up trucks or even SUVs." He attributes much of leather's success to Natuzzi's entering the American market about 15 years ago. "Leather furniture was very traditional; fashion and style just weren't there. Natuzzi changed that by making fashion and style important."

Lee's Bohlin collection is priced 25 percent to 30 percent higher than its typical leather furniture lines. Michael Proctor, president and chief executive officer of Bohlin, says, "It's almost a merchandising oversight if a manufacturer doesn't offer leather. The more goods out there from known, high-end labels, the better off we are."

Apparently, Action Lane has heard the call. At the April market, it introduced Lane Leather, a new stationary leather program that includes 14 frames, six leather grades, and more than 100 colors. "We are one of the largest manufacturers using leather," explains David Wormald, merchandise manager for Lane Leather. "We decided we could be an all-round quality resource for the market."

It's the Ticket

Much of leather's success stems from tanneries, leather suppliers, furniture manufacturers and retailers educating each other and the public. Typical is Lackawanna Leather's no-charge, two-day seminar for retailers, held at its North Carolina manufacturing facility. The seminar provides the basics in educational tools to sell leather furniture. And its "4S's, Your Leather Choice" program includes a pamphlet for consumers that grades leather by softness, surface grain, special effect and serviceability. It also offers hang tags for retailers and labels for manufacturers to stick under seat cushions that grade specific leathers by the same criteria. In addition, Lackawanna has extended its services to include showroom and retail display design.

Elmo Leather, American Leather and DeNovo (the U.S. representative for Rino Mastrotto Group, a consortium of Italian tanneries -- including Mipel, among others) have also created elegant educational brochures for retailers and consumers. Lane Leather has launched a television and print campaign in which Jack Palance raspily touts the American Ranch collection. As Herb Wool, sales manager for Omnia, explains, "Mr. and Mrs. Consumer understand and accept that leather is rich, elegant and serviceable, and see it as furniture for a lifetime."

Perhaps Mitchell Gold sums it up best: "As leather wears, it gets better. Fabric isn't quite as generous."
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Author:Richards, Kristen
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Date:May 10, 1999

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