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Once upon a time most people who wore shoes had leather ones. Canvas footwear was for lawn tennis. As the world population expanded, industry realised that it would not be possible to keep the per capita supply of leather level with the coming growth in demand.
So a poromeric material called Corfam was born. It was a plastic coated textile, essentially a PU coated non-woven polyester, developed at huge cost and promoted with an equally huge marketing budget by DuPont. Understandable since, according to Robert Kanigel, as late as 1963 when Corfam was introduced, 80 per cent of all American leather went into shoes.
The plan was to get a quarter of U.S. footwear into Corfam by the mid-1980s and, at the time of its introduction, a panicky leather industry believed it likely. I can remember nervous papers at conferences I went to as a student fearing the worst, and research association tests on breathability to attempt some benchmarking.
Yet, those with long memories will know that Corfam did not even survive into the mid-1980s but, after spending US$100 million, DuPont withdrew the product in 1981. They had pushed it harder into full shoes like those for nurses where fit and comfort were priorities. With no ability to shape to the foot in the way leather does, they created everyday discomfort rather than the delight of wearing in. Consumers bought one pair based on the promotion but never went back for a second; DuPont appears to have defined these as errors in fitting rather than comfort, so misread their market research.
And the shortage of leather? It never really materialised since the world of trainers began, and modern textiles moved into more and more footwear categories, leaving leather in its more traditional segments. Indeed, there was enough leather left over, and when the automobile industry started using it more in the 1980s no one really noticed until nearly the end of the century. Then, shoe leather tanners started to get a bit mad that the auto leather people appeared more prosperous.
So Corfam proves that context counts; that you have to look hard at the market to understand what is happening, and what might catch you out tomorrow. Back in the 1960s, DuPont was naive and the leather industry was lucky. Looking at what is happening in footwear and the auto industry today, our competitors are advanced in their thinking, offering products that have been better designed and the days of luck are over.
So, if as tanners, we are not mindful we will see a moment arise when we have too much leather to sell that it is not considered value for money compared with the alternates.
12th October 2016
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