Representing the creative future

Are you comfortable knowing what a designer bag is really made of?

Leather expert Tanner Leatherstein is more than happy to cut a bag open and ask out loud if it's worth the money

This story starts with a bag. A bag that is the result of a couple of hours of labour (about $85 worth) and three square foot of leather (valued at $25), yet retails at $1600 total. Why? Because it carries the Louis Vuitton logo.

Anyone who has worked behind the scenes in fashion ‒ whether it’s in design, marketing, or communication ‒ knows that what we really sell is cultural capital, not clothing. What we really charge the end consumer for is the prestige, the status, and the association with a talented creative director and a couple of successful A-list celebrities. Yet seeing those numbers black-on-white still stings. Because no matter how aware we might be of this reality, we rarely mention it out loud. The role of anyone working in fashion, after all, is to uphold the illusion of luxury.

That is why it is so refreshing to discover a new wave of technicians, producers, and material experts who, with the help of social media, have found a voice and are using it to demystify our industry. Tanner Leitherstein is one of those voices. On his YouTube channel, the leather expert eagerly slices and cuts through any luxury object, from a Bottega Veneta Arco to a Gucci Dionysus, revealing the material and labour value hidden behind the name. Here, he shares his insights into the leather industry today.

I must say – I personally love your account. Watching your videos, I realise how rare it is to see fashion luxury goods deconstructed. We always see the glamourous end-product, but very rarely do we get a look into the production of these objects.

Thank you! I’m passionate about leather and want to help people understand the material better. Over the past two decades, I noticed a growing gap in leather knowledge. This gap is abused by big brands, who don’t really share any information on the materials they use, they just state how “good” it is. A lot of people would make different purchasing decisions if they understood the real value of leather. Of course, others wouldn’t, because they buy into the prestige, they value status, not quality. To me, there is no judgment either way. I respect brands for providing that status. But, for those of us who are not interested in status or brands, we are left paying that hefty tag, and it’s only fair that we understand the material value of the objects we buy.

“A lot of people would make different purchasing decisions if they understood the real value of leather.” – Tanner Leatherstein

Could you tell us about your background? How did you come to know so much about leather?

I never chose this. I was born into a family-owned tannery. I loved chemistry and my dad loved having me involved, so you can call it destiny. I truly believe I am in this lifetime for that reason. I always loved playing with leather. Around the age of 10, I started making my first leather jacket with sheepskin. That gave me a lot of excitement for the craft.

My background is unique because I was trained in multiple types of leather. Traditionally, every tannery specializes in a certain type of hide and finish, so most people only specialize in one thing, but over the years my family worked in five different countries, working in everything from shearling and goatskin to cow hides for shoes and bags – this gave me a holistic view of the industry, which is unusual, because often people stick with one specialty, as there is so much knowledge in each field.

“It’s only fair that we understand the material value of the objects we buy.” – Tanner Leatherstein

It must be very challenging then to translate all that knowledge to a mainstream audience.

Very much so! When you get into a field and you understand all the nuances, translating it to social media and producing content that stays under one minute (because people don’t want more) involves intense simplification. It always takes a little while for us to find the right rhythm, one video can take up to an hour to make. I’ve learned that meat analogies are most useful because people understand food better and can relate to it.

I’ve learned that meat analogies are most useful because people understand food better and can relate to it.” – Tanner Leatherstein

Slicing through Yves Saint Laurent bags and comparing Bottega Veneta’s to steak… you’re really deglamourising these luxury objects. How does your audience react to this?

It definitely causes a response… Because there is this mystery in the field. For thousands of years, leather has been a luxury item. Up until a few generations ago, it was something only the wealthy elites could afford. But today, modern tanneries can produce high-quality leather in high numbers, because it’s a byproduct of the meat industry, which has grown exponentially. The material is not that rare anymore, it’s not that expensive. Big brands draw on that heritage. Things have changed, but brands keep this knowledge hidden. They want to keep it in the mystery box so they can overprice their items. People still think leather is a luxury item and assume a high price tag comes from the high quality. That €2000 is what you’re paying for the celebrity endorsement, the marketing, and advertising – it’s really just mediocre leather.

That €2000 is what you’re paying for the celebrity endorsement, the marketing, and advertising – it’s really just mediocre leather.” – Tanner Leatherstein

Tanner Leatherstein’s video Bottega Veneta | I Did NOT Expect This

Are you saying luxury leather goods don’t really exist anymore?

The main leathers used in the market come from cows, sheep, and pigs. That’s about 95% of leathers and they are never expensive. There are luxury leathers and artisan products that are worth a higher price tag, but most materials come from a standardized process. There are specialty leathers, of course, like crocodile which is very rare, but even when big brands use those they’ll grossly overprice the products. I’ve seen 500k bags made from crocodile ‒ no leather is worth that price.

“You need to look at smaller makers, because they can afford to keep the authentic quality of the material.” – Tanner Leatherstein

You mention the standardization process. In your videos, you accentuate how luxury brands often opt for mass standardization over uniqueness, losing quality in the process.

Leather is not a standard material. Each one of us has a different skin, and throughout our life, we accumulate scars. Animals are just like that, and they live in the wild, so they scratch themselves, they have bug bites, etc. All those things are perceptible in the rawhide. 90% of leather needs correction. You need to buff it and apply a form of makeup, to make it more standard. Many brands completely cover it with heavy finishings, but I personally don’t like it because it cuts your sensory connection to the material – you can’t feel or see the leather, you just see the plastic finishing.

As a huge business, you can’t afford to have all your bags look different. I can. In my work, I show the finishes, because otherwise, you always end up with the same result, whether it’s leather or not. If you want leather that you can enjoy with your senses, you need to look at smaller makers, because they can afford to keep the authentic quality of the material.

You’ve been opening up designer products for a while now. Can you still be surprised by what you learn once you’re inside?

It has been fun learning. Every item I open up, I discover something new, whether it’s positive or negative. I recently opened up a Bottega wallet. In general, I really like their leather choices because they use minimal finishes. You can always recognize a Bottega by its design: the construction is complicated, so opening it up is really special. The wallet I cut open recently, I had been using for three months. It was marketed as 100% calfskin, but then I realized the outer skin was a “genuine leather” film cover on top of split suede. It occurred to me, only after cutting open the piece, that it wasn’t what I thought it was, or at least what they said it was. So, I really don’t know if there is a brand that you can trust.

I see leather as a sustainable material because I see it as the oldest upcycling industry.” – Tanner Leatherstein

I would love to hear your take on the vegan accessory brands that are popping up too.

It’s a complicated question. I see leather as a sustainable material because I see it as the oldest upcycling industry. Rawhide is a waste product from the meat industry. Eating meat is a different lifestyle choice of course, but the reality is that meat is highly consumed, so rawhide is widely available. You have to manage this byproduct or it goes to waste. The leather industry immediately uses this material and preserves it. Tanning is basically the permanent preservation of leather, so bacteria don’t get in. Otherwise, the material petrifies and is ruined. Tanning gets rid of this waste which needs to be carefully managed, reuses it, and brings it into human use. This process upcycles leather into a second life and reduces the need for other materials. So I see leather as sustainable. There are environmental concerns with tanneries, of course. They can be polluting. But overall, there are good regulations to assure they’re not harming the environment.

As for vegan leather, I have total respect for the lifestyle. There are very good attempts at alternatives with vegetable-sourced materials, such as cacti and mushrooms, and even papaya. I have a lot of respect for innovation. The problem with the vegan label is that it is abused. Producers will use PU, or faux leather, and use the vegan label because it’s not an animal product. But it’s a petroleum derivative. In my understanding, it’s not very sustainable.

Tanner Leatherstein’s video 20/20 Smell Phase Leather Savviness 

Is that another argument against standardization? Do plastic coatings limit the lifespans of the bags?

The finish changes the durability a lot. In my experience, heavily standardized leathers always have plastic layers. And the problem with plastic… eventually it breaks. No matter how good it is, it’s plastic and it cracks. It stays new for a long time, but ten years down the road, that plastic layer will announce its end of life. Minimally treated leather interacts with your hands. It develops a patina by interacting with the natural oil of human hands. It ages beautifully. You can use them longer because they’re designed that way. I’ve seen great examples of products that are decades old.

Decades ago, this was the only design option, and those bags are still here. Then all those finishings were invented. Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but my prediction is that in the next few decades, there will be a huge interest in DIY and artisan craftsmen, which makes me very happy because there is more creative diversity in the field. People will start making their own designs at home and selling them online. You don’t have to be a brand to offer leather works to your client. This will enrich the way we envision leather.  This will enable a shift towards independent makers.