Winston Leather, a Nigerian leather brand, celebrated the biggest sales in its 30 years in business last June. The boost was thanks to a tweet in March from fashion historian Shelby Christie highlighting how its tannery, based in Kano, Nigeria, supplies leather to luxury fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren.
The tweet resurfaced in June and prompted a flood of orders as the fashion industry sought new sourcing opportunities that supported Black businesses. And the single tweet put right some misconceptions about the quality of African leather goods.
“It was like a stamp of approval,” says Winston Udeagha of Winston Leather, which is a subsidiary of Udeagha’s wonderfully titled parent company, God’s Little Tannery. “What people don’t know is that much of the leather used around the world actually originates in Africa,” he notes. “For them, if luxury fashion houses were using our leather in their finished goods then they could buy purses and shoes from us and trust our quality.” Udeagha has been in the leather manufacturing business for decades, but his company only decided to produce its own brand leather accessories in 2018 when he realised the potential of a growing market of fashion consumers within and outside Africa who were keen to buy African.
For a long time, African leather has remained unappreciated by the consumer despite a shift in consumer consciousness and pressure for greater transparency in every aspect of the fashion business. EU laws stipulate that the country of origin of finished goods is the country where the final production process occurs. This has enabled luxury fashion houses that source raw leather from Africa, and even begin the production process there, to tag their products as, for example, Made in Italy. This practice has helped European manufacturers to avoid using a Made in Africa tag, a process that has kept Made in Africa leather goods under the radar and struggling to build an image for quality and excellence, in Africa itself as much as abroad.
Underfunded but determined, African designers are leaning on Africa’s vast resources and capacity for sustainable fashion to change the perception of African leather and promote it to a broader market. While leather is losing ground with many sustainability-focused designers around the world, African-based production offers a more palatable solution. Problems like animal cruelty, wastewater and use of harsh chemicals in the tanning process are alleviated by underfarming, reduced consumption practices that encourage reuse, and fairer livestock farming with provision of meat as primary focus, and then by abbattoirs that help reduce shipping emissions. Initiatives like the Green Tanning Initiative and metal-free leather in Ethiopia and other East African countries are also working to educate tanners on less toxic methods of tanning and dyeing leather and push for more environmentally friendly policies in Africa’s leather production.
The best quality African leather has tended to go to export markets. In response, some of the most interesting African leather goods companies have learned to adapt and use local material resources to the full. “We focused on what we could do better,” says Nardos Tamirat, co-founder of Ethiopia-based Tibeb Leather Works. “We knew we were in a different market and our value proposition was different. For us, that is our leather and traditional Ethiopian designs.”