Even from the best seats in the house at a show you cannot always see what is going on in front of you. As in the theatre, illusion plays a major part in fashion’s dramatic armoury, and designers like to play with expectations of what is really there. But with fabrics this is usually clear, as their textures, weights and movement make them easy to identify.
So it was an unfamiliar experience to be craning forward at the Tod’s spring/summer show, trying to work out what was what. Was that sleekly tailored yet sublimely fluid jacket (£2,150) worn with subtle silk print trousers really suede; and was that striped trench coat (£6,190) really not print, but finely crafted from leather and suede strips? Two jumpers with abstract geometric designs pulled the wool even further over the eyes: one did indeed turn out to be an intarsia knit, but the other (£2,870) was created from an extraordinary pattern of leather appliqué. A slouchy electric-blue suede bomber (£3,490) was paired with a delicately draped tulip skirt (£2,320) that looked like perfectly matched silk – but also turned out to be suede.
Such trickery and trompe l’oeil with leather and suede has become an exciting game of hide-and-seek across the collections, not only at brands with a leather heritage – Tod’s, Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, Fendi, Loewe and Hermès – but more widely. Take MaxMara, best known for its sumptuous cashmere coats: the summery draped, one-shoulder 1980s-style tops (£240) that appeared on its catwalk had a matte finish that looked like cloth but was actually a new take on leather.
In the hands of these labels, leather has metamorphosed from a comforting cold-weather mainstay into an ultra-luxe, featherweight spring/summer fabric. Suede is no longer restrained to the shirt jacket for spring: it is now delicate enough to ruffle, drape and pleat into blouses and dresses that look like silk – and feel like it too. As Brunello Cucinelli, best known for high-grade cashmere, explains: “When we work with suede or leather, we want to achieve a softness, smoothness and lightness just like our cashmeres.” Cucinelli’s artisans go the extra mile on process and detail. Lambskin nappa leather is vegetable-dyed and wax-polished by hand to a buttery shine and is sewn so that the seams on a softly tailored jacket (£4,550) are almost undetectable. Suede is treated for the optimum combination of thinness and lightness (without sacrificing durability) for relaxed velvety-textured trousers (£2,350), or a hooded bomber (£4,640) with an organza lining and the designer’s trademark trim of hand-embroidered fine-metal chain.
To achieve these new effects, brands are working ever more closely with their tannery suppliers – especially in Italy, where much lambskin is sourced locally and they have resources to introduce new technology. Fendi’s expertise has led to leather so light and malleable that it is tailored into a cool ruched-sleeve, utility-style coat (£2,600) with perforated details and a shapely, waist-cinching peplum dress (£3,150). Meanwhile, technicians at Tod’s are able to treat fine skins so they are durable but not stiff, achieving the design team’s aim of “leather no thicker than a textile, as malleable as silk, that can be tailored to fit like a glove”.
“The Italians’ technical ability with leather must be the best. I admire craftspeople who combine new technology with centuries-old skills,” says MaxMara’s creative director Ian Griffiths. “I’ve long wanted to drape leather, but it would be too delicate when skived [pared off in thin layers] beyond a certain point. This year we had an idea: make the leather really fine and bond it to a fabric – in this case cotton poplin – to give it strength and stability. We experimented with [leather on] cool linen, too, to make a luxurious bomber [£3,450, near left].”
Paul Andrew, the latest custodian of Salvatore Ferragamo’s leather legacy, is reviving the founder’s innovative spirit. “My passion is meeting high craft with high tech in the way Salvatore used to do,” he says. “We work with brilliant tanneries to take layers off the bottom of hides to make them thin and light, and bond them to silk, cotton or neoprene so they are breathable. Our suede handkerchief-hem skirt [£4,060] and paper-thin leather dress [£4,335] have great volume and are bonded to have a silk-like finish – yet weigh no more than a cotton garment.”
Much of the new leather and suede comes, naturally, in classic neutral shades like tan, beige, brown or black – “We are known for investment pieces that age beautifully and can be passed down,” says Andrew – but this summer, a wave of bright colour has swept in too. Ferragamo’s bright-teal karung-leather coat (£11,805) or yellow karung dress (£8,945); Tod’s Klein-blue suede or burnt-orange leather pieces (from £1,690); and Gucci’s lilac leather suit (£4,730) add a zesty dimension.
At Gucci, Alessandro Michele’s love of colour has been particularly influential, not just with the grand brands, but also on smaller labels that also drive experimentation with leather and suede. Dorothee Schumacher has always used leather as a counterpoint to knits and wovens, but takes it to a new level with a loose summer shirt (£1,295) in a corn-yellow lambskin with pearl studs, worn with brown suede kick flares (£970).
On the other side of the fence, Marianna Rosati, creative director of Italian brand Drome – who strives to “push the technical limits” of the tanneries – loves pale, gentle colours: a belted coat (€1,148) in blush pink, a puff-sleeved dress (€745) in apple green, or slouchy trousers (€940) in a powder blue. “I treat leather like fabric, so it has the movement and lightness of cotton poplin, then cut it to emphasise these qualities – we are creating a new language for this material, mixing it with fabric so you scarcely know which is which,” she says.
Magda Butrym, who manufactures in her native Poland with Italian hides, goes as far as white leather – also favoured by Miu Miu this season for a 1960s-style short coat (£3,665) – for a lace-trimmed shirt (£1,360) and trousers (£1,670), which, she says, “take leather away from rock ’n’ roll into a more sophisticated zone. Pale colours are challenging, but get the right quality of leather and they look amazing – while lace adds a romantic touch.”
Clients are not only responding to this new sensibility, but really warming to the idea of leather and suede for spring and summer. “It’s so versatile,” says Butrym. “I’ve made very light suede coats [£2,095] that extend cashmere-like comfort into warmer weather, while over a light sweater they work earlier in the year.”
Much of today’s leather is unlined and treated to be super-smooth when sitting right next to the skin. Amanda Wakeley’s nubuck shirt (£995), for instance, is sanded on the reverse to sleek the surface, and sprayed with a finish that feels and acts like silk. Caroline Sciamma-Massenet, founder of two-year-old Skiim, gets lambskin for blouses (£970) refined down “so it’s two-thirds the ‘usual’ finest depth. It’s fragile, but no more than the chiffon shirts my styles are based on, and as a vegetable-dyed by-product, it’s less harmful to the environment.”
As Andrew at Ferragamo sees it, there’s an obvious outlet for these pieces in a summer wardrobe: “Our client travels constantly, often in warmer climes, and wants to look casual but pulled-together in airy materials. So we experiment with by-product light skins, with perforation and woven-suede net, and the reaction is enthusiastic.”
Leather and suede’s pulled-together appearance and capacity to elevate a look is also lending an elegant, accessible dimension to some less easy catwalk trends. Fashion’s current 1980s fixation, for instance, is not an easy look for everyone – especially when it goes the short and spangly route. But finely draped or pleated leather adds an element of sexy ’80s sophistication with ease. Black is the edgy but flattering option, and Anthony Vaccarello’s ruched micro-dresses for Saint Laurent have inspired easier-to-wear forms in leather and suede at MaxMara, Prada (a swingy nappa jacket, £2,225) and Miu Miu (a bow-adorned jacket, £2,265).
Leather also plays a surprise cameo in the boho, homespun mood of high summer, with Loewe leading the way. Jonathan Anderson’s puff-sleeved peasant dress (£4,100) with embroidered insets in superfine black leather is the gold standard. Loewe’s artisans have been striving to produce skins as light as fabric and to mix them with other materials without stressing either material: a suede jacket (£2,350) in blues and black blends with raw-edged ruffled silk, and a suede pinafore (£2,250) in neutral shades glides over a black silk underlay.
This interplay of textures is also clearly a rich seam of inspiration at Hermès, where Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski mixes contrasting components with extraordinary finesse: her glossy cream lambskin and linen dress (£10,420) moves like the softest of fabrics.
As Schumacher puts it, “Leather’s character signifies a certain nativeness and authenticity in a collection and adds wonderful contrast – so a silk dress with leather details tells a more multifaceted story than silk alone.”
With this new element of surprise taking hold, it looks like summer’s going to be full of good stories.