Why is leather synonymous with luxury? Think rebel: like leather-clad ‘50s icons exploding the constraint of the drab and the ordinary. Think primal: leather’s deep roots in nature—where, as with diamonds, no two sources are exactly alike. And think Mitch Alfus, the leather genius best equipped (and dressed) to elaborate: “Leather is a fabric in and of itself,” says Alfus, whose New York company, Libra Leathers, has stretched it into stunning evolutions. For the past 30 years, Mitch and Libra have scoured Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to supply some of the boldest names in fashion, accessories, and home furnishings. He’s even outfitted and upholstered the private car collections—vintage and modern—of a list of prestigious collectors. “Leather is very sensuous,” Alfus adds. “it is a material that breathes.” He would know, wears it—head to toe—365 days a year.
To source luxury leather, Alfus says, he goes straight to the ultimate source: the luxury cow (or lamb). To identify such an animal, Mitch wants answers: “How was it raised? How was it fed? Was it naturally fed, was it farm-fed, was it grazing out in the valley? What kind of water did it drink?”
Indeed, Mitch believes, you are what you wear—and what you sit on. To master his philosophy and snag a few secrets, we dropped by his studio, where he was hell-bent on leather.
Trendland: What do you look for when choosing your leathers?
Mitch Alfus: I look for the cleanliness of the skin. The baby calf is best. When I touch it, I can tell a lot. If it’s too thin—say, if you pull on it and it rips—that’s not good. Also, how was it processed? What kind of chemical do they use? Is there a lot of pigment on the skin? I don’t like leather with a lot of pigment, because it doesn’t feel as glove-y and natural as naked leather.
TL: How do you ensure that your finished product is pristine?
MA: I have people inspecting it overseas, or the customer is allowed to go and inspect it in the tannery before it gets shipped. Or we send bundles of the finished production quantities to New York to inspect it, see if the shading and the quality is right.
TL: You are THE source for leather in the fashion/home furnishings industry in New York. How did you build that reputation?
MA: We have a reputation not just for selling a commodity of leather, but for creating something… for transforming it into something more: washable leather, for instance, which has been a huge thing over the last 5 years. We first did metallic leather in the early 1980s, where we put a foil Mylar on top of our leather: pewter, bronze, silver, which you see all the time now. The next thing we did was put a crinkle on the leather. Doubled the size of the company. We did animal prints and silk screening on the leathers. And then leather leggings, which are everywhere now. I think I’ve been able to catch a trend. I’m a little risky.
TL: What trends are you seeing in leather right now?
MA: For spring 2013, it’s layered, bright orange, bright red, and bright blue.
I’m also doing a lot of woven leather, more stretch leather, mesh, and woven mesh leather. I’m into hair, calf, pony skins. I’m feeling animal prints for some reason for next fall. Cleaner, not glazed or washed—bright, shiny, not dull matte leather.
TL: What’s your sleekest leather treatment?
MA: For objects [as opposed to garments], I like lasered—buffing off the calfskin grain and creating a quasi-perforation that makes patterns, like a mushroom. You know when you turn a mushroom upside down, it’s jagged? Lasering creates that effect in skins. When you’re hanging it in one direction it has a velvet effect, the other way it goes down and changes totally.