Fish leather has been a fashion industry catchphrase for close to a decade, in tandem with the boom in farmed salmon that produces thousands of tons of skin as leftovers in places like Chile and Scotland. An overwhelming amount these hides are thrown away annually, even as some enthusiasts call them the "leather of the 21st century."
German entrepreneur Stefan Brandt is one of them, and he wants to include Ecuadorian craftsmanship to crack the global market in luxury goods made from fish leather.
One of the worries that have weighed on demand for leather tanned from fish hides has been that the goods would, bluntly put, stink of fish. Grab and sniff the soft, slightly scaly leather produced by Brandt’s Elbkind Hamburg however, and the smell matches that of conventional leather made from cattle hide. It can be used for any purpose other types of leather are. While commercial salmon production suffers from environmental issues, using one of its waste products has a sound ecological concept behind it, according to Brandt, who has a doctorate in chemistry.
Tempting as the plan sounds, it has faced enormous hurdles, even as companies produce fish leather in small quantities in many countries, ranging from France and the U.S. to Argentina, Brazil and Peru in the Americas. Brazil and the EU have in the past funded research in fish leather production.
Potential major buyers like German sporting goods manufacturer Puma however have found past suppliers unable to produce reliable amounts of fish leather of adequate quality to mass-produce goods with this kind of leather. Fish leather has superior durability, but manufacturers have suffered problems with tensile strength, width and the leather’s color.
The eco-friendly tanning process developed by Brandt is costly as it doesn’t use chrome sales and heavy metals and therefore goes ahead in China. He says he can compete with two significant rivals, one in Brazil, the other in Germany, in becoming one of the world’s biggest fish leather producers. Elbkind can produce more than 100 colors of fish leather and couples its leather production with recycled cotton sailcloth to produce luxury footwear, particularly sneakers, adding value to the initial product. Bags and belts round out the production, much of whose initial manufacturing starts in China.
The semi-finished products then head to Medellin and Quito, taking advantage of local expertise stemming from the textile production Brandt began in Ecuador in the 1990s. An initial batch of 6,000 goods – shoes, bags and belts – will head to South America for finishing in November.
"Each of the 42 people in my factory in Quito is an artist," Brandt said.
This commentary originally appeared in Ecuador Weekly Report published by Analytica. Republished with permission.