Worth the Read - What you know about "Genuine Leather" is probably wrong

This specific issue has been on my mind for a few years now, but I was reminded of it again when I read over a great article recently posted by North Star Leather. It's definitely worth reading, and deserves more visibility for being a rare voice of reason in a sea of copy-paste parroting.

North Star Leather - "Genuine Leather" has become a 4-letter word

From my own experience, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where it all started, but it seems to be right around the time Saddleback was becoming a household name and put out an "educational" piece called "Leather 101." I'm embarrassed to admit I remember reading it as a younger man many years ago, wide-eyed, marveling at how I had unlocked the simple secrets to quality leather, and proudly reciting my newly learned mastery to anyone that would listen (God bless my wife). Over time, journalists and influential websites started disseminating the same information, and it eventually became accepted as well-understood fact. Search it on the internet today and you'll find pages and pages of articles with easy keys to understanding quality tanned leather (often ignoring vegetable tanning entirely), grades of leather, and how the term "genuine leather" is a quick and easy buzzword letting you know that a product is made from the worst leather possible.

Head onto some widely-circulated sites like Reddit's Male Fashion Advice or TIL (Today I Learned), and you'll still commonly see those same points regurgitated down from one person to another like Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments. Thousands and thousands of people read that Reddit post and up-voted it, for example, and you'll find a ton of comments along the lines of "solid info" and "it's been a long while since a TIL actually told me something I didn't already know. Good work."

Charlton Heston famously telling someone that genuine leather is horrible

The problem is, it's simply not true. And at the very least, it isn't simple. 

It took me longer than I'd like to start noticing that things didn't seem right, due in large part to the widespread acceptance of the source material. An early red flag was that some of the other information on Saddleback's leather guide was demonstrably false. Leather that doesn't have color dyed through isn't fully tanned? No. Edge finishing is a dirty trick used by competing leather goods companies to hide poorly tanned leather? An almost laughable declaration, if it wasn't so accusatory towards skilled leather workers and accepted wholesale as the truth. The lies became more apparent the more I read on forum threads with nowhere near the visibility of the above mentioned. And trapped in this constellation of half-truths and marketing buzzwords, genuine leather stands at the center.

The truth is that all "genuine leather" means is "real leather." That's it.

Full grain leather is genuine leather. Top grain leather is genuine leather. Crappy, plasticky bonded leather is genuine leather. The only products that are not genuine leather are synthetics like PU. The article above covers this well, but culture has now actually shifted to where many leatherworkers in the Western world have started to avoid using the term "genuine leather" because it's got such bad connotations to it - almost a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. So third world and non-English speaking countries of production are left still stamping "genuine leather" on their products, and those do tend to be some of the lower quality leathers on the market today. High quality leather products also tend to not stamp "genuine leather" on their products, because it shouldn't need to be said. So there may be a real trend towards "genuine leather" denoting an inferior product, but it is by no means an absolute.

The point I'm trying to make is this: leather quality can't be distilled down into an absurdly simple set of rules - or, in this case, some rules with falsehoods. Like many things in menswear, what we accept early on as canon is usually not as black and white as what we originally thought. There's no easy shortcut for taking the time to better understand something.

Except black jellybeans. I think we can all agree that black jellybeans are the worst. And oftentimes, they look way too similar to purple jellybeans.

If you're interested in learning more about the intricacies of leather, Northstar also wrote a nice piece on better understanding full grain leather, which you can find here


  1. Good article! The saddleback guys are often full of baloney.

    Although I do sometimes like black jellybeans.


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