Paolo Foglizzo has just emptied a huge suitcase full of leather samples onto the table. The variety is bewildering.
The pieces range from full-grain cow leather (bull skins are preferred, as the hides are bigger and less elastic) to suede and nabuk (similar in appearance, suede derives from the less valuable underside of the hide, while finer nabuk is from the top grain). There are exotic leathers such as eel, stingray (known as galuchat or shagreen) and salmon skin. The most expensive sample is of interlaced strips of parchment made from sheepskin that has been dried under tension (the equivalent material made from calfskin is called vellum). The woven wall panels created for a luxury apartment in Monte Carlo cost more than $5,000 per square yard.
There is something deeply evocative about leather. Like wood, it is a natural material with an enticing fragrance and a rich patina that improves with age. It has multiple practical applications and has been used over the centuries to denote wealth and status—qualities that make it a highly desirable material among yacht designers.
“When it comes to leather on yachts, the reaction of owners to an interior is first visual, then olfactory, then tactile, and leather touches all these senses,” says Paolo, who, with his brother Marco, is the third generation to run the eponymous family firm in the Italian city of Turin.
Foglizzo was set up in 1921 and began personalizing leather 50 years ago for vintage car restorations by using metal embossing plates from the 1920s to recreate the same finishes as the original upholstery. One of many techniques from laser engraving and perforating to quilting and embroidering, embossing requires skill and experience as different types of leather react differently under heat and pressure in the press. Additionally, if the leather is too soft, the embossed designs can lose their shape when the material is stretched into place.
“The boats came later, when our father restored the seating of a prototype Riva Aquarama for a friend in Turin,” Paolo says. “I remember visiting the warehouse where he housed his collection of vintage wooden boats that had to be kept in a huge pool so they wouldn’t dry out and split.”
Foglizzo’s first superyacht project was a 156-foot (47.5-meter) trideck built by ISA Yachts in 2004 with an interior by Cristiano Gatto. Its biggest assignment to date is 459-foot (140-meter) Ocean Victory launched by Fincantieri in 2014. Photographs of the interior by Alberto Pinto, which contains some 85,000 square feet of leather, have never been released. Today, Foglizzo supplies leather to all the top superyacht shipyards and has a portfolio of more than 8,000 different products.
“Custom orders make up the bulk of our business across the yachting, residential, automotive and aeronautical sectors, and we produce around 600 new products each year, including branded collections for studios like Winch Design and Pininfarina,” Paolo says. “Depending on the final finish, there might be as many as 15 distinct processes involved to produce the end product, and most are done by hand.”
The biggest influence on leather producers like Foglizzo in recent years has been the drive toward increased sustainability. Leather is derived from animal hides by tanning, a chemical process that alters the composition of the skin to make it durable and resistant to decay. The two most common tanning processes use either toxic chromium salts that penetrate the hide very quickly for mass-produced leather, or natural vegetable extracts, a slower but more eco-friendly and artisanal method for converting raw hide into leather. Italy is regarded as the leading practitioner of vegetable tanning and Foglizzo has been using the method since it was established.
Marco Foglizzo further points out that most kinds of leather are byproducts of the food industry, citing research that shows the embodied energy—the sum total of energy required for an entire production life cycle—of cow leather is insignificant in comparison to raising the animals for their meat or milk, or indeed in relation to sheep raised for their wool. Moreover, the production of synthetic leather emits more CO2 and volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere than the traditional leather industry.
“Different applications require different techniques and processes, but the natural qualities of leather depend on quite a delicate balance,” Marco says. “We produce leather treated to make it water- and oil-repellent, or resistant to heating in direct sunlight. In fact, you can make leather resistant to just about everything, but interfere too much and it won’t breathe or have the touch and profumo of leather. It has to perform a function, but in a luxury context, it’s all about the emozione of leather.”
The leather commonly used for the seats and steering wheels of modern automobiles is typical of a product that has lost its emotive appeal. The leather is chrome-tanned and pigments are added to provide a uniform finish, as well as a lacquered topcoat to protect against wear and tear. As a result, the material is stripped of nearly all its natural properties.
Apart from a spectrometer for measuring color consistency under different light temperatures and a remotely operated digital camera for photographing and cataloguing each uncut hide when it arrives from the tannery, Foglizzo uses very little in the way of high-tech or automated equipment.
Marco Messina, who is in charge of the in-house atelier or studio where most of the handcrafted work is carried out, has shelves of glass jars filled with the traditional materials of his trade such as beeswax, dammar gum and granules of glue derived from ox hides. One of Messina’s most recent—and time-consuming—projects was a leather copy of an 18th-century chart of the Swedish coastline to decorate a furniture panel.
“We first scanned the original map and cleaned up the image to remove the blemishes and creases copied from the paper,” he says. “Then we transferred the image onto the leather and added the gold highlights and shading effects by hand to give it an antiqued look. The whole process took several days.”
The oldest member of the studio’s team is Ezio Provasi, who comes from a family of leathersmiths and recently celebrated his 60th year in the trade. After making products for high-end brands such as Loro Piana, Ferragamo, Porsche and Audi, he became a specialist in the intricate sewing and stitching process. He has never worked with faux leather and laments the decline of real crocodile skin, which is now strictly controlled and so highly valued that it is sold by the square inch. (A lot of what looks like crocodile is actually embossed cow leather.)
“Every hide comes from an individual animal and is slightly different, which makes it almost impossible to automate certain processes,” Marco says. “At the end of the day, we’re not in the volume business of making products by machine. We’re in the luxury business of making products by hand.”
For more information: foglizzo.com