That sexy allure of leather…

Leather Avenue seems to have taken the industry by storm as it aims to be the one-stop lifestyle accessory retailer in Malaysia

by LYDIA NATHAN

THERE’S something about leather that is rather alluring and sexy. Just step into a leather shop and chances are, all the senses would be activated.

The sheer smell of a well-polished leather wear could be a turn on for some, while the sheen of a brand new leather bag would always catch the eyes of discerning shoppers.

After all, leather is one of the most durable and flexible material that is used for various products, including footwear, clothing, bags, automobile seats, book bindings, fashion accessories and furniture.

Leather has been in the system for the longest time and the process of creating the material by tanning animal rawhide and skins is still done the same way for years.

The most common raw material is cattle hide. It can be produced at manufacturing scales ranging from artisan to modern industrial scale. It is produced in a wide variety of types and styles, and decorated by a wide range of techniques.

Lucrative Business

The market for leather products is huge. Leading leather bags and goods brand Leather Avenue is one of the many companies that are growing steadily within the rather lucrative business.

The brand seems to have taken the industry by storm as it aims to be the one-stop lifestyle accessory retailer in Malaysia.

Founded in 2010 by Stanny Chan (picture; left) and Kenny Toh, the company was built from the ground up after the duo decided to leave a similar type company. Leather Avenue was officially opened in April 2010. According to its MD Toh, the brand’s first store was in Sungei Wang Mall and the outlet had only 20 employees.

“Now, we have 30 retail stores with around 200 employees. We are very proud to be Malaysia’s leading leather goods and bags retailer,” he told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR) in an interview recently.

Last year, the refinement of the business resulted in the opening of a flagship concept store, La Galleria, at The Curve in Kuala Lumpur.

“La Galleria is Italian for ‘The Gallery’ which is where we gained inspiration for the layout of the store. We want customers to walk in and feel like they’re looking at pieces of art in an interactive gallery and not only see the product, but touch and even smell the leather.

“It’s this immersive experience, where a customer can observe the quality of the product first-hand, that sets retail apart from online,” Toh said.

He said the strategy is to dive into the lifestyle segment instead of focusing on just one sales element.

“We expect our customers to purchase products because of how unique our offerings are, and not because they need it. Selling a need is not sustainable in this market,” he said.

Top Quality Brands

La Galleria is a multi-brand store and is categorised into three main segments which are ladies handbags, business leather goods and luggage.

The brand has sole distributor rights to Charles Berkeley, Esfolar, Lushberry, Cerruti 1881, Mendoza, The Bridge and Valentino Creations.

Teoh said the brand is also licensed to develop three brands — Charles Berkeley, Esfolar and Lushberry.

“This means that we have free reign to design new products that cater to the local market. With this type of license agreement, we have more control over the margins, product mix and brand positioning,” he said.

Teoh said despite not representing first-liner brands, the products carried in the store are still able to compete in terms of pricing without jeopardising quality and design.

“Some customers are not so brand conscious, but want quality within a certain price range, and that’s where we can leverage the most. Some of our overseas markets include Japan, Dubai, China, Taiwan, the UK and Italy.

“Lushberry is a homegrown brand and it’s not often you hear of leather legends like Italy wanting to market an Asian brand, but they do,” Toh said.

Some of Lushberry’s more popular products include a sling fashionable hard pouch bag for women, while Ceruti is known for its extensive line of travel bags, briefcases and backpacks.

Leather Avenue ED Stanny Chan said the different brands and products sell equally well depending on various factors.

“The advantage of having multi-brands is we don’t have a fixed formula. Therefore, we are agile and can quickly adapt to changes,” he said.

Fan Demographics

Chan said the brands’ customers are skewed more towards women in terms of decision-makers, but the spending comes from men.

“We used to have a slightly older demographic, but over the years, we have put in lots of research and innovated the products to target a wider market. We have seen an increase in younger customers now, as the products we offer and the image we project has changed. For instance, we have army design luggage bags, as well as pink ones, so it’s pretty broad,” Chan added.

He said while having an online platform is important, it cannot replace an actual store for this market.

“There are limitations to buying leather goods online. We noticed people buy items below a certain price online. And gathering feedback from these parties, we were told it wasn’t enough to just have photos but rather videos as well.

“However, in a brick and mortar store, our staff are highly trained to explain a product to the customer, where one can touch, feel and see what the product looks like on them,” Chan said.

He also added that prices vary because of the different operating procedures for both, but products purchased have free services for life.

“We only charge for the cost of accessories, not the workmanship or labour. It’s just something we want to give back to our loyal customers and we have seen good returns on it. Our business has grown from strength to strength from our solid base in repeat customers,” he said.

He noted that some of the larger international buyers are from China, Korea, Europe and the Middle East.

Future Plans

Meanwhile, Chan said the brand believes in the progress and forward vision of the company, and sees a huge potential for expansion plans.

“The next strategy is to have bigger stores, so operations can be maintained as such. The La Galleria store will be the benchmark for the rest of our stores and we plan on converting about 30 stores, so our customers can experience the same.

“Our two new stores will be located at the Merdeka 118 Tower, as well as The Exchange TRX mall once both buildings are done. This year, we are looking at opening a store in Johor Baru, we’ve noticed the market for lifestyle items are growing rather quickly over there, compared to states like Penang. We are also in talks with partners overseas to see how we can broaden our markets there,” Chan said.

All You Need to Know About Leather…

Most leather that is available in the market is made of cattle hides, which constitute about 65% of all leather produced.

Apart from cattle, other popular sources include sheep (some 13%), goats (11%) and pigs.

Horse hides are also used to make particularly durable leathers. For instance, shell cordovan is a horse leather made not from the outer skin, but an under layer found only in equine species called the shell. It has a mirror-like finish and anti-creasing properties.

Meanwhile, lamb and deerskin are mainly used for soft leather in more expensive apparel, including work gloves and indoor shoes.

Reptilian skins such as alligator, crocodile and snake are known for distinct patterns that reflect the scales of each species.

Acquiring the material is also rather challenging and that could be the reason for items made of these exotic leathers are seen as a symbol of wealth and exclusivity due to its high price and long waiting lists.

One great example is the Birkin bag (or simply, Birkin), a line of tote bags made popular by French luxury goods maker, Hermès.

Meanwhile, kangaroo leather is used to make items that must be strong and flexible. It is the material most commonly used in bullwhips.

Many motorcyclists prefer kangaroo leather as it is more lightweight and abrasion-resistance.

Ostriches are also gaining popularity these days for both meat and leather. The giant bird’s leather is distinguished by its “goose bump” look due to the large follicles where the feathers grew.

Different processes would produce different finishes for various applications, including upholstery, footwear, automotive products, accessories and clothing.

In Thailand, stingray leather is used to make wallets and belts. Stingray leather, which is tough and durable, is often dyed black and covered with tiny round bumps in the natural pattern of the back ridge of an animal.

These bumps are then usually dyed white to highlight the decoration. Stingray rawhide is also used as grips on Chinese swords, Scottish basket-hilted swords and Japanese katanas.

Stingray leather is also used for high abrasion areas in motorcycle racing leathers — especially in gloves, where its high abrasion resistance helps prevent wear through in the event of an accident.

For a given thickness, fish leather is typically much stronger due to its criss-crossed fibres.