Fashion 87 : The Skin-Deep Beauty of Leather Is Finally Coming Into Its Own

Steve Reiss' grandmother has a habit of sending him pages torn from slick fashion magazines and supermarket tabloids.

The subject is always the same: men and women dressed to the hilt in leather.

For Reiss, marketing manager of the trade publication Leather Today, the clippings are just one more indication of the recent coming of age in America of leather.

Once associated with men on motorcycles, it's now equated with cashmere. While popularity doesn't come cheap ($250 for a straight skirt, $400 for a sleeveless dress, $135 for a little bandeau top), there are the exceptions. Locally, Wilson's House of Suede and Leather sells miniskirts for $50, oversize menswear-look jackets for $250.

But price is no longer the issue. Reiss, for example, claims many men today don't hesitate to spend $500 on a leather jacket: "Ten years ago, you didn't see that."

The joys of wearing leather and suede have been discovered by Americans, much the way they discovered the bikini: long after Europeans. And they can't seem to get enough of it.

Korea, according to statistics from the Leather Industries of America organization, supplies the most imported garments to the United States, accounting for 65% or $241,068,000 worth last year.

Turning up in everything from wedding gowns to Don Giovanni's costumes at the San Francisco Opera House, skins now have the look of herringbone tweed or peacock-printed silk.

All byproducts of cows, lambs and pigs used in the meat industry, today's leathers come painted, printed, embossed, silk-screened, crimped, perforated, distressed, wrinkled like linen and colored every shade imaginable. Thicknesses range from soft, silky washable lambskin to what is still known as motorcycle weight.

Just about every possible influence, from Madonna and "Top Gun" to lettermen jackets of the '50s, is credited with taking leather off the bike and putting it into the closets of millions. But industry watchers say the prime movers and shakers are the technologists who made leather supple, the consumers who are willing to make a substantial investment in their clothing and the designers who are as creative with hides as they are with cotton, silk, linen or wool.

With skin so "in" this year, some stores are giving it their own special treatment.

Next month, for example, JW Robinson's opens a department devoted exclusively to women's leather and suede garments. With that concept in place, the chain's fall sales are expected to be five times higher than last year.

"We feel the potential has never been maximized," explains merchandise manager Laura Hall. "We want to tell the customer it's a major fabric."

Included among the chain's clientele, says Hall, "are women who have major positions in business or with charities. They want their clothes to make a statement. There's a richness to suede and leather you can't get from anything else."

Bullock's feels so bullish about leather, according to Charlene Setala, buyer for designer sportswear, that when the Anne Klein II fall collection was shown without any leather items, the store requested two exclusive pieces.

The result--a suede jacket and skirt--reflects the customer's desire for "an outfit," Setala explains.

"She wants a polished look. In the past, if we carried just a jacket--because we thought it was a great item on its own--women would ask when we were getting in the bottoms."

Setala says one of the newest twists is texture: "It's thewhole thing that's being done with embossing, giving suede and leather the look of crocodile, lizard or snake."

Considered as season-less and versatile as a knit, leather has its own advantages.

"It's long wearing and very functional," says Nordstrom fashion coordinator LeeAnn Roskelley. "It can be worn for day and dressed up for evening. You can take something as basic as a black leather skirt and wear it with a white blouse and a jacket during the day. For evening, take off the jacket, change the accessories and you have something dressy."

Using finer skins, designers can shape, drape and fit leather close to the body. "We have to stop thinking of it as leather," insists Rosemarie Troy, fashion merchandise director of Bullocks Wilshire. "We have to think of it as a fabric.

"The whole subject could be called the feminization of leather," adds Troy. "It has lost its biker connotation, that's the No. 1 thing. It's a celebration of luxury."

Such talk is music to Michael Hoban's ears. While sales from North Beach Leather stores around the country last year totaled $13.5 million, Hoban, designer for and co-owner of the firm, remembers times when leather in America just didn't have the respect it deserved.

Back in the '60s, when he walked around in a pair of leather pants, he says: "People thought I was the strangest character."

Now, in addition to 10 retail stores, there are also wholesale and catalogue operations. All benefit from Hoban's pursuit of the next great style. For fall, that seems to be a military-influenced dress and jacket and a Mexican-inspired suede sweater-jacket for men and women.

Proclaiming, "I live and breathe leather," Hoban thinks it could be good for anyone's health:

"Once a woman starts wearing leather," he says, "it changes her personality. She'll say 'no' to a dessert or a Snicker's bar. She'd rather fit into her leather pants."

Taking care of leather has its own rules. Don't store garments in plastic, advises Robert Depper, owner of the Glovatorium in Oakland. They need to breathe, he says, so cover them with cloth.

Carolyn Mahboubi, owner of the Versace and Hiroko Koshino boutiques in the Rodeo Collection, says "Spray them right away" with a protective coating. Depper recommends one containing silicone.

Then get into the nature of the beast: "Leather looks best when it has a worn look," Mahboubi states. "When it has some personality. I wear mine in the rain. People get very nervous about their leather, but they shouldn't. It's just skin."

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