Tanner Leatherstein: Explains the incredible universe of leather and how to give a second life to this sustainable material

Tanner Leatherstein, the chief craftsman & founder of Pegai, an artisanal leather brand, is also an influencer helping people understand and experience leather better.

His leather review content watched by thousands of people, Tanner shows to his public the leather quality by brand with a 360° approach : From paint to layer, finish, touch, construction and many different aspects.

If you watch his videos, you can dive deeper and take a closer look at luxury leather products from all types, and Tanner explains to you, according to him, whether the products are worth or not their retail prices based on the leather quality. 

He explained to Her-Age’s LaGazetta, the must things to know about usage of leather in the luxury market, leather’s evolution with bio-based vegetal versions and many more…


                                               WATCH FULL INTERVIEW



Tanner, Can you talk about yourself and your background in the leather industry?
Tanner Leatherstein: I was born in Turkey, to a family that owns a tannery. My dad loved having me around in the business and the chemistry of the leather tanning was kind of attractive to me at that time. I was running behind the masters and technicians in our tannery trying to learn the craft. It was a game for me. I was there after work. I was there in my free time, summer vacations, all the time. So, it started as a play and it turned into a lifetime passion. I have been making and tanning leather starting from the raw hide, mainly sheepskins for garments production, and then I moved on to cowhide production in different tanneries around the world. I actually ran a tannery in Turkmenistan for a while. I ran a tannery in Armenia for a short while before I moved to the United States. And, I was involved in many different types of leather production during my time in the tanning industry. When I moved to the United States in 2009 or 2010, I took a pause because leather was not a big thing over here. I did a bunch of different things to set up my life - cab driving, truck driving, going back to school for MBA, and all that stuff. Eventually, in 2016, I came back to leather. This time in the crafting wallets, bags side of things. I self-learned things by YouTube (how to design a wallet, how to cut and sew leather into a wallet). So, it started in the spare bedroom of our apartment. First time I was making something in the craft side of the leather world, and that turned to be my brand today, PEGAI. That kind of gave me further exposure to the leather world, starting from the tannery and now going to the end-user of the craft. 


You demystify leather quality for everyday people through the deconstruction and analysis of leather goods. What are the qualities that identify a good leather ?

Tanner Leatherstein: To me, quality leather or the most authentic leather is the minimally-finished leathers. I usually name them as aniline, semi-aniline finished leathers or pull-up, distressed leathers because I get to see, feel, touch the various beauty of natural leather - the grains, the marks of the animal’s life. If I can see and touch those, I get that lively vibe from leather. To me, that’s the most beautiful leather and to make those leathers, you really need high-quality materials. Usually, 5% to 10% of rawhides are qualified to be finished minimally. They’re clean enough for that kind of finish. The rest, 90% to 95%, have to go through some kind of standardization. They’re still leather, they’re still good, especially if it’s done respectfully (the standardizing process). Standardized finishes produce good leathers as well but they’re not as special as those authentic, clean, and minimally-finished leathers in my opinion so that’s what I’m looking for in the main market. But the main markets that big brand credit, it is really hard to find and work with those leathers in the scales of main mass production brands so they may somehow go to standardized leather finishes and that makes them not truly special or high-quality in the authentic artisan sense. That kind of turns me down for some of the brands’ leather selections.

Luxury brands tend to use high quality leather. In your opinion, what brand is currently providing the best leather in terms of quality and finishing ?

Tanner Leatherstein: So far, my experience is that Hermes and Bottega Veneta are very respectful in the leather selection they have. They’re utilizing leather that is finished, standardized to a certain extent, because they’re a brand. They have to provide similar looking items around the globe but they’re still respectful to the nature of leather and they’re doing that standardization finishes in a very respectful and tasteful way. So, it doesn’t bother me. I am pleased with the leather selections that I mostly saw from those two brands. The rest were not that impressive so far. Recently, I got a bag from Chloe which is promising. Most of the leathers I saw there were nice. I’m looking forward to inspecting that in the upcoming weeks. One of the other big brands that I was impressed with their leather selections was Loewe. They used a calfskin that was very, very tastefully finished. It was a beautiful leather selection for a large brand of their size.


Nowadays, there are alot of leather types offered in the market. How can a normal person determine if a leather is worth it?

Tanner Leatherstein: If you don’t know anything about leather, leather is a feeling thing. So, you look at the leather to see some form of imperfections and variations in grain structures. Those are usually the hallmarks of true, clean artisan leather that are minimally and respectfully finished. It’s really hard to find these kinds of leather in the mass market so you will most likely see a standardized, uniform look all around for their business purposes. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but you can know at that point that it’s not a truly spectacular or very special leather. It is probably a good quality leather finished, mass-produced, standardized for a brand purpose. For you to make a decision on whether it’s worth it or not usually (comes down to) if you’re looking for a good quality leather product or if you’re looking for status and prestige. In my experience so far, all of these super brands are selling you status and prestige. The prices are not about the leather quality. They have high-quality leather items but the price is not to justify the leather, but it’s to justify the logo and status that comes with that brand or product. If you’re into it, you can decide if the price you’re seeing is worth it. At the end of the day, it’s never about the leather at those super brands’ price points but there are alternative brands who don't sell you status and prestige. In that case, you will see much lower price points. Again, leather is not a cheap item. Good quality leather is definitely not cheap but it’s never an astronomical price tag like you will see in super brands.


What Type Of Leather Is The Best For Leather Bags in terms of durability, quality and appearance ?

Tanner Leatherstein: Leather bags are usually made with cowhides or calfskins. It’s a durable type of leather due to its fiber structure. Also, lambskins are used in a lot of bags (especially Chanel). They use a lot of lambskins. Bottega Veneta also use a lot of lambskins (tastefully and beautifully). Lambskins are a lot more delicate but also softer and have its own elegance to it. It depends on the application. If the finish is done respectfully and minimally to the point where we can see the grain of the leather, we can touch and feel that tight grain, (we can see) the variations around the bag, usually those are the good signs. Your touch will tell a lot about the leather quality once you’re inspecting an item. The smell is always pleasant and (it has) an earthy smell (and that) is always a good sign. The blending of the feeling you get from the look, touch, and smell of that leather will tell you a lot. Eventually, you read the labels and see what type of leather the brand is using because the brands and artisans who are proud of their leathers love to talk about the leather. In their descriptions, they will always say aniline, semi-aniline, full-grain leather, lambskin, calfskin, or vegetable-tanned. (These are) some identifiable positive keywords to communicate this is a good leather selection that they’re proud of. That’s always a great sign. If there’s not much things in the description or if they’re too vague and general like cowhide or genuine leather, then you might know there’s not much to talk about leather. It’s not about the leather and you can make up your mind about the price.


What are the details that determine a high craftsmanship for a leather bag ?

Tanner Leatherstein: The craftsmanship for a leather bag is hidden in the details (the stitching, edge paint, accessories, and hardwares used) or any kind of improper assembly sign or markings on the craftsmanship side of things. When people were putting this bag together, did they pay attention to their sewing? Are all the stitched marks or lines straight, nothing seems off, and varying stitching steps? On the edge paint, you (will either) see a well-rounded covered paint (if it’s an edge-painted item) or if you’re seeing layers still under the paint which means it’s not painted enough. Those little details, if you just look closely at the item, will tell you cues of how delicate and detail-oriented the crafting person was behind this item. There’s also two different types of crafting in this leather space especially these days. One is hand-stitched, saddle-stitched craft. Hermes does this partially in most of their crafts and some local individual artisans do this which is much more time-consuming and requires more skill since they need to sew the leather, all the holes are punched by hand, and everything is stitched by hand and by needles. These items are usually more premium because of the work they require. They’re more expensive and they’re going to last much longer, too. Saddle-stitching is stronger than machine-stitching. Even if one stitch is broken, it’s not going to come apart. All stitches are locked individually. On the other hand, most of the products are machine-sewn which is still a hand making process. There are many steps people are carrying this craft through, from cutting to sewing in the machine, but it’s more of a manufacturing setup that’s made in batches. It’s quicker and cheaper than hand-stitching techniques so it’s less premium (not to say it’s very inferior) but it is more of a factory way of making leather. When you’re looking at a product from a brand, most likely, it’s machine-sewn. I think it’s still considered handmade, in my opinion. Most of the leathercrafts are handmade these days, even if it’s coming from bigger brands. They’re just made from factory setups. As long as everything is properly done, stays clean, and paid attention to all those details, I think it can be a sign of high craftsmanship.


As the world thrives to finding sustainable solutions, especially in the field of fashion and luxury. What is the most sustainable type of leather? Do you see luxury brands shifting towards using more sustainable options ?

Tanner Leatherstein: I think leather itself is a sustainable material because as the starting point of leather, the rawhide is a by-product of the meat industry. As humanity consumes meat and creates demands for meat, animals are going to be raised and harvested for the meat. The rawhide is garbage at that point. That’s going to go in the trash because of the putrefaction tendencies in a few days if nobody touches it. So, taking leather and giving it a second life, to me, is a great way of upcycling the material. Otherwise, they will go to waste. As long as we’re careful on the tanning practices of leather, be respectful to the environment, and sustainability measures and ethical business practices are involved in this crafting process, I think leather is one of the most sustainable materials any brand can work with in fashion. The only thing I can say is that leather is not much of a fit for the fast fashion industry in my opinion. First, it’s durable. Fast fashion usually is better off using cheaper, less-durable materials. I’m not a big fan of fast fashion. I love durable and timeless things and leather is a perfect fit for this and that adds another sustainability aspect to this material, in my opinion, because of its durability and long-lasting aspect and features of it. We’re going to buy less, we’re going to consume less, we’re going to create less waste as a result. So, leather is as sustainable as a material can get out of all the options we have in front of us. A lot of luxury brands are testing different options like vegan leathers to cater people who are against animal product usage and are on a vegan lifestyle. I have full respect for it as long as it’s coming from bio-based, vegetable, plant-based material, there’s honest efforts going into space as an alternative to the leather world. But there are also huge efforts to use this vegan trend to market their PU leather which is what we call the fake leather back in the day. Now, they just slap the vegan leather label to it which is not true. It’s not the true representation of the vegan lifestyle. It’s an oil-based product, plastic coming from the oil industry. I don’t think a lot of vegan fans will appreciate this being labeled as vegan leather as an alternative. As long as you understand what you’re buying, I think everything is good.


You are currently creating your own portfolio of leather crafts in a family owned workshop using extremely unique and natural leathers ready to be sold. What are your sustainable promises ?

Tanner Leatherstein: As I mentioned, PEGAI is my brand. It’s evolving into a space where I would like to provide a value to the leather consumers, blending two worlds of high fashion brands and artisan craftsmen (in one). I can describe it this way. Artisans (and) small shops love to work with natural leathers that I described and love (minimally-finished). They’re somewhat non-standard and requires a lot more nuance in the crafting so we can see and embrace this natural imperfection of leather. While loving these unique leathers, most of the time, they lack the sophistication that these big brands have, creating fashion pieces, more complex designs using these leathers. On the other hand, the big brands are really strong in the fashion design sense and sophisticated crafting techniques due to their capabilities, but their size doesn’t allow them to use these very artisan leathers that these craftsmen love. So, what I’m trying to do with PEGAI is, I go around the world, I find these specialty tanneries making unique artisan leather articles, and I take them into my workshop which is pretty capable at this point with masses coming from major brands that they’ve done production for, and we apply these artisanal leathers into sophisticated and more and more developing sophisticated designs that we are adding into our PEGAI portfolio. The leather consumers can see a unique blend of artisanal leathers into sophisticated design pieces. That’s my value proposition with PEGAI, into the leather business, and leather world. Hopefully, I am satisfying a need that wasn’t commonly readily available in the market before.


What is the future of your workshop, where do you see it going ?

Tanner Leatherstein: PEGAI is a small shop. We have about 30-35 artisans in our workshop in Turkey. We are creating things in small batches. I designed my shapes, I found my leathers, and I applied them to it. There’s a limitation to what we do because of the leathers we select. These leathers are not available in millions of square feet to become a mass market product, or our shop is not that big and I don’t want to give it out to outsource my production. I like to control the quality. I like to work with my own artisans as a family setup. So, due to those reasons, I see this business as not going way too bigger than it is right now. I really enjoy the size and the workload that we have and the customer interactions that we have. Hopefully, we’re going to maintain it in an organic slow growth pace but I don’t see PEGAI being a big mass-market brand. (I want to) actually keep this very keen eye on the artisan leather articles and still control the quality and craftsmanship we apply on these designs we are creating in-house.