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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
An Interview with James Ferragamo
Monica Warek, NYU Florence student
La Pietra Dialogues
March 1, 2012

On Wednesday February 22, 2012, La Pietra Dialogues hosted a student-run Dialogue on Green Fashion with James Ferragamo and Gel Ceccarelli. The purpose of the dialogue was to discuss the difficulties that fashion faces in reducing its carbon footprint, yet leaving that footprint in a trendsetting shoe made of the highest quality. It comes as no surprise that these two goals often contradict

James Ferragamo is head of the Women’s Leather Goods division of Salvatore Ferragamo, a luxury goods company with its roots in Florence, Italy, specializing in shoes, leather goods and ready-to-wear for men and women. New York University was especially excited to host James Ferragamo because he is an NYU Alumnus, graduating from Stern as an undergrad studying marketing and business and again with his masters in international business.

Gel Ceccarelli is currently the Material Research and Development Coordinator and has been with the company for over 30 years. In her current position she has created an archive enabling stylists to have access to information on the articles they need to find.

Salvatore Ferragamo is one of the very few mainstream luxury brands producing eco-friendly products. In 2008 Salvatore Ferragamo first introduced a collection of environmentally friendly handbags that were both biodegradable and water resistant. Then in Fall of 2010 a six-piece eco-friendly collection of men’s shoes named Ferragamo WORLD was launched. The shoes are produced using water-based adhesives and low-impact processes such as water tanning. A portion of the proceeds also go to Acumen Fund, a nonprofit that fosters sustainable entrepreneurship. However, these represent a very small fraction of Ferragamo products. The majority are still produced unsustainably. So how does a global company known for their leather and superior craftsmanship actually become eco-friendly?

Researching new and sustainable materials are the first step in this difficult process as stated by James: “[research] will be something more prevalent and mandatory within the next decade.” During the dialogue Gel Ceccarelli presented a number of new materials that are currently being studied and transformed into useable and durable substances for clothing, handbags and shoes. Two new materials that have the potential to greatly increase sustainability are fabrics made from used coffee grinds and crabyon, a fabric created from the shells of crabs that are discarded after eaten. Integrating more of these materials can greatly reduce the waste in our food system. However materials presented such as horsehair, cork (which is taken from an old-growth tree taking 10-15 years to reach maturity) and bark from a specific tree in Africa, hardly seem sustainable or practical.

Seeing the quality and durability of a product it is easy to form a disconnect between fur and leather as luxury materials and the fact that at one point it was a living breathing creature. Even though many Salvatore Ferragamo products are made in Italy, especially shoes, reducing negative environmental impacts from transportation, perhaps the most pressing question is what, if anything, could be a substitute for leather?

The only way it seems leather can be more environmentally friendly is to alter the process it undergoes to be tanned and to be made water resistant. It is currently more expensive to produce materials sustainably, and therefore does not make economic sense for companies to switch production methods. James explained “It is more expensive because the infrastructure does not exist. If I could make a comparison, cell phones used to be extremely expensive and now prices have been reduced due to volume. Volume can only be created if you establish a business around the product.” Leather undergoes a chemical process to make the material water resistant, scratch resistant and last longer, all qualities that are expected from a luxury brand and purchased at a luxury price. James described the difference of sustainably produced leather by saying “If you have water on it, it will become wet, and then when it dries it would not go back to normal. If a customer gets caught in the rain, they might bring their bag back because of the remaining water spots.” The leather produced sustainably is not able to compete with the quality of chemically treated leather yet, and therefore is not attractive in the eyes of a customer.

What is attractive in the eyes of a customer is one of the most important considerations when designing products for the fashion industry as well as for creating the infrastructure to make product more sustainable. Businesses need to profit. Attractiveness is at the root of the definition of fashion. Customers purchase high-end fashion not out of necessity but because it looks good. James, speaking about the market for eco-fashion, stated: “We do not see that happening today because there is not a large group of eco-friendly customers. If anything, it is a small niche.”

When asked if customers of high fashion would appreciate eco-friendly products James responded: “I think they do appreciate it, but I think the product is paramount. It is the customer that understands fashion, and their approach to fashion is to buy the best product. However, most customers prioritize appearance over a product that is eco-friendly.” Since demand drives production, demand for sustainability is the only true solution to eco-friendly fashion. James acknowledged this difficulty by stressing the need for education: “The problem today is that many customers are unaware of the issue. Most people don’t understand there is a serious problem in the tanning and dyeing process and how it creates pollution.” Through education and by stimulating demand, only then will we begin to see companies utilizing more sustainable materials and production methods.

While this indicates a very long journey ahead for eco-fashion, it is not an impossible one. Only the customer truly has the power and the choice to steer green fashion down a more sustainable path by voting with every new purchase. Make a difference by buying; that is music to every fashionista’s ear. James assured us that Salvatore Ferragamo will make our decision easier by bringing more eco-friendly products to the market in the future: “Every season we try and research different materials to discover more green options. We substitute eco-friendly materials that appear identical to traditional materials.”

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