First came genuine leather: durable, versatile, and used for everything from shoes to saddles to book bindings. Then came a slew of imitations. Leatherette, leatherine, and leatherboard appeared in the 19th century. Naugahyde, the “cruelty-free fabric,” showed up in the 1950s, complete with its own fictional beast (“naugas,” according to company lore, are fabled to “shed their hydes without harm to themselves”). DuPont’s Corfam appeared in 1963 and was sure to replace leather once and for all–only it didn’t. Now we have far more convincing simulations, such as Ultrasuede, based on microfiber technology developed in the late 1960s by the Japanese company Toray Industries.
In Faux Real: Genuine Leather and 200 Years of Inspired Fakes, Robert Kanigel gives the reader a colorful tour of everything leather. Kanigel, director of the graduate program in science writing at MIT, is the author of The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan and The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency. An amateur leather craftsman, he says he has a “visceral dislike for a lot of synthetic materials.” His book finds its story in the relationship between the natural and the synthetic, a tension that “can be felt in the shoes we wear … but also in the food we eat, the ways in which we work and play, in the things we treasure and those we throw away.”
Kanigel’s research took him around the world, to shoe and vinyl factories, to processing plants where hides from recently slaughtered animals are prepared for the next production stage, and to Italian tanneries. He stopped by the 22nd annual New England Fetish Fair and Fleamarket at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston and visited the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, where he was allowed to view a pair of leather boots made out of human skin. He writes about all stages in the life of leather–from a young man’s adventure in the early 1800s “gathering cattle hides along the coast of California” to a shoe factory in Brockton, MA, where “floppy scraps” of leather are “stretched, tucked, and tortured into shape.” Kanigel also tells the story of the “faux” side, describing the embossing rollers that create the leatherlike patterns on synthetic material and re-creating the day in the lab when a Japanese researcher concocted the microfibers that would eventually lead to Ultrasuede.
Kanigel says that after years of tracking down the stories of leather’s imitators, he developed respect for the people who work on each new generation of synthetic leather. Still, Kanigel finds great allure in genuine leather, and he hopes his reverence for the real thing rubs off on the reader.
“If the effect is to make the reader slow down just enough to ask where materials come from, or to just stop and touch and look closely and appreciate,” he says, “then I feel like the book would have succeeded.”