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As Carmakers Go Vegan, This Old Family Company Likes Leather

Bridge of Weir Leather in Scotland is working hard to make hides seem hot again.

James Muirhead likes to tell the story about the time Rob Dickinson walked up to him with a yellow leather purse.

Dickinson is the founder of the Singer Vehicle Design, a vintage car restorer and modifying company. He wanted Muirhead—the seventh-generation son of the family that runs Scotland’s premier automotive leather company—to match the hue of the bag for the interior of Singer’s new sports car, the DLS.

Not a problem, Muirhead assured. 

The request was typical of the host of special jobs Muirhead oversees as head of U.K. sales at Bridge of Weir Leather Co. His family, which has been making leather goods since 1905, counts Aston Martin, Bentley, Jaguar, McLaren, and Lotus as longtime clients. Ford’s first Model Ts in the 1900s came lined in Bridge of Weir leather. As does McLaren’s new $1.2 million Speedtail.   

Six weeks after the inquiry, the $2 million Singer DLS coupe debuted at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show, resplendent with brilliant egg yolk-yellow custom-dyed hide wrapped around its dashboard, doors, and seats.

For me as a leather purist, that leather is up there with one of the nicest we have ever made, Muirhead says during a video chat from company headquarters in Scotland. It was a slow process to make sure you get the classic dye to penetrate, to get the hide as uniform as possible, and making sure to take the time to make sure it doesn’t dry so quickly that it becomes brittle—to make sure that you tumble it so it comes off as supple as leather can be.

In some corners of the auto industry, animal hides have become taboo. Brands as diverse as Audi, Volvo, Hyundai, Polestar, Toyota, Ford, and Rivian have increasingly implemented—sometimes exclusively—vegan “leather” and non-animal materials into their interior cabins. According to Grand View Research, synthetic leather will be a $45 billion industry by 2025.  

But Muirhead and his family, including cousin Jamie Davidson and brother Nicholas, are hoping they can keep their centuries-old product as exciting as the new ones—and have invested £15 million ($20 million) in sustainable technology and eco-friendly initiatives to help them get there.

We really think a lot about how can we compete, not only from a technological performance basis but also from an ecological and sustainable place, Muirhead says. We all have such passion for the product. To see [a luxury car] driving down the street and know that you were an instrumental part in delivering some of that product, it’s everything. That is exactly why I take so much pride in what we do. I love natural animal leathers; it’s the way leather should be.

A Long, Proud Heritage

The village of Bridge of Weir (roughly “bridge over the water” in Scottish parlance) is in the west central Scottish Lowlands and has made leather for centuries. Its Burngill Tannery produced as far back as the 1700s. British Airways and the British houses of Commons and Lords have all used leather sourced from the region. Andrew Muirhead purchased the tannery in 1870, his family having already been working for generations as leather artisans in Glasgow. His son Arthur founded Bridge of Weir Leather Co. 35 years later. 

Andrew Muirhead’s great-great grandson is James Muirhead, with whom I speak with over Zoom. James started visiting the factory floor with his father before he could walk. After starting with entry level tannery tasks, he worked his way up to sales director.

I got used to the smells, sights, sounds of it all from a very young age, he says. It’s really something that is in my blood.

In a traditional industry, a long family history in the business keeps fresh ideas and innovations floating to the top about as well as a cement balloon. But James, now 36, tries to remain unburdened by pedigree.

The leather industry is quite an old industry, Muirhead says, but we cannot be defined by that proud heritage.

The Leather Wars

Not everyone believes the future of luxury includes leather. In 2019, Massimo Frascella, Land Rover’s creative director, declared leather over. 

“Fifty years ago, a leather couch was the height of luxury,” Frascella said at the debut of Land Rover’s new line of leather-free, fully vegan materials.

Now, in the best hotels and homes you’d never see that. It’s a similar process with cars. Going forward, sustainable design is providing the framework for change. 

The marque’s proprietary Eucalyptus Melange—a textile produced from eucalyptus fibers—requires significantly less water to produce than traditional materials such as plastic and Alcantara.  

“The whole world should be doing this,” RJ Scaringe, the founder of Rivian, said during a press drive of the company’s R1T truck earlier this year. He was talking about the brand’s decision to forgo offering leather interiors in its First Edition electric pickups. 

The numbers indicate strong growth and potential for faux leather materials. Last year, Infinium Global Research reported that the global market for vegan leather will reach $89.6 billion by 2025, with a compound annual growth rate of 49.9% from 2019 to 2025.  

The global leather goods market still wallops that value, although it is not growing as fast. In 2020, the market value of leather goods worldwide reached $394.12 billion, according to Grand View Research, which projects a 5.9% annual increase until 2028. The growth is driven by rising consumer disposable income, improved living standards, changing fashion trends, growing tourism, and an insatiable appetite for beef. 

Some of the new [vegan] materials are good, but if you think that by choosing the alternative you are saving the life of a calf, that is just not true, Muirhead says. Choosing alternative leather does not stop people from consuming meat.

The Future of Leather

Muirhead and his teams say they have come up with ways to revitalize the product and make it feel new. They work with historic brands such as Jaguar to replicate the original leathers it used in its XK102s in 1948 for use in Jaguar’s new continuation line. They develop organic and eco-friendly dyes to try to mitigate the use of harsh chemicals in the refining process—tanning and other processes that enhance durability, hue, and wear—that transforms a hide from raw material to an upscale good. They produce special leather color treatments that won’t rub off on the white and light-colored clothing so popular with TikTok and YouTube stars. They produce “performance” leather that provides durability against stiff and scratchy clothing like denim and rivets in pants; the side bolsters in such SUVs as the Bentley Bentayga or Aston Martin DBX are especially susceptible to such wear. 

They have even developed special non-smelling leathers to appeal to clients making cars for sale in Asia, employing an official “nose” to ensure the leather doesn’t smell like, well, leather. 

Clients in Asia have a very specific smell requirement: They don’t like smell, says Dale Wallace, the senior project manager at Bridge of Weir. 

The preference for vehicles that don’t smell like a leather atelier upon delivery stands in deep contrast to European and American clients, who specifically aspire to own cars with that traditional new-leather smell.

The company even does something that might seem counter-intuitive: provide leather for electric and hybrid vehicles, including all of Volvo’s hybrids, the Polestar 2, the Lucid Air, and an Electric Series II Land Rover. 

We stay close with the customers we have, whether it’s electric vehicles or Rolls-Royce, he says. We make sure they know our leather is synonymous with technology companies.

In the past two decades, Bridge of Weir’s parent company, Scottish Leather Group, has invested £15 million to implement eco-friendly initiatives such as a thermal energy plant and water treatment and recycling plant. 

The company has built an ultrafiltration plant that enables it to treat the waste water from the tannery and recycle up to 40% of that treated water back into production. It uses a thermal energy plant that converts manufacturing waste into energy, some of which directly powers the tannery and therefore shrinks landfill waste and significantly reduces its carbon footprint. In 2020, the renewably driven self-heating system it built reduced the amount of waste sent to landfills by 81%. 

Nearly all—98%—of the hides Bridge of Weir Leather uses for its car clients comes from farms in the U.K. and Ireland, with half from Scotland. All the hides used are byproducts of the beef and dairy industries, the company says. They come from family-run farms and abbatoirs the company has known for as many as 60 years, a point of pride.  

We keep it local and traceable—good meat means good leather, means good hides, says Davidson. I believe leather will always be a luxury standard. I’m a seventh-generation family member here, and I’d like to think we will still be there for our 20th generation.

Innovating an Age-Old Product

Currently under development—the brand’s upcoming secret weapons to keep it relevant and vital to automakers looking for an edge with consumers—are futuristic embedded leather technologies. That means special buttons that look invisible inside the car cabin but respond to touch through their leather film, or highly-refined perforated leathers that allow moisture to evaporate as well as it does from workout clothing. 

Muirhead and his team are developing a kaleidoscope of metallic leathers that increase customers’ ability to personalize their cars, some of which could change color as you drive.

If you are driving more aggressively, it would have the ability to have the technology that would change the color of the dashboard, he says.

Customers need to have something that is more special than their friend might have, says Muirhead. We are making sure we stay relevant by doing the correct market research—understanding these trends in the industry. And when you see the finished product driving down the street and know that you were an instrumental part in delivering that product, it’s everything.

Especially when it’s the hue of a dashboard that matches a special yellow purse. 

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