If you’re heading to the beautiful city of Florence, chances are you’ve already put aside money to spend on some beautiful, Florentine leather products. If not, you should.
Florence has been known for hundreds of years as the home of the world’s best leather craftsmanship. If you play your cards right and know where to look, shopping in Florence will land you with exquisitely crafted souvenirs — from change purses to larger items such as bags or briefcases. You can even find made-to-measure shoes of unparalleled quality for a much lower price than at home.
However, it always pays to do your homework. Because Florence is known for its leather, it has attracted a pretty shady trade in cheap knock-offs and poor quality goods sold to tourists who don’t know any better. Keep in mind as well that it’s not only illegal to sell knock-offs in Italy, it’s also illegal to buy them. So stay clear of anyone trying to sell you a Gucci bag for ten Euros.
Read on for a few tips on how to get the best bang for your buck leather-wise in Florence.
Quality Check: It’s All About the Layers
Leather products are strictly graded based on their quality. Do you own a leather jacket or a purse? Look inside it. Chances are you’ll see the words “Genuine leather” stamped on the inside. Before you go congratulating yourself on your ownership of a “genuine” item, know that a product at this grade is actually on the lower quality side of leather products.
Leather quality by grade
1. Full-grain (pieno fiore): This is the best of the best, the caviar of leathers. It means the top layer of the hide hasn’t been sanded off, leaving all the uniqueness of the animal hide, all its pores, scars and imperfections intact. Full-grain is sought after because of its supple texture, its durability (this is the kind of leather used for weapon holsters or utility belts), and its natural, leathery smell. It also creates a beautiful patina over time.
2. Top-grain leather (parte grano or cuoio di grano): This is the second-best of the leather grades. It’s made by taking the full-grain layer and sanding it to remove imperfections. A fake grain is then stamped on it and then treated and colored to give it a uniform look. It isn’t as durable as full-grain leather but will be stain resistant and sport a rich color. If you wanted to buy a good quality leather jacket or bag from Florence, this would be the grade you’d be looking for.
3. Genuine leather (vera pelle or vero cuoio): The belts and purses you find at your local mall will probably have “Genuine leather” stamped on it. It is, alas, the lowest quality of the real leather products. It is cut from the bottom half of the hide and has no grain. However, it can still maintain a nice, rich color, be supple to the touch and still retain that leather smell.
4. Bonded leather (cuoio rigenerato): This is the leather equivalent to a sausage or processed cheese. It is made by taking all the scraps left over from the leather-making process, such as leather dust and shavings, and pressing them together with a cocktail of glues, dyes and chemicals. This will be pretty obvious as it’ll smell like superglue and not leather.
5. Imitation (simipelle or ecopelle): For those of you who don’t want to wear animals at all but still want to rock that cool leather jacket, look for the label simipelle or ecopelle. This means there is no animal hide at all in this product.
Uses your senses: What to look for when you’re looking for leather
1. Smell: as mentioned above, the first clue to impostor leather is how it smells. If it smells like it just came out of a paint factory and not musky and natural, chances are good you’re not being shown the quality goods.
2. Touch: How does it feel? Does it feel like it will mold to your skin or more like a cardboard box? Quality leather products should feel smooth, supple and soft and not stiff like your grandfather’s starched shorts.
Color: The best quality leather will not need dyes; its natural tan or brown color should stand on its own. Watch out — products dyed in different colours might be masking lesser quality leather. Check out the edges of the leather — does the colour penetrate the whole hide or is it just on the surface?
Stitching: A good way to evaluate the quality of leather is to check how the bag is literally put together. Stitching should be tight and regular, with small stitches. All of the clasps, zippers, etc., should work well and smoothly.
Markets versus boutiques
Florence is home to two large markets where you can find anything from small leather trinkets and accessories to larger items such as leather jackets.
1. The San Lorenzo market is adjacent to the Mercato Centrale, an indoor food market, so if you’re planning a trip you might as well do it around meal time. The outdoor part of the market has rows of booths selling everything from leather goods, to clothes to tiny souvenirs such as notebooks, belts and change purses.
2. The Mercato Nuovo or commonly known as the “Porcellino” market, so named for the statue of the wild boar, is a beautiful semi-enclosed space that dates back to the 16th Century. Here you’ll find a whole bunch of vendors selling an array of leather goods.
Though the markets are worth a visit just for the fun of walking around and seeing the spaces they inhabit, you may not want to make any large leather purchases; for something more than just a cheap souvenir they can be tricky. The vendors really want to sell you stuff (as vendors do) and they might not always be forthright about the quality of their products.
If you want to return home with a true Florentine quality leather bag or jacket, the best places to shop are the small boutiques where you’ll be helped by staff who are passionate about the quality of their goods.
Four Best Bet Boutiques for Florence Leather
Before you set foot in one of the following stores, remember that quality leather is still going to cost you. It will be cheaper than you can find at home, but if someone is trying to sell you a top-grain, Italian quality leather coat for under 200 Euros, chances are it isn’t what they say it is. Because leather sells well in Florence year round, there are also no discount or sales racks. Although it’s acceptable to haggle with the street vendors, the small, quality boutiques have fixed prices and they do not negotiate. Still, if you know where to shop, the price will be worth it.
After World War II, the Franciscan Friars of the Santa Croce Monastery teamed up with the Gori and Casini families, well-known leather artisans, to found a school that would teach war orphans the leather trade. With a stated commitment to keeping the tradition of exquisite Florentine leather craftsmanship alive, you will not only find a beautiful leather product within their doors, you can also take a guided tour of their workshop. The leather school specializes in bags, belts and smaller items.
A little off the beaten path but well worth a visit, Dimitri Villoresi specializes in beautifully designed, elegant leather handbags.
A newcomer on the Florentine scene, BenHeart boasts fine, 100% made in Italy quality. They are young and very very trendy, with stores that have already opened up as far as Kuwait. They make shoes, bags, jackets and accessories.
If you want to channel your inner dandy and leave Florence in an attention-grabbing pair of bespoke wingtips, look no further than the workshop of Roberto Ugolino.