Spanish leather hub Ubrique is on a mission to extend its manufacturing services beyond traditional luxury labels to offer hand-crafted products to smaller premium brands.
Nestled in the stunning white village of Ubrique, in the south-western province of Cádiz, Spain, is luxury’s best-kept secret: its leather manufacturing hub. Its clandestine reputation makes it tricky to uncover – brands have either never heard of it, or those that are manufacturing in the area are reluctant to divulge any information.
However, some of the biggest luxury labels in the world, including Dior, Chloé and Lanvin are thought to manufacture there.
Ubrique’s geographical location and habitat make it ideal for leather manufacturing. Positioned in a valley surrounded by a natural park of cork trees, the first workers in leather manufacturing removed the cork from the trees to produce a liquid used to tan the leather and used pig hair to sew pieces together. They worked at the front of their homes to make the most of the natural light.
The area suffered as a result of the economic crisis that began in 2008. Juan Maria Menacho Perez, director of Avana Piel factory, which produces leather bags and wallets, says that many brands left the area 10 years ago to manufacture in China.
The foundation aims to overcome challenges that brands seeking to manufacture in Ubrique historically faced, such as finding the right factory contact and overcoming language barriers. As well as direct translation of everyday language, technical terms can prove a challenge, as Ubrique has its own dictionary of more than 8,000 words that the village uses to describe the leather craft.
Movex’s ambition is to support and develop Ubrique’s factories to offer increased versatility and faster production times that brands are now looking for, while retaining the expert craftsmanship the village is famous for. The foundation showcases the latest technologies used in leather manufacturing, including computerised stitching, laser cutting and digital printing, as well as machinery for milling, washing and testing, to encourage technical experimentation within the leather manufacturing process.
Factories in Ubrique vary in size, but smaller workshop-style sites with one to 10 employees make up 86% of the factories in the area. They sit alongside larger manufacturers such as Hermepiel, which makes bags and small leather goods, among other products. It has just over 200 workers.
The cluster of factories work together, supporting the workload as orders fluctuate throughout the seasons. During extremely busy periods, support staff in the form of retired workers or stay-at-home mothers are employed.
Leather manufacturing is a competitive global business but factories in Ubrique believe it is their quality of production that makes them stand out from the crowd.
Manuel Hernande Medinilla, who founded the Hermepiel factory 42 years ago, explains they have to be able to offer the highest quality to stand out from competitors. However, hand craftsmanship is done at a slow pace compared with today’s fast fashion world.
Michael Hill, creative and managing director of premium menswear brand Drake’s, says it is this quality that attracts him to the area: “We are looking to increase our leather offer and are keen to be exposed to the manufacturers here. It seems a good fit in terms of quality and service. We currently make a fair bit in the UK and some in Italy – we try and go where in the world makes the best things, and this is the best place for leather manufacturing.”
Ubrique’s comparative proximity to the UK is also an advantage, as it allows for more frequent visits from the brands to factories and greater transparency. It is now offering small minimum orders to attract less-established luxury brands, to provide greater variation and encourage business is less busy times of the season.
At Hermepiel, orders can be as small as 25 pieces per colour and shape for bags, and 50 for small leather goods. At neighbouring factory Authentica, it is 50 per colour and shape.
“I worry about the reputation China has,” she explains. “I think ‘Made in Spain’ will sell well and allow me to be more transparent as well as embrace the craftsmanship of the area. The whole town operates as an industry – they live and breathe the leather trade.”
In terms of technology, each factory is unanimous that digital cutting has had the biggest impact on speed to market. However, workers at the Rodrigues Barron factory, which cuts for Louis Vuitton and Chloé, and produces for Massimo Dutti and Dunhill, highlight that although digital cutting machines and electronic painting have made a difference, details must still be done by hand to produce high-quality, hand-crafted product.
As with the rest of the industry, sustainability is a hot topic in Ubrique. At the Avana Piel factory, which specialises in leather bags and works with brands such as Lanvin, there is a focus on ensuring the factory is as sustainable as possible. It aims to be more waste- and energy-efficient, but is also working with new materials such as apple, pineapple and cork leathers.
Belt specialist Authentica also has a sustainable focus. It ensures all glues are non-toxic and material wastes are separated for responsible disposal.
Javier Gallego, general director at the Movex foundation, explains why it is so important for the area to continue to evolve in line with the market: “Traditional luxury is becoming popular, which, by its nature, makes it no longer luxury, as that means exclusivity. Luxury is about having something unique. By adding new materials and new techniques to the manufacturing process, we continue to innovate, and small brands should be part of that mix.”
However, its embrace of technological innovation alongside specialist craftsmanship and the ability to offer small minimums make it an attractive prospect for smaller premium brands looking to produce high-quality, unique product.