The Great Fakes

Matthew E. Hermes reviews Robert Kanigel’s Faux Real: Genuine Leather and 200 Years of Inspired Fakes.

By Matthew E. Hermes | February 9, 2008

Robert Kanigel. Faux Real: Genuine Leather and 200 Years of Inspired Fakes. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2007, vii + 274 pp.

The reader of Robert Kanigel’s Faux Real: Genuine Leather and 200 Years of Inspired Fakes must be patient. Like the leather softened and formed by the thumb-shaped hammer in Diderot’s Encyclopedia, one needs to be formed to the contour of this book. The reader will be rewarded at the end with a coherent package of images and senses, the fuzzy distinctions that define “real” and “fake,” and Kanigel’s delightful prose that adds up to a history of the chemical and social importance of making leather as well as its synthetic rivals.

Early on Kanigel sets out to explore “the tensions between the authentic and imitative, natural and synthetic, real and faux, that run deep through modern life.” Later, after pages of blood and dung, he introduces readers to “a purified, almost sanitized collagen network” that constitutes not leather but hide, the raw material used in tanning and the multitude of currying processes that result in the extraordinary films we call leather. Next Kanigel presents leather’s impostors: Fabrikoid and the early pyroxylin-coated fabrics, Naugahyde and vinyl composites, the ubiquitous Corfam, and finally microfibers with fractional denier converted to Ultrasuedes. Microfilament structures are the origin of a spectacular profusion of products that even Kanigel, himself a longtime leather aficionado, cannot reliably differentiate from “natural” leather. In each case he spotlights the new material, then lets it fade into the background, becoming another piece of the history of an ever-sharpening leather art.

Kanigel leads us through a meaningful consideration of the terms natural and synthetic and investigates the strange dynamic of our emotional reaction to leather historically, not as we know it but as we feel about it. He uses a century of advertisers’ messages to walk us through our psychological responses as the boundary between “natural” and “imitation” becomes more difficult to discern. What is lost if imitation is indistinguishable from real? Don’t we have “an almost spiritual stake in the belief that . . . we should be able to distinguish something bearing the mark of Nature from the irredeemably inanimate?” Kanigel offers us a privileged position, giving a view through his eyes of leather samples and asking “Do you think this is leather?” In one example Kanigel presents a sample “alligator” belt, which is not fabricated from alligator leather but from natural cowhide rendered into imitation alligator. It is leather, but is it “real”? The more perfect the likeness, the more teasing the riddle.

Ultimately Kanigel brings us to ponder a question that those of us who practice the manufacturing arts today (as I do) know well: there is no single, comprehensive noun in our language that delivers a positive value to, let us say, a finely crafted polyurethane-based fabric composite; an artfully designed, multifunctional injection-molded polypropylene part; or a marvelously responsive, flexible laminate serving as a snow ski. All of these replacements for natural materials lack an umbrella term that praises their “fake” qualities. There is no universal affirmative like the word nylons once was, even when the synthetic replacements that have become available since are so obviously advantageous or compelling.

This is not a book of contemporary science. Kanigel’s narrative lives within the constraints of practical chemistry as it was practiced through to the end of World War II. This was a macroscopic, observational, test-and-try kind of science. It is jarring to realize that the author would be hard-pressed to write a balanced chemical equation in leather chemistry. Indeed, it is difficult to say whether the phenomena observed in manipulating an untreated hide into that “sanitized collagen network,” tanning it with vegetable tannins, and currying it by shaving, pummeling, impregnating, and stretching is merely physical change or the result of subtle chemical processes.

In Faux Real, the real pleasure is in the description of shape, color, and movement of leather and the sounds and smells of the factories and shops. While reading I could see the worker on the beam and hear the hides sloshing in the wood-sided vats. However, much of this description seemed personally detached, and I felt Kanigel’s wonder but also a lack of his influence in the prose. Kanigel writes that in his consultation with experts he was galled by his own struggle to identify the natural or synthetic origin of sample materials, and he took comfort when the supposed experts he consulted had the same difficulty. That incident is a strong indication that Kanigel is as knowledgeable as anyone in the field, and I am sorry that he did not take full advantage of that fact. He could have made the reader’s journey more exciting had he inserted himself more thoroughly throughout, understanding that he is the expert, the star performer here, the continuing presence, the authority with the vital prose and lifetime expertise and that hard-to-fake quality, a true love for the subject.