The leather department on the third floor of Zilli’s manufacturing facility in Lyon, southern France, is a treasure trove.
The house is best known for its velvet calf suede and glazed lambskin – the former super soft and the latter super light. But my favourite of the skins was the peccary (above).
A large pig found commonly in south America, the peccary has a wonderfully soft hide that is easily identified by its sets of three follicle holes, ranged across the skin. Fake skins rarely achieve the same effect, and normal pigs just have one.
Peccary is most often used for gloves and shoes, because the animals are relatively small and because they are still hunted by shotgun – meaning any skin has pellet marks scattered across it (see close-up below). No one breeds them, they all have to be hunted in the wild, so these marked skins are all that is available. “An average jacket will take 20 skins to make. But you might have to source 200 skins to find 20 with enough undamaged hide,” says Jean-Michel Pereira, head of communications at Zilli. Perhaps unsurprisingly given these costs, Zilli is the only company making peccary jackets.
The house has been around for 45 years, but in that time we have never had a peccary jacket back,” says Pereira. “They are just so robust – it is the strongest leather in the world alongside kangaroo."
Peccary is hard to work with, not because it is tough but because it is very stretchy, and so can move under the knife. This is where communication between the third floor and the second floor (cutting) is essential. The three staff in the leather library need to think about the patterns that will be cut at the next stage and select skins appropriately.
If anything goes wrong, there is a tannoy. As we stood around, examining shotgun holes, a disembodied and rather disconcerting voice suddenly rang out. My French isn’t good enough to understand shop talk, but it began with “‘Allo?”, ended with “Super!” and the result was a navy lambskin being rushed downstairs.
That lambskin was beautiful – you can see a range of it set out below. Incredibly thin, much of the credit for its light weight is attributable to the tannery Zilli works with, also in the south of France. We saw one batch being dismissed for being just the wrong shade of blue. A real shame, but indicative of the quality control.
The python (below) provided an even subtler exercise in colour. Each of the many skins that have to be sewn together to make a length big enough to work with is (inevitably) a slightly different shade. It’s in the dying, but also in the scaly things themselves.
The row of skins below might all look blue at first glance, but our guide rapidly went through each one, ticking off “purple, green, red, yellow” for the cast he identified in each one. Can you see any difference?
Crocodile, more specifically porosus crocodile, is another Zilli speciality. The house became known for it back in the 1980s, and the range of coloured croc skins is still impressive. Although porosus is available elsewhere, watch out for the way the scales vary across a cheaper jacket. The best, biggest scales run down the centre of the skin. Some producers use the cheaper off cuts from the sides for small panels on a jacket, like under the arms.
Finally, because we loved it, a gold highlight effect that Zilli is working on. The point of each scale is picked out by a delicate gold curve. Not for a jacket, perhaps, but a woman’s handbag?
With thanks to Jean-Michel and all the team at Zilli.
Photography: Luke Carby