If you have ever strolled through the street markets of Florence then you have experienced the onslaught of catcalls, promises of huge discounts, and desperate attempts to grab your attention in order to sell you a leather handbag or jacket. Don’t let the charm, compliments, and fake smiles fool you, leather is big business in Florence and it has been for centuries.
While many want to indulge in some “Florentine quality” leather that was “made in Italy,” the process of actually purchasing something can be overwhelming and intimidating. Between the ridiculous discounts offered and aggressive workers who will say absolutely anything to make a sale, you’re left wondering how you could possibly walk away with a quality piece at a decent price.
Well, have no fear. I sat down with a friend of mine in Florence who works in the leather business for a very candid interview (he didn’t shy away from any of my tough questions). From this interview I have compiled everything you need to know when purchasing leather in Florence.
So here we go…
1) There is no mom and pop
Since leather is such a lucrative trade, it has evolved into a massive business enterprise. Most leather stores own a stand or cart, shop, and boutique. All are working together to get your business. It is also not uncommon for one investor to own shares in multiple leather shops. In addition to this, there are not that many tanneries or factories in Tuscany/Italy to begin with, so most of the jackets are coming from same suppliers.
2) Educate yourself
There is a difference between the following terminologies thrown around when buying leather:
“Real Leather” – Real leather is an empty promise and doesn’t indicate quality, just that some animal skin was tanned and used in the creation of the bag or jacket. Obviously, you want real leather, but you can get that anywhere. This is not enough of a promise; you want more, otherwise you might as well go into a chain retail store. A lot of this "real leather" actually comes from China or other places in North Africa/the Middle East. If you want high-quality leather, you should look for items made from calf or lambskin.
“Made in Italy” – You want your leather to be real and made in Italy, but this too can be misleading. In order to qualify as “made in Italy,” 33% of the item must be produced or manufactured in Italy. That’s it. So that means the leather could come from Morocco or Turkey and then be manufactured in Italy.
“Italian Quality” – Italian (or Tuscan) quality is really what you are looking for in addition to the first two. Italian quality means that the leather was treated and dyed according to traditional (non chemical) Italian techniques. Bottom line, the type of skin used and the tannery process determines the quality of a leather jacket.
Here are some tips for spotting Italian quality:
You should be able to see the texture of the animal skin.
If the leather is real, it cannot be perfect or free of imperfections.
The texture of the leather should feel soft and buttery to the touch.
The color will be more muted and natural, not fire engine red.
No leather is fire and waterproof. Do not fall for this promise.
3) Have realistic expectations
Like anything, you get what you pay for. A quality short leather jacket in Florence is going to cost between 200 and 350 euros, anything less simply cannot be Italian quality. If a shop offers you 50% or 70% off, they have already marked up their prices to offer such deals. Leather sells well year-round in Florence, so there is no liquidation or sale season. If a deal is too good to be true, it probably is. When in doubt, it is best to find a salesperson you trust. Just remember they are there to sell and will likely do anything to convince you to buy. If you want to visit my friend (who I obviously trust), you can find Aria at the David leather shop on Via Por Santa Maria, 56/red.
You absolutely can and should haggle on the price of leather goods. A good haggler will shock the salesperson with a very low opening offer to see their reaction. Also, don’t be afraid to walk away. There are plenty of shops and you should definitely shop around (ask for a business card in case you decide to return). Finally, many of the carts/stalls (and even boutiques) hide their inventory to create the appearance that there are only a couple or your favorite items. Don’t fall for this and don’t be afraid to ask for a new item from the back when you purchase.
One final note if your traveling with an agency or cruise ship, many of these guides bring you to specific shops because they get a commission from your purchases. Not that this is inherently a bad thing, just something to be aware of when you’re shopping. Don’t be afraid to venture elsewhere.
Bottom line - Don't be intimidated. Leather makes a wonderful souvenir, just educate yourself so you buy quality and every time you wear it, it will remind you of beautiful Florence.
Happy leather shopping!