In the early 2000s, Riba Guixà invested in a new, more modern factory for its tanning activities.
Riba Guixà, a fine exponent of Entrefino lamb leather
This is an exceptional tannery, the likes of which is rarely seen these days, the gold standard in tanning and dyeing Entrefino lamb skins, an endemic breed in the Iberian Peninsula. Now part of LVMH group, a long-standing partner, this Catalan company created in the 1930s and managed by the fourth generation of the founding family, has retained its spirit.
Looming benevolently like a votive over the immense drum room, with its cathedral-height ceiling, is the portrait of San Agustìn, the patron saint of tanners. Of course, transforming skins into leather is not the work of the Holy Spirit, but the task of an armada of craftsmen and women. In this in-depth visit to discover the secrets of the production of nappa leather, one of the most in-demand materials for the production of luxury leather goods and clothing, our guide is the company's Export Manager, Lluis Balsells Cruaňas.
¡Bienvenidos a Riba Guixà!
Each year, more than one million ovine skins, mainly Entrefino lamb, are transformed by the Riba Guixà tannery.
A family story
Our journey starts at the end of August during the ACLE Shanghaï show, then continues at the Première Vision Leather in Paris, and Lineapelle in Milan, before we land in Barcelona.
Our destination is Montornès del Vallès, a small town dotted with parasol pine trees to the north of the Catalan capital, not far from the seaside resorts of the Costa Brava.
We arrive at a building with an industrial architectural style, vast expanses of glass and a metallic sign proclaiming Riba Guixà. The home to the company’s tanning activity since the beginning of this century, we have to go back to the 1930s to retrace the history of the family business, which has evolved substantially in its nearly 100 years of existence, investing and moving sites more than once.
It all started in Igualada, a small village one hour away, under the aegis of the great-grandfather of the current Director, Carlos Riba Antò. Accompanied by his two brothers, Kiko, the Sales Director and Joan, the Technical Director, he welcomes us in his white coat early one morning, before their daily briefing. Lluis, his brother-in-law, then takes over. There is a clear chemistry between them.
Carlos Riba Antò, the company director and the fourth generation of the family (centre), surrounded by his two brothers, Kiko, Sales Director (left) and Joan, Technical Director (right).
Vertical integration for traceable production
In the machine room, the drums are turning at full speed. The largest drums can contain up to 2,500 skins for a cycle of 16 to 18 hours. When we ask about the number of stages in the production of leather, between chemical and physical processes – this is still very much a manual process - our host exclaims that “the processes are incredible and traceable!”.
Because before they arrive in the tannery, the raw Entrefino lamb skins are carefully inspected. The trading company Penades makes the first selection of skins leaving the abattoir before then passing them to Adobinve, which is specialised in wet blue works for third parties. At this stage, “they are already able to detect grains, defects, or to discard a Merino lamb skin that will have slipped in with the Entrefino skins." In this long, vertically-integrated production cycle, an entire value chain has been put in place to secure supply. In December 2015, the family holding RGMA, which held shares in each of the three companies, from the purchase of skins to the finishing, opened its capital to LVMH group. A virtuous and possibly vital relationship, that we discussed with Carles Riba Antò during an exclusive interview.
In the machine room, the chrome tanned wet-blue skins are awaiting retanning and lie alongside dyed skins that have just left the drums.
The largest drums can contain up to 2500 skins. The smallest ones only contain around a dozen and are used to carry out tests before large-scale production is launched.
No room for error: skins are carefully sorted
Two or three times a week, lorries deliver new wet-blue skins which form the tannery’s stock, from 1st to 6th choice. The skins are piled up in batches on “caballete”, traditional wooden trestles. The first-choice skins, fine grain Entrefino leathers, mainly used for luxury leather goods or apparel, can cost up to €150 per square metre. The lower grade leathers will be sold as they are or as “dyed crust”, the equivalent to wet-blue but dry, which in certain cases facilitates colouring. The client is responsible for applying the desired finish, which could be more or less pigmented, grained, etc. By the end of the process, it is not unusual for a skin to have been sorted around 5 times. The size, thickness and defects are taken into account during the very strict selection process, as is the final product for which each order is to be used. Without this strict process, the tannery runs the risk of the client rejecting the product, which would nevertheless have generated a cost and taken production time, all of which impacts on the bottom line. Each batch is given a tracking document that includes all the production stages, the product destination, client, colour and production number.
Each operation is monitored by barcode in order to trace the manufacturing process in real time, then it is saved in the internal, bespoke information technology system. The tracking documents are also manually filled in by employees in order to implicate them in the traceability process.
A rainbow of colours
In the laboratory, the production documents are carefully ranged in weekly files with an accompanying sample. Everything is digital now, of course, but nothing replaces a sharp eye for observing the colour finish, in a light booth, where the light intensity is set to match that of the client. But the major houses set the tone by communicating the famous “master” colour to all of their suppliers, to harmonize their output.
So, “we organise a daily meeting from 8.30 to 9.15 am with the technical, production and sales teams. Six skins, taken from each of the previous day’s dyeing sessions, are carefully examined in order to make any necessary adjustments, because our biggest problem today is to manage the small quantities that we have to produce of each colour. Sometimes we have orders for leather to be used for clothing that are required in no less than 18 colours, but for small quantities of just 24 to 26 skins per colour. And all that within a three-week deadline.” Bear in mind that between each colour, the drums and finishing machines must be thoroughly cleaned. To resolve this, the company uses small drums and tests formulas, particularly during the collections and catwalk periods of the year. “We put 6 to 12 skins in here. Others can take up to 80 skins.”
The technician takes a sample of skin from the current production run, in order to make the necessary colour adjustments. The major luxury houses provide the famous “master” tone for each approved colour to all of their suppliers, to harmonize their output.
Colour test on a leather sample, in the laboratory.
Each day, managers and technicians meet to examine the leathers tanned the day before.
And as the tannery produces a lot of articles with an aniline finish, which means they are given a minimal amount of surface finishes, the colour has to be very close to that in the specifications. To obtain a uniform colour, the grail for most clients, the skins are spun then dipped for hours in baths of components from multinational companies such as Stahl, in compliance with Reach requirements, the pivotal legislation governing the chemical products market. Then they are nourished with fats to enhance their softness and water-resistance. Other leathers, such as those destined for weaving for example, require more finishes in order to fix a uniform colour. Consequently, the tanner is constantly juggling the shades and looking for solutions. One may be to dye the leather a slightly lighter shade, as it will be easier to darken it at a later date – in order to avoid overloading the finish, which would not comply with the original order. Another could be to produce slightly larger quantities, in anticipation of any eventual discrepancies with the colours.
To detect defects in the grain, which are invisible to the naked eye, the skins are dipped into a blue bath of Sortassist, produced by the international company, Stahl. The fats used to affect the softness of the leathers are stored at a constant temperature.
A very demanding quality control process to weed out exceptions
Delivery week, client, item, colour number, finish, thickness and observations…Each operation is monitored by barcode in order to trace the manufacturing process in real time, then it is saved in the internal, bespoke information technology system. The tracking documents are also filled in manually by employees in order to implicate them in the monitoring process. The product tests – humidity, sweat, dryness – are performed in laboratories in Italy or in France, which are themselves monitored. A time-consuming and expensive process which requires a lot from the company's workforce but which allows it to stand out from the international competition in the eyes of the leading luxury houses, whose demands are stricter both in terms of products as well as in terms of environmental and social standards. “Some clients collect their items directly from us, and we prefer this as if there is a problem, we can resolve it immediately. It means there is no to-ing and fro-ing, no need to transport materials and we gain precious time on delivery deadlines.” To address the environmental issues, the company built its own water-treatment plant on site, which is regularly inspected by the Catalan authorities. An investment that has paid off, as it allows the wastewater to be cleaned before it is treated by the municipal water treatment plant, which taxes companies according to the degree of purity of its wastewater.
Some clients collect their finished leathers directly from the factory, which means that any corrections can be made very quickly. The skins are piled up in batches on “caballete”, traditional wooden trestles, from reception in the wet-blue state to the finished leather.
From nappa leather to “nappalisation”
The truly purist products without finishes have tended to become scarcer, as they are just too fragile for normal use. So, in order to satisfy demand, the tannery offers five different nappa finishes, using Entrefino lamb leather in a variety of thicknesses, adapted to the markets for clothing, footwear, leather goods and glove-making.
Similar to dipped lamb, this smooth and very fine full grain leather is particularly supple and is solution-dyed yet nevertheless very resistant, thanks to a surface treatment. The purest of the nappa leathers, without any defects, is reserved for the aniline finish, its only base being a colourant that is transparent because it has been heavily diluted in water. More delicate than the semi-aniline or pigmented version, which receive a layer of pigment or a protective film, some clients request the addition of a touch of lacquer to set the colour and ensure its rub-resistance.
The other task is to distinguish between the two buffed versions of the lamb leather. On the grain side, the nubuck nappa requires a flawless raw skin, of a higher quality than a suede nappa which is buffed on the flesh side. The tannery technicians even go so far as to use the term “nappalisation”, which in their jargon means nappa leathers prepared so as to be reversible, as seen on clothing or bags without a lining.
Once they have been removed from the bath, the dyed and fatted leathers are left to dry in the open air, attached to a conveyer belt that snakes its way from the floor to the ceiling of the factory; or they are delicately placed against one another on a ventilated and heated tray, undulating like a caterpillar according to the desired colour finish. Then, in the finishing room, the skins are treated, one by one. The methods used are very similar to those of a beauty institute. Here the team takes great care of the leather. And personal appreciation is important for handling the Barnini and Cartigliano machines. The embellishments involve opening the pores of the skin, refining the grain, stretching it to make it suppler, splitting it to thin it further, ironing it to flatten it, lacquering it to set the colour, colouring it with a spray, nourishing it to make it shine…
Attached to a conveyor belt that snakes from floor to ceiling in the factory, some skins are dried in the open air.
Delicately placed against one another on a ventilated and heated tray, undulating like a caterpillar, other skins require this method according to the desired colour finish.
Tomorrow, the leathers of Riba Guixà will enhance the collections of the leading luxury houses. In the next few years, the tannery will undergo other structural and financial investments, to embrace the future of the industry which “is going to experience a revolution” warns Carlos Riba Antò, ready to rise to the environmental, social and ethical challenges at the heart of the activity (read our exclusive interview).
Tomorrow is starting today.
The company in numbers
Output: 1 million skins/year, the largest Spanish tannery of Entrefino lamb.
Geographical distribution of turnover: 80% to export.
Distribution of turnover by product destination: 50% ready-to-wear, 50% leather goods.
Turnover: 24 million euros.
Headcount: 120 staff.
Client references: LVMH, Hermès, Kering.
Price policy: For first choice leathers, between €90 – 150 per square metre, second choice €25 – 65 per square metre according to the characteristics of the item.
The tannery employs 120 people. Leather artisans can be both male and female. Riba Guixà processes 1 million skins/year, 80% of which are destined for export.
Words by Juliette Sebille via Leather Fashion Design magazine.
Photos © Corinne Jamet