For the past decade Andrea Boragno has been CEO and chairman of Alcantara, an Italian company that makes a premium substitute for leather that’s used in luxury automotive, yacht and aircraft interiors.
Royal palaces, particularly those of the great Italian city of Milan, are not often associated with engineering’s cutting edge. But it is in the Appartamento del Principe - the prince’s apartment - of the 18th-century Palazzo Reale that Andrea Boragno has chosen to demonstrate his company’s product. The chairman and CEO of Alcantara likes to think big, and he’s using the Royal Palace to showcase the eponymous synthetic leather at the Expo 2015 international exhibition.This year’s theme is ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’, so it’s hardly surprising that one of the first documents Boragno puts into my hand is his company’s sustainability audit. A quick flick through reveals that the Milan-based organisation had reduced its net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2009, while currently operating a 100 per cent carbon-neutral production profile at its Nero Montoro plant in Umbria. Alcantara also participates in United Nations green energy initiatives and in 2014 organised the International Symposium on Sustainability in the Automotive Industry.
For those privileged to own such things, the material covering the seats in their luxury cars, yachts and even private jets will be something they rarely give a second thought to. For Boragno it is a hugely competitive international business. It is for that reason that he has chosen to lift his synthetic fabric out of the realms of the everyday and into what he calls “the technology of dreams.” This rather grand tag is also the name of the exhibition within an exhibition at the Prince’s Apartment, where artists have been commissioned to demonstrate what something as mundane as a car seat cover can do when you put your mind to it.
Technology of Dreams, Boragno tells me, unifies the themes of beauty, flexibility, touch, envelopment and transferability. “These are the foundations of a series of site-specific works conceived by some of the greatest interpreters of modernity, in a fantastical realm made possible via advanced technology.” What this means in plain speech is that renowned artists have been brought in to add a level of exotic intrigue to a product that sometimes quite literally takes a backseat.
Boragno has been with Alcantara for more than a decade, a time in which he has raised the perception of this synthetic material to the point where manufacturers are now specifying their own bespoke versions of the fabric to add value to cars, yachts and planes. As a stroll around one of the Alcantara boutiques in Milan makes evident, the fabric is also used extensively in more domestic products ranging from headphones to iPhone covers, interior soft furnishings to jewellery. The campaign is a charm offensive to raise the reputation of synthetic fabrics above those of traditional products such as leather.
The Alcantara fabric is a plastic (with a small recycled component to it) processed in such a way that it is breathable, porous and hardwearing like leather, but without the disadvantages. It is not a cheap alternative: it costs just as much.
“The thing you must remember,” says Boragno, who is by background a chemical engineer, “is that we live in a world where sustainability is now one of the key driving forces. We cannot continue to kill cows just because we want the inside of our cars to look and feel nice. There is also an opportunity to deploy greater technological know-how in a product that is superior to natural products in so many ways.”
Boragno describes the synthetic material as having an “important presence in the luxury automotive industry, but also in the medium-high sector too. We also have a presence in interior design, in the fashion industry as well as consumer electronics applications. Sennheiser is using the material in its headphones and selling worldwide. We also make covers for tablets and smartphones interpreted by New York fashion designer Rebecca Moses. There are a lot of applications: it’s a very functional material in terms of quality and durability and there’s a lot of technology behind it. It is also very sustainable.”
For Boragno, Alcantara’s key property is that it is a superior substitute for natural fabric. “It’s breathable, more durable and you can put it in the washing machine. It’s cool in summer and warm in winter, which is different from natural leather. And when it comes to automotive, one of the key advantages it has over leather is that it provides grip. The material can also be presented and processed in countless different ways, with perforation and embossing, for example, and laser cutting.”
Because of its position in the luxury market Boragno is reluctant to use the word plastic to describe his product: “if you describe it that way, you immediately get the mental image of something that is cheap. But that’s not the case. I’m sometimes asked if we use recycled plastic bottles in our product, but actually our raw materials come from renewable sources. Of course, apart from the technical advantages of durability, it’s simply much more sustainable than leather. Also leather is associated with a more traditional way of life. But the Alcantara material brings with it a more contemporary way of design. We are very careful to distance ourselves from leather. And what we produce is much more comfortable. But we do get compared with leather, and the probable reason for that is that we are basically at the same price point.”
Boragno also has a dislike for the product being labelled as ‘the Italian Ultrasuede’, a polyester micro-fibre material made by Japanese company Toray that is used in similar applications. In the 1990s Boragno helped to establish the American branch of Ultrasuede. “This was a mistake I made when I was younger,” he says, not making it entirely clear whether he is joking or not. “Although there are companies out there that make imitation leather, this is not what we do. We make a smart fabric that brings the advantages I’ve outlined into applications that natural fabrics are unable to deliver.”
All the world’s a stage
“We see Expo 2015 as the great stage where we can show this material to the world. This is Milan, the fashion capital of the world, and what we make is made in Italy. That’s really important to us.” It is also where Alcantara’s HQ is established, with its manufacturing as well as R&D in Umbria’s Nera Montoro. “We can talk about the functionality or the technical aspects of the material for a very long time, but at the end of the day, I see what we do as being about creating emotions, which is why we have asked these great contemporary designers and artists to interpret our product and bring it before the hundreds of thousands of visitors at the exposition.”
Those of a more cynical persuasion might wonder what Boragno means by this statement. The subjectivity and abstract nature of his language closely resembles the type of vocabulary more normally associated with describing wine or art. For him there is no real difference: “We are supplying into markets where our end-users want beauty. What we want to do is create for them something that satisfies all the technical requirements - and what they want is something that looks and feels great. At the top of the market functionality, performance and technology are simply not enough. This is a clear trend that we are seeing today in the market: sure you have to deliver quality, but you also have to deliver emotions, and that means beauty. After functionality and beauty comes sustainability. And it is in the intersection of these three product pillars that we live.”
A key theme Boragno returns to is that his product is made in Italy. The cultural implications could not be clearer: the hub of the fashion world that delivers labels such as Armani, Ferragamo, Gucci, Prada and Cavalli, also delivers Alcantara. “This is really important to us to because we are trying to convey the notion that beyond the high-tech aspect of the product there is also craftsmanship, and to align ourselves with a national identity that is associated with exclusive high-end fashion and luxury is absolutely vital to our ability to get our product into car brands such as Audi. There is a visual and tactile understanding required by our customers that goes beyond simply creating the upholstery for their car.”
The company that Boragno spearheads started in 1972 as a joint venture to market a synthetic microfibre manufactured by Japanese Toray Industries. But today Alcantara is wholly Italian. “Our design and production is 100 per cent in Italy and, where possible, so are our suppliers. Globalisation has meant that a lot of Italian companies have been taken over. But we have gone the other way and have become more Italian as time has gone on. And this is the way we are going to stay, because ‘Made in Italy’ is a value, and we need to underline this many, many times.” Boragno goes on to explain that the geographical specificity of this branding slogan, while being recognised worldwide, “is especially appreciated in China and Japan. If you read any of the Asian versions of lifestyle magazines such as GQ or Esquire, you will see that there is a clear reference to the Italian lifestyle. This is something that they aspire to. The men especially dress like Italians. What we do over here has real influence over there and that applies as much to automotive interiors as anything else.”
The importance of this observation goes beyond that of a European aesthetic dictating the way people in the Far East dress. China is one of the fastest-growing global consumer markets, gaining in sophistication with rapid expansion at the luxury end. Boragno says that the automotive industry is “by definition a global industry and for most automotive manufacturers China is a key target market. We need to increase brand awareness and communicate values of our brand in China, which is why we recently attended the motor show in Shanghai. When you go there you see that every car designer in the world is attending because this is the right place to promote your brand.”
China is important, says Boragno, because the entire motor industry is watching what the territory will do next “and you have to let them know that you exist. Look at what Buick is doing in China at the moment. They are competing with Volkswagen out there and they are using Alcantara interiors for headliners and so on as an upgrade. In the United States it’s not possible to get Alcantara in a Buick. But in China you can, and this is the way the market is going. It is the added luxury and the added value that is helping that car to take off in the territory where there are big sales to be had. With other brands such as Lincoln and Cadillac, when you want to go up in terms of luxury, one of the first things you do specify is an upgraded interior. And sellers in this tier of the market make a big deal about it.”
One benefit of a material that can be processed in so many different ways is that no two customers need to have the same product. “We never replicate anything,” says Boragno, “which means that Lincoln and Buick will get completely different specification material from us.”
Having spent a decade at the helm of the company, Boragno has clear ideas about where he will be heading in the next decade. It is a company with one product that, despite technological refinements, changes very little. When there is no portfolio diversification, you have to look for new markets and Boragno is keen to point out that while automotive is a crucial sector for his company, it is not the only one. “We tend to be diverse in the markets we exploit. One area we are keen on is consumer electronics. But the strange thing is that the stronger we become in our satellite markets, the stronger we become in automotive. The automotive industry is moving very strongly as a lifestyle concept. If we want to continue to increase the gap between our competitors and ourselves, we have to qualify as a very contemporary lifestyle brand.
“There is still room to strengthen the brand identity worldwide. I can also see a good potential for a stronger exploitation of the capability of the material.” The way to do this, he says, is to stick to his holy trinity of making the product functional, emotional and sustainable. “This might seem obvious, but it is not. Many companies think that they can deliver on quality alone. But it’s not enough. The market wants more than that, and if you can do that, then the sky is the limit. In fact there is no limit. Because when you look at the market - particularly in automotive, from the medium-high level upwards - the only thing that will happen is growth.”