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Alcantara: `You Don't Have to Kill Animals for Luxury'

By Evelyn Kanter, May 30th, 2015

"We are not imitation anything. We are genuine Alcantara," company president and CEO Andrea Borogno told me at opening of the company's Concept Design Store in Milan, Italy.

Most luxury car brands use suede-like Alcantara as an upgrade seating option, and for headliners, pillars, door panels, dashboards, and steering wheels, including Tesla, Porsche, Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Lexus, and Lincoln, and for top trim levels in some Toyota and Chevrolet models.

Alcantara is an option with Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, and Fiat Abarth, which are designed and built in Italy, home of Alcantara, whose headquarters are near Rome. Alcantara also is used in the interiors of private jets and in the first-class cabins of several commercial airlines.

What is Alcantara?

Alcantara is a man-made composite fabric produced using a propriety formula invented by a scientist at a Japan's Toray chemical company, which launched the fabric with Italy's ENI Group in 1972.

Borogno, a chemical engineer, bristles at comparing Alcantara to less-expensive UltraSuede, microfiber, or even fleece, which often is produced from recycled plastic bottles. And, he explains, Alcantara is more versatile and comfortable than more expensive leather.

It is cooler in summer and warmer in winter, especially when perforated for cooled or heated seats, easier to clean and repair, and more sustainable.

"You don't have to kill an animal to get Alcantara," he says. Its sueded finish makes it grippy, so you don't slide on the seat and your hands don't slide on the steering wheel during turns. That's why it was used originally in street legal supercars.

In addition to versatility, sustainability is a top marketing theme. Alcantara is one of the first companies in the world to be certified as Carbon Neutral, and has been since 2009, long before it was newsworthy. The company also recycles more than 80 percent of its industrial waste, including purifying water for re-use. Its "green" eco-friendly manufacturing process makes it the perfect match for luxury hybrids and EVs. He calls it a "noble" contemporary material.

Another top marketing and advertising theme is "Made in Italy." "We are at the intersection of Italian technology, craftsmanship, quality, and emotion," Borogno says.

This man-made fabric can be produced in a near limitless variety, so no two automakers or fashion designers get exactly the same fabric. Each car brand or model gets an exclusive color, backing, texture, embossing, or laser printing design. So the Alcantara on your Mercedes-Benz AMG may be different than on the same brand's Maybach.

That versatility and exclusivity is also a selling point for designers who use Alcantara for everything from home decor upholstery to handbag liners and protective cases for tablets and other electronics.

High-end Sennheiser noise-canceling headphones are wrapped in Alcantara, and my hotel in a historic building near Milan's Duomo featured Alcantara throw pillows and drapes.

The concept store is designed to show off some of what Borogno describes as "the countless ways" Alcantara can be used. He carries an Alcantara briefcase, we sit in Alcantara upholstered chairs in front of a shelf of books covered in Alcantara, and there is colorful flower-petal Alcantara jewelry in one of the showcases.

The shop is in Milan's fashion district, open at least until September, for the duration of the citywide MilanExpo, which is showcasing international design and technology.

Borogno wants to make Alcantara a universally recognized lifestyle brand, especially in Asia, where the "Made in Italy" label has special cachet. In China, the world's fastest growing luxury car market, Alcantara has sponsored a "designer night" at the Shanghai Auto Show for the last three years, featuring some of Japan's avant-garde fashion designers. He also wants Alcantara to be identified as such in garments and other products, instead of as "man-made fabric."

Despite its use in fashion, home decor, and electronics, cars are the bread and butter of Alcantara's business, and it's growing as global markets grow. Buick and Volkswagen are not considered luxury brands here in North America, but they are in China, where Alcantara is an upgrade option. Borogno hopes to convince Buick and VW to add the Alcantara option here, too.

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