"Why Cork Is Popping Up". The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article on new uses for cork a couple of weeks ago. The article is available only for paid subscribers so I've extracted a bit more information than I normally would, generally acceptable under my subscription to the Journal. For folks with a sub, the article appears at http://online.wsj.com/article_print/SB1 ... 89105.html
"Push by producers gets designers to try tree bark as fabric for bags, jackets", By RACHEL DODES, June 24, 2006; Page P11
A $335 handbag that Stuart Weitzman introduced this spring has an unusual look and a supple, suede-like feel. But it's not calfskin, ostrich or another typical material -- it's cork.Michael Kors is using it on the upper parts of shoes, while Christian Louboutin is making wedges covered in a gold-leaf version. The humble tree bark is also showing up on umbrellas, flip-flops and even jackets. On the Runway: A $2,400 cork jacket by the label DDCLab is shown at a fashion show in February in New York.
Likewise, the first time Allen Rice, who owns Savannah Luggage in Vidalia, Ga., saw cork fabric, it was on bindings for area rugs. "I thought, 'My goodness, I can't believe that cork can stand up to that kind of use,'" he says. Next month, he will unveil a collection of cork handbags. Red fabric backing peeks through holes in cork on a $65 wallet designed by Tracey Tanner.
This partly reflects the fashion world's perennial obsession with novelty. But there's a backstory to this cork surge. Struggling with declining demand as winemakers increasingly turn to plastic stoppers and screw caps, the $1.3 billion Portuguese cork industry has been pushing to find new markets. It's getting help from environmentalists who want to preserve cork forests.
The cork industry didn't target fashion makers directly. Instead, seeing a big market for eco-friendly home furnishings, producers courted architects and furniture designers. Some fashion designers became intrigued by the home products and decided to give cork a try.
Cork now comes in thinner, more pliable slices, in a variety of colors. The material, called cork leather or cork fabric, is made of thin slices of cork glued to fabric backing that sometimes peeks through to reveal bits of color. (The sheets are cut from molded blocks made of chopped cork and glue.) Nowadays, it's often coated with Scotchgard. Cork is also appealing because, according to distributor Jelinek Cork, it costs about $9 a square foot. Top-quality leather can cost $15 a square foot. And unlike most leathers, cork is machine washable. Its durability is similar to that of leather.
Cork's share of the market for wine stoppers is declining, due to concerns about cork taint, which ruins the flavor of wine. Last month, the WWF, a donor-funded conservation group formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund, said cork could account for as little as 5% of the wine market in 10 years, with dire consequences for Portugal, which produces 80% of the world's cork. The group wants to keep the business viable so growers won't cut down the cork forests, where endangered animals like the Iberian lynx and the Barbary deer live. Last year, the WWF played an unusual role in connecting Sainsbury's to a cork fabric mill so the British retailer could produce a cork-upholstered pillow.
Cork's profile in the design world got a boost two years ago, when António Amorim, chairman of the world's biggest cork producer, Corticeira Amorim of Portugal, started attending home-décor trade shows. In addition to flooring, which generates 25% of Amorim's sales, he wanted designers to use cork to make furniture and other home products. Eco-friendly architects already liked the material's noise-reducing properties. Amorim started making denser cork blocks aimed at the furniture market and sending them around. The firm contacted Daniel Michalik, who had made a $5,000 chaise lounge of reclaimed cork. He's now using the blocks to develop a lightweight chair. Furniture designers "are the type of people who can value cork in a completely different way," says Mr. Amorim, who plans to sponsor a cork furniture design competition next year.
For high-end flooring, Amorim made new cork veneers -- the decorative slices it affixes to cork tiles -- that show off the material's grain. Last year, the company added wall coverings in 14 shades including "alabaster sand" and "stone art malt."
I've been using Google Alerts to follow Amorim's marketing and environmental activities. News reports have consistently emphasized the environmental aspects and the building material aspects of the Amorim's recent campaigns -- nothing about wine corks.