Traveling through Arzignano, Italy, the hometown of Green Hides President Simone Lagnerini, the themes of loyalty and tradition seem to hang over everything, whether it’s sitting down for a home-cooked meal with his extended family or watching local artisans transform cowhides into some of the finest leathers in the world, just as they have for the last 100 years. At the same time, it’s clear that Simone is interested in, and has built a life to accommodate, some uniquely modern ideals: fashion, technology, travel. He has roamed the world several times over in search of the finest raw materials, but always ends up back here, in this small Italian town tucked into the base of the Dolomites.
Tradition and technology—it’s a juxtaposition that appears often during our time together. He is dedicated to maintaining the small-town craftsmanship that makes Arzignano leather so desirable, but he also pushes his company and its suppliers to explore more efficient ways of working, and more creative processes that have not yet been tried.
He is half stoic businessman and half young romantic, operating by detached analysis but driven by emotion. In one moment, he was walking us through a newly modernized plant, explaining the expensive and complex fluid systems that have allowed his workers to better regulate quality; in the next, we were flying through the city in his low-slung Volkswagen, Simone navigating its narrow streets and blind corners like he never moved away. “Look at the mountains, Adamo!” he said, hoping to inspire in me the same love for the beauty of his hometown, pointing out both sides of the car as Fiats and vineyards blurred past a lane away.
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There’s something about Arzignano that inspires that sort of romanticism. This town of only 25,000 has a well-worn beauty and a friendly disposition that makes you forget about the world beyond the mountains. It inspires a sleepy feeling that belies the fact that the area supplies the world with 60 percent of its leather—a percentage that was much higher before Asia and South America entered the trade. That combination of hospitality and industry makes Arzigano seem like a magical place at times, where the workers are happy, the factories are green, and the products are beautiful—a capitalist paradise in the heart of old world Europe.
Simone got his start in this environment, but it wasn’t necessarily of his own volition. His parents were co-owners of the Marlys fashion label, his father the business manager and his mother a designer. Like many other family-owned businesses, it permeated everything the family did, with suppliers and buyers becoming a frequent fixture at the dining room table.
“All my mother would talk about was fabric and business,” Simone recalls, describing how he would overhear meetings while he was home for lunch. “Even if I didn’t want it, it was around me.”
As Simone grew up, he came to like the fashion business and reveled in trips to Paris and Milan, but remained unconvinced that it was his true passion. At the age of 17, fresh out of high school and looking to avoid the Army, he found himself working in a tannery owned in part by his father. Simone started out loading raw hides into giant drums and discovering the leather-making process up close, but quickly found himself promoted to the office, learning to sell leather.
It was during that time that Simone began to truly enjoy the business, getting a feel for his customers and the product itself. A few years later, he connected with his brother’s friend, Gigi Mazzocco, who owned another leather company in town. The two began a small international leather trading company, and formed a tight business relationship that lasts to this day.
Over the next decade, Simone traveled all over the world, building the business and evaluating suppliers in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. Along the way, he rode the vicissitudes of the market, making and losing thousands of dollars on shipments of high-end leathers. But it wasn’t until 2001 that he decided to embark on the greatest adventure of his life.
“I was still young; I had my family and my kids were just born, but I felt like I wanted to have an experience away from this town where I grew up,” Simone said. “One night I was on the internet right after 9/11, and I saw a pop-up ad that said ‘Buy a house in the United States.’ I saw the picture of a house, and I thought, ‘That would be nice to live in the United States.’”
Despite the lingering terror threat and a global recession, Simone approached Gigi with the idea of opening a leather warehouse in North Carolina, placing their products within the reach of major furniture manufacturers. Gigi liked the idea, and Simone soon found himself scouting locations in Greensboro for the soon-to-be Green Hides Leather Studio. In August of 2003, Simone arrived for good with his wife and two sons in tow.
He downplays the culture shock of the move, but acknowledges the business challenges were overwhelming at times. He had no reps, no established customers, and no discernable brand. Simone described many a quiet afternoon in his warehouse, playing cards or scouring Google for business leads.
“For two or three years, I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it here,’” Simone admitted one afternoon. “Then we started having two or three good customers, and I thought ‘okay, maybe I don’t make money, but I can survive for a few more years.’”
He found some success offering dark, luxurious leathers to residential
customers, but eventually found himself growing worn down by the pressures of
running the company alone. Continual issues with his visa made working and living in America a challenge, and he began to resent the business’ increasing demands on his life. In one of his deepest moments of self-doubt, he found himself contemplating a move back to Arzignano, leaving behind the company he had built. At a suggestion from Gigi, Simone began looking for someone to take his place. He eventually hired longtime customer Keith Hill, but instead of returning home, he found himself drawn back into the business, inspired by Hill’s new perspective and more measured approach to business.
“When Keith came with all of his contrasts, I felt like, ‘Finally, I have someone I can work with, like a team,’” Simone recalled. “We started to interact and I got back my interest in the company. I have to give him credit—if it weren’t for Keith, I would be back [in Arzignano] now. We had so many exciting plans together, and I wanted to see them.”
The company quickly pivoted from the slow-paced residential market into hospitality, adopting a more upscale, metropolitan look. The focus became more aligned with Simone’s personal tastes—sophisticated specialty leathers with unique surfaces and textures, vivid colors, and animal patterns—and the brand slowly gained more return customers, thanks to its distinctive aesthetics and sustainable credentials. The company grew to a dozen employees, and now counts more than 50 cutting-edge leathers in its line.
Simone feels his hard-won success has given him the opportunity to take a leadership position in the market, bringing the best of Arzignano’s artisans to designers and manufacturers around the globe. He’s not afraid of taking a risk when the upside is high, as evidenced by his bold bet on hair on hides in 2013 and his coming plans to enter the high-profit sub-niche of aviation leather. There is an emerging vision among Simone and his staff of what Green Hides could be—“timeless and classic,” Simone says—and he’s focused more than ever on bringing that to fruition.
One morning, we huddled in the house of Simone’s leather broker, reviewing a variety of highly customized and one-of-a-kind samples—etched and bold patterns in iridescent hues, some with hair, some without. Simone watched with quiet detachment as his broker flipped through each sample, pointing out their origins and notable features. Other members of Simone’s team stood on opposite sides of the table, asking questions aloud. Will that sell? Would that go viral on the design blogs? Is it too late for this?
“We have to dare,” the broker interjected into a debate over a particularly bold graphic pattern.
“This is more Versace, we’re more Armani,” Simone replied simply. “This is not us, but it is me.”