When a particularly picky Ferrari customer wants the cabin of his new dream machine to match his current girlfriend's favorite handbag, the factory in Maranello puts in a call to Simone Schedoni. When a Lamborghini owner wants tailor-made luggage in the same color as his just-ordered LP640, the representative from Sant'Agata sends him ten miles down the road to Simone Schedoni. When Horacio Pagani accepts the order for the next Zonda supercar - chassis number 96, if we're not mistaken - he'll make sure that the client meets with Simone Schedoni, not only to choose the type and color of leather, which can be as extreme as red ostrich or green lizard, but also to customize the shape of the seats. That's how papa Schedoni got involved in motorsports back in 1983, when Enzo Ferrari tricked him into supplying free Formula 1 seat trim in exchange for a prominent display of the company's logo on every racing car.
Twenty-five years later, F1 is still a major showcase for the small family enterprise that employs forty-eight craftspeople in two locations in Italy. In addition to Ferrari, Schedoni recently agreed to extend its services to Scuderia Toro Rosso (Red Bull's second F1 team, which uses Ferrari engines), and this time one can assume that money will flow. Perched next to Simone's desk is a heap of well-used, brown and black, made-to-measure F1 seat covers, which typically last only three to four races. Is real leather out of place in this high-tech environment? "Absolutely not," protests il presidente. "Even when impregnated for inflammability, hide is the perfect body-hugging, moisture-absorbing, naturally expanding material. The fact that it wears makes it comfortable for the drivers." Prominently displayed thank-you notes from such great racers as René Arnoux, Alain Prost, Gerhard Berger, and Michael Schumacher support the maestro's point. The day prior to our visit, Toro Rosso driver Sebastian Vettel had his measurements taken before signing the celebrity wall in the main factory building.
The name Schedoni is perhaps best known for the luggage the firm makes to order for all present Ferraris and past models dating back to the 1977 mid-engine 308. Only recently, Simone bought back the original car for which his father had designed the firm's very first three-piece set of flush-fitting suitcases. Early in the game, the company also offered full interior treatments boasting its trademark amber "cuoio" leather. But this bird did not fly. "Untouched by chemicals and totally natural in every respect, this leather changes color when exposed to the sun," explains Simone. "It doesn't comply with any fogging regulations, and it quickly develops a specific patina. To the product-liability guys, these characteristics are like a red rag to a bull. That's why our cuoio leather is fitted only on special request." To understand the difference between natural leather and treated leather, you need to examine the different processes.
Cuoio is dry-rolled for thirty-six hours in special oak barrels, using a secret mix of chestwood and mimosa powder, along with natural wax and a few tons of water to finish off the tanning procedure. In contrast, industry-grade hide is first mechanically peeled to eliminate cosmetic defects such as insect bites, and then this homogenous surface is either sprayed with several layers of paint or vat-dyed.
Which leather would you rather sit on? Exactly.
"We use only the shoulder parts of the cow, where the skin is particularly smooth, even, and virtually damage-free," says Simone. "The scarred flanks, which act as the animal's all-around bumpers, are sent straight on to the big tanneries." Stored in fifteen-foot-high open racks and in large metal cabinets are the patterns for all Ferrari seats, including limited-edition models such as the F40 and the Enzo, and for all luggage kits. Requests for a cuoio retrim on new and used vehicles come in quite frequently, but the Modenese artists can also cope with exotic special orders, like the wall-to-wall alligator interior that an American customer insisted on for his factory-fresh yellow F430 Spider. That job required finding twenty-nine hard-to-match hides and eight months of skilled labor. "Such rare materials are priced by width, not by length. One inch costs about $115, so a full conversion definitely doesn't come cheap."
We learn that python skin is actually less expensive than most quadruped coats - unless you combine it with lizard and perforated ostrich, as did the owner of the Pagani Zonda with chassis number 88. There's no accounting for taste.
Although Schedoni recently bought its first automated cutting machine, most of the leatherwork is still done by hand. What has changed quite dramatically in recent years are the designs and the materials mix. Ten years ago, Schedoni-made seats, luggage, and leather goods had to be tan, beige, or at least some other shade of brown. In 2008, almost anything goes-witness the bright red luggage set that Ferrari designer Donato Coco just ordered for his personal 599GTB Fiorano. Also daringly different, the latest Lamborghini Murciélago luggage consists of polished clamshell carbon-fiber halves lined with soft suede; the new Pagani luggage is a wild mix of hide, aluminum, and carbon fiber; the Alfa Romeo 8C luggage features an innovative leather weave that accurately matches the seat trim; the Ferrari 430 Scuderia luggage is Alcantara, velvet, and Gore-Tex. And there's more to come, even though the keeper of the leather house is mum about future projects, such as the seat trim for the pending Ferrari Enzo replacement, a high-end prototype luggage kit for the Bugatti Veyron, the still unspecified leatherwork for the next-generation Volkswagen Phaeton, and a collection of items for VW's Individual division.
Since Britain's Connolly Leather is history, and other big names like Bridge of Weir and Poltrona Frau have decided to go mainstream and chase volume, Schedoni has quietly and progressively slipped into the role of the premier leather supplier to the automotive industry. "I don't quite see it that way," Simone objects. "For a start, we are a leather factory, not a tannery. And we don't have the workforce to satisfy big clients like Ferrari, which builds about 5000 cars a year. Instead, this is a highly specialized, small-unit operation. We can do two Paganis a month, and perhaps one Ferrari and one Lamborghini each. We can also do one-off projects like handmade cuoio-trimmed saddles for Ducati or a new interior for a luxury yacht manufacturer. But as soon as big numbers are involved, we're not really interested, because big numbers typically mean big up-front investments followed by the request for big discounts. For us, diversification is a much better policy. We have just created a new sports shoe line with Puma, we are expanding our own Schedoni luggage and accessories program, and we shall soon distribute our goods through thirty-five sales points worldwide."
Having said that, more than 80 percent of the $8.25 million that the company turned over in 2007 was automotive-related. This rate is unlikely to change much in the near future, when Simone, who took over from his father, Mauro, will start introducing his children and nephews to the business.
While the competition has begun to move its facilities to low-labor-cost countries such as Turkey and China, signore Schedoni insists on preserving the typical italianità that is so important to his clients from the car industry. In the wake of the leading Italian sports car makers, the VW Group could well become the leatherman's next major customer and may also enlist Schedoni as a consultant in craftsmanship. Rumor has it that Schedoni may do for Audi in terms of cowhide what Bang & Olufsen is achieving acoustically. "The secret lies in the right blend of high-end and low-profile," believes the bearded jack-of-all-leather-trades. "Schedoni is at its best where tradition and technology meet, where natural and man-made materials coexist in harmony. If this harmony has wheels and an engine, so much the better."