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Born in Brazil
Perhaps it was meant to be. A Pisces, Caroline Hirt grew up fishing with her grandfather and playing water sports on Lake Biel. In fact, it was her lifelong love of water and zest for life that drew her to Brazil’s surf-friendly waves and infamous beaches in the first place.
Caroline founded REALTRUE in 2014 after a career change that left her looking for new meaning in life. Everything clicked when she stumbled upon a material virtually unknown outside of the Amazon River basin: pirarucu fish leather.
The pirarucu, also known as the paiche or arapaima gigas, is a relative of the pike and one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, growing up to 4.5 metres in length and weighing as much as 250 kilograms. With a name that translates to ‘red fish’, the pirarucu is known for its distinctive red-edged scales. A staple food of the region’s indigenous populations and a South American delicacy, the pirarucu has until recently been on the brink of extinction due to unregulated overfishing for profit. Its skins are inedible and have long been thrown back into the river or burned, the latter of which releases toxic gases into the air.
Only in recent years have people come to recognise the potential in these skins. It was on a former ostrich farm in the mountains outside of Rio de Janeiro that now doubles as the world’s only pirarucu tannery, where Caroline met Eduardo. By then, Eduardo, a pioneer in the field, had been working on perfecting pirarucu tanning since 2009, using his abundant creativity and ingenuity to transform the pirarucu’s skin into an altogether new material. With the help of over 70 locals, who process and prepare the skins, Eduardo developed proprietary vegetable tanning and dyeing processes that recycle water and do not rely on chromium salts, which harm humans and contaminate local ecosystems. Working closely with Eduardo, Caroline developed her first range of fish leathers and REALTRUE was born.
When processed properly, the leather of the pirarucu is incredibly strong, durable and very supple. But this is no easy feat. It takes 100 days of painstaking work, from catch to labour-intensive hand-processing steps, to get to a finished skin. The result, however, is unparalleled. Each skin has a unique scale pattern, which can be treated in a number of ways to create different textures and colours. And just in case you were wondering—no, it doesn’t smell!
Designed in Switzerland
A graphic designer by trade, art and design played a huge part in Caroline’s life from an early age. With an artist mother and an entrepreneurial engineer father, Caroline’s childhood was filled with creativity (and a lot of fancy dress!), so it’s no surprise that she was drawn to fashion. A reflection of Caroline’s Swiss heritage and love of pirarucu leather, REALTRUE’s design philosophy can be summed up in three words: form follows material. The sleek minimalism of the collection highlights each distinctive skin down to the last stitch. While this design ethos lends itself to functionality and timelessness, it also reduces post-production waste.
Colour is where the real magic happens though. It is at this stage of the design process where Caroline and Eduardo collaborate to develop a range of unique colours exclusive to REALTRUE. Each style is anchored by a black and silver edition, two classics, but you will always find a wide array of special colours that pay homage to the brand’s Brazilian origins: a warm and shimmery orange, an iridescent green, and a brilliant red just to name a few. Not only do these colours embody Brazilian joie de vivre, but with names like ‘Ipanema’ and ‘Copacabana’, REALTRUE also demonstrates a respect for the leather’s origins.
Crafted in Italy
It’s safe to say that most artisans are not used to working with pirarucu leather. So it took some time to find a producer who would do the material justice. After three years of testing and trials with factories all over the continent, it was in Massimo and Davides’ Northern Italian atelier that REALTRUE found its home.
The brothers and their skilled staff have years of experience and produce leather goods for some of the most well-known European luxury brands. They are a family-run operation committed to keeping traditions alive, but also willing to learn and embrace the unique handling properties of pirarucu skins, which can be uncooperative at times. This openness ultimately allowed them to give the unique material the treatment and respect it deserved. Their craftspeople were able to adapt classical techniques to an uncommon material, creating something altogether unprecedented.
Every piece is produced as part of a small batch, allowing the artisans to pay exceptional attention to detail and finish. The skins are first sent to Angelo, a master leather cutter, who closely examines each one and selects the prime areas to cut alongside Caroline. An average skin yields about 0.75 sqm and the dimensions of each design are adapted to the skin size. Once cut, the skins are handed over to the factory, where the team sew everything with exceptional precision. This obsessive focus on quality over quantity means that every piece is made to a standard that ensures it will last for many years to come.
The new luxury: from a practical solution to an extraordinary product
REALTRUE believes in a new vision of luxury, one in which aesthetics are compatible with ethics. One in which sustainability and the responsible use of the planet’s resources is a given. One in which the those involved at every part of a product’s journey are treated with the same respect as that afforded to the final product.
While traditional luxury is not meant to be concerned with practical matters, REALTRUE is committed to showing how the new luxury can provide a practical solution to a real sustainability problem and still create an extraordinary product. As much as this new luxury is deeply rooted in the legacy of craftsmanship and old world expertise, it can only be achieved by challenging the status quo and innovating at all levels of the supply chain.
Beyond the bag: environmental & social impact
Just as beauty is more than skin deep, so too is there beauty beyond our bags. Each item is not merely a fashion statement, it also reflects the brand’s commitment to environmental sustainability and respect for diverse peoples and the origins of materials—the planet itself.
All of REALTRUE’s fish skins originate from the Mamirauá Reserve, Brazil’s first Sustainable Development Reserve that encourages the sustainable use of natural resources. Created in the 1990s to preserve the dwindling pirarucu population, the Mamirauá has been instrumental in keeping the species alive for future generations. Before this area of over one million hectares of land was protected, people from around the world flocked here to fish for profit. Overfished to the brink of extinction due to unregulated overfishing by outsiders, the piraracu have since made a stunning recovery thanks to the Reserve. Today, fishing is heavily regulated by the IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources). There is only a three-month fishing season, in which 30% of the population with a minimum length of 1.5 metres can be legally fished by local fisherman. Each caught fish is then tagged as a certified protected species under CITES II, while the remaining population is used for breeding.
REALTRUE’s tannery buys all skins directly from these local fishermen at above the market rate, providing them with a new source of income and diverting many away from illegal logging or cattle ranching. On the Reserve itself, environmental agencies have established permanent education programs for the indigenous populations living within its bounds—some 200 communities of over 8000 inhabitants—which teach the principles of environmental stewardship and conservation. Indeed, many of the locals who fish the pirarucu also protect the species from illegal poaching, as it is a livelihood they are keen to preserve. The government also conducts regular audits to ensure that fishing regulations are followed and that no hormones or chemicals are used to ‘enhance’ the fish, meaning that the meat and skins are organic as well.
As the fish itself is also primarily a food source, it is not simply an animal killed for its skin. In fact, the use of the skin itself reduces the overall biological waste in the local environment. These particular skins are also a great sustainable alternative to mammalian, reptilian and plastic-based ‘vegan’ leather options. The tanning process is much less harmful than that needed for thicker mammal skins, which use strong chemicals to break down hair.
It is also important to note that care is taken to ensure that the remaining components of each bag are also as sustainable as possible. The textile linings and dust bags are made from a high-end Swiss mill’s leftover fabrics; dustbag cords are derived from Parisian recycled polyester; and all metal fixtures come from Italy and Portugal. The interiors and some exteriors are made from certified vegetable-tanned Tuscan calfskin. These hides come from a tannery that is fully compliant with the environmental regulations determined by the ‘Consorzio Vera Pelle Italiana Conciata al Vegetale’ (Consortium for Real Italian Vegetable-Tanned Leather), and is widely recognised as one of the best sources of vegetable-tannned leather in the world.
When you make a purchase from REALTRUE, you are supporting every individual involved in this community-led sustainable supply chain. Each step is tightly monitored to ensure that those involved in all stages of production are treated well and paid fairly. The pirarucu is at the heart of a much larger effort to safeguard the future of the Amazon. We’re all on this planet together and you can make a tangible impact on this part of the world by supporting those who actively fight to protect their local surroundings from increasing global pressures. The future of the Amazon depends on them, and on you. So make a real statement about what you stand for.