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Q: I'd been lusting after that Knoll leather sofa ever since I saw it in Wallpaper magazine with five near-nude models draped across the cushions like flesh-colored throws. And then, miraculously, I scored one at the 26th Street flea market. Problem is, the leather is beyond repair.


A: While most upholsterers will seek out leathers as part of their service, you may want to do the scouting yourself -- which is fine, as long as you endeavor not to be hoodwinked. Imperfections can be buffed out, and skins can be embossed with a fake-grain pattern. A hide that feels like buttah when you touch it can shred like Saran wrap when it's stretched and sewn into cushions.

Cortina Leathers (15 West 20th Street; 463-0645; by appointment only) offers hides of the highest quality at prices 25 percent cheaper than the competition. This can translate into serious money when you're upholstering big pieces (a sofa can easily burn up 300 square feet of skins). Cortina's stock includes hides like the prized Italian Roma calfskin, as well as Caprone, which at $5 per square foot is undoubtedly the industry's best bargain (the full-grain, 100 percent aniline-dyed cowhide looks and feels like a $10-per-square-foot skin). "Cortina is the Cadillac of the industry, whereas a shop like Spinneybeck is like Ford," says interior designer Mario Buatta. Need another endorsement? Gucci designer Tom Ford recently had a chaise longue upholstered with Cortina cowhide. Thierry Despont had Bill Gates's desktop done in a Cortina baby-blue calf. "Their leather has amazing texture," says interior designer Bill Sofield, who insisted on a Cortina leather for the SoHo Grand Hotel's barstools. "It's really exquisite stuff."


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