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Horween Leather – Behind Chicago’s Iconic Tannery

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Chances are, even if you’re not familiar with Chicago’s Horween Leather as a company, you’ve come in contact with their hides. Other than the hit-single selvedge denim that’s in all of our closets, the second cut on most Heddels reader’s Greatest Hits collection is surely something in fine leather, and knowing your good taste (you’re here, aren’t you?), it’s very likely Horween Leather.

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Stan Smiths by Adidas (with help from Horween)

It seems that everyone who wants to do a “special edition” product (big guys to less-big-guys like those below) is doing so by swapping out whatever they usually use on their bags, shoes wallets and the like for the supple hand (can you say “patina delivery system?”) that’s characterized Horween Leather for over a century. From their company site:

Horween Leather Company was founded in 1905. For more than 100 years and five generations our goal has been to make the world’s best leather. Making the best means doing lots of little things right. It means never mistaking fastest or cheapest with the best. It means always using formulas that do not cut corners, and choosing components strictly for their quality.

Like a great majority of the brands you read about here, Horween understands — in a profound way — that the right thing to do and the easy, cheap or fast thing to do is never the same thing. Over the past few months, I’ve had the chance to speak with not only Nick Horween, company VP since 2008 (a Horween has been at the helm since day one, starting with Master Tanner and Founder, Isidore Horween), but also a number of the independent craftsmen that use Horween leathers in their business.

And I’m not talking about the usual suspects of small businesses that are really “giants” in our neck of the woods, but the truly boutique operations (many run by immigrants–no politics, just sayin’) that fight for your business by adhering to the Horween creed of quality and service above all else. And they didn’t start using Horween to be included here–as leathercrafters, Horween is baked into their company DNA. But before you meet the junkies, let’s talk with their dealer.

A Chat With Nick Horween

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Heddels (John Bobey): In a nutshell, can you describe the specific niche that Horween occupies in the leather marketplace?

Nick Horween: We are a small tannery and we make everything to order. We produce leathers using methods that many have moved away from due to the cost of the materials and work involved. Our traditional leathers, Shell Cordovan and Chromexcel, for example, have been made the same way for more than 100 years.

H: To the uninitiated, all leather can look the same. What’s so special about Horween…what do you guys do that others don’t or won’t?

NH: We still blend and cook our own tanning liquors from tree bark extracts, and we use natural waxes and greases like beeswax, tallow, and lanolin. These raw materials are highly variable since they are natural—this means each batch and order of leather needs individual attention to make sure it is consistent. These products yield leathers that are very durable and get better with use. We also still apply dye by hand in a way that is similar to staining wood, which is to apply multiple thin coats. This technique allows us to build color and showcase the beauty of the high quality raw materials that we work hard to source.

H: How has technology impacted your business…is tanning still an “old” industry?

NH: We have made careful updates to parts of process when we feel that quality or consistency can be improved. Largely the techniques and equipment are the same, just with more electronic controls. A tanner’s job is to take a byproduct that is unique in every single occurrence, and then preserve and condition it into something that is as consistent as possible.

H: Of what are you most proud at this point in Horween’s history?

NH: Our mission has stayed the same through the last five generations, which I’m proud of. We still develop products for their quality and then determine what we have to charge to make that a viable article. Our year-end meetings aren’t, “how can we grow 10% next year?,” they are about evaluating what we are doing now and how we can make things better. Of course, shell cordovan is something that is very special to us—it was our original product and all of the formulas were developed by my great, great grandfather.

H: Sometimes the leather lingo and subcategories can be confusing and hard to distinguish from one another. Can you give us the headline about a few of your most notable varieties…Veg Tanned, Chromexcel, Shell Cordovan, Essex?

NH: Veg tanned just means that the tanning is accomplished using tree barks or their extracts. These materials contain tannins which strip perishable fats from the hides and then occupy the voids in the hide structure, giving strength and preserving the skin. Chromexcel is a leather that we tan like a traditional veg tanned leather, other than the base chrome tannage. Chroming a leather has several advantages—it imparts some softness and it is strong and heat resistant when compared to a veg. The advantage is significant when our customers are making shoes because they can stretch and heat the leather, which makes manufacturing easier. Chromexcel ages like a veg but performs well and is very resilient.

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Horween Shell Cordovan Leather

H: What excites you about the future? Any developments we can look forward to?

NH: We’ve developed a new product called Dearborn, which has a few variations. It’s looks and feels like a traditional deerskin, though we’re making it on our native steer hides.

H: We’re featuring small makers who use Horween Leather as part of this piece–what’s your overall customer roster like…mostly big guys or is it all over the place?

NH: It’s all over the place. We have close to one hundred active customers, plus the customers that use our product through our agents abroad and the leather merchants in the US, such as Tannery Row and Maverick Leather.

H: If you could only share one thing about your family’s company, what would it be?

NH: We combine our experience tanning with our philosophy about quality. That means that we will make an adjustment to a leather if we can pass additional quality along to our customer, even if it’s an adjustment that many might not be able to initially perceive. In other words, if we can tell the difference and make it better, we will.

The Goods

A material as fine as Horween Leather gets only better when transformed into something truly exceptional by an artisan who shows it the proper respect. All of the following do, and they deserve your attention for it. Think of it this way–we embraced small-brand selvedge denim because we didn’t want to walk around in the same mass-market jeans everyone else does, right? So if you’re looking to upgrade the leather goods of your everyday carry, why not break from the pack of brands you already know about and add a piece to your wardrobe that not everybody has. Yet.

Nomad Phone Case

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It’s ages from this…

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..to this

Nomad is probably the biggest of the following small businesses–they make a few items, all wonderful, but it’s their Horween iPhone case that steals the show. It’s perhaps the most unexpected application of Horween in this bunch, desperately filling a need (I fear most phone case designers are 12-year-olds), and a product I’ll happily buy over and over again as they change the size of my phone over and over again. Yes, it’s that good.

Available for the obscenely reasonable price of $39.95 on Amazon.

Heritage & Hide

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Shane David runs the show over at Heritage & Hide and turns a variety of Horween leathers into wonderful wallets and such. What really caught my eye was his wallet/key leash and Single Axle Wallet, both in sumptuous Chromexcel. I’ve always thought a wallet chain gave too much of a “biker vibe,” and this option functions as well and looks way better (with no “clang”), while pairing beautifully with this take on the long wallet, which actually fits in your pocket. Oh, and the snaps will definitely help inspire some new back pocket fade patterns.

Leash $43, wallet $60, at Heritage & Hide.

Best Leathers

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South Florida’s The Best Leathers is a company built on (wait for it) using the best leathers, so Horween is really all they work with. Pablo Gomez leads the charge crafting all manner of things, including billfolds (the men on those bills deserve some respect–house them appropriately!), dresser trays, and perhaps most often, belts.

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It’s too easy to classify a belt as nothing but a simple strap of leather (or usually straps, considering most “leather” belts are “laminated,” often with non-leather cores), but Pablo utilizes full-grain Horween Leather (including Dublin) to its fullest potential, showcasing all the natural glory while applying his expert touch to the finishing details — which include hand-burnished and waxed edges, perfect stitching, and hefty buckles using Chicago Screws, so you can add your own “Keep On Truckin'” buckle should you wish. And you know that between soaks, your denim loosens, so you might as well keep your pants up in style.

Billfolds are about $80, belts around $140, with plenty else to choose from at The Best Leathers.

olpr. Leather Goods Co.

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If you’re like me (Heaven help you) and have taken to carrying a Moleskine notebook around (what if I have a great idea…or need to remember to buy Half & Half?), then you know that they usually deteriorate well before you’ve filled the pages. That most-decidedly First World problem led me on a search for a leather cover, and I came upon olpr. Leather Goods Co. of Mooresville, NC.

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Like all the makers featured here, they create an array of products, but for me it’s all about their Dublin Moleskine Cover. Mine is aging nicely (that’s a Pilot Metropolitan Fountain Pen, easily the best $15 you can spend to up your writing game) and will surely only get better with time. (Dublin is a “pull up” leather, the natural oils retreating and returning to the leather surface, creating wonderful patina with use.)

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They also make travel wallets (so much better than a passport cover–I mean, you need room for receipts and visas and your ticket for the Orient Express, right?) like this black beauty in Horween Chromexcel, and this Dublin tote bag that is the perfect size (natch, it was shanghi’d by my fiancee-“why do you need a bag, you work from home?”) and is getting better as beaten. (Shhh…I’ve stolen it back.)

For the quality, these things are a remarkably good deal…the Molskine Cover $35, Travel Wallet $29, and the tote bag $169, all available at olpr.

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There’s a reason that, when you buy a product made with Horween Leather, the maker usually includes the Horween logo–it represents a level of quality that has become all too rare. Their family’s traditions and values have obviously inspired others, and the artists listed here are but a few–and each puts a great deal of themselves into every item. The below is from the “About” section of olpr.’s site, and I think it says a great deal, a sentiment with which Isidore Horween himself would surely agree.

We want to create. It’s important to us that we know who we are. Our parents encouraged us, from our early childhood in Ukraine, to find our true calling in life. They told us it wouldn’t just appear one day; it would take trial and error. It was not until we were grown and had developed more of a sense of who we are that we began to understand that our calling was in creating. By creating, my family and I share who we are with others.