A few weeks before Christmas, I got a text from a former student. He said he was saving up for a pair of loafers (a Christmas gift to himself), and he wanted my recommendations. I fired off a few links to loafers of various styles and price points, but my most poignant advice was to focus on the craftsmanship and leather quality over the brand itself. “Specifically,” I wrote, “try to snag a pair made of Horween leather.” He ended up with a pair from Oak Street Bootmakers.
Here’s how I see it: Part of our culture’s push towards sustainability is the recognition that sometimes you have to spend a little extra money to get something that will last. Leather goods are the exemplar of this aphorism. If you’re looking for something on the dressier side, a pair of oxfords for the boardroom, a belt for your new suit, a handbag as a gift, Italian leather is your best bet. Italian leather has fine grain, and it’s thin, yet durable. Italian leather holds up well to scuffs and scratches (in fact usually you can buff out scuffs with a good leather conditioner).
However, if you’re looking for something more rugged, leather that’s thick and scuffs in a way that adds character, you want American leather. And that means you want leather from Horween.
If you’ve shopped online recently for a new pair of boots, a wallet, a leather watch strap, you’ve probably seen Horween’s name in product descriptions. Why would a company selling leather goods tell you who their leather distributor is? Because when you say “We use Horween leather” it means “We use the best.”
Horween Leather Co. was founded in Chicago in 1905 by Isidore Horween. The company originally made leather strops for straight razors (which at the time, every man needed hanging in his bathroom) and leather for engines (the leather was used for gaskets and seals). Isidore developed Chromexcel, a leather used in WWII for soldiers’ boots, and it’s still one of their top-selling leathers today.
Header image from Horween
For five generations Horween has provided leather to boot and shoemakers, athletic companies, luggage makers, and clothing brands. Today there are only about five tanneries in the U.S. who process hides from start to finish, and Horween is one of them.
Horween has seen one hell of an uptick in notoriety in the last twelve years since Nick Horween (fifth generation) took on the role of vice president. Nick hasn’t changed the leather tanning methods of Horween, and that’s a good thing. What he has done is increase the visibility and transparency of the company while also making their processes more environmentally efficient. Check out his instagram for a closer look.
Why is Horween Leather Better?
Horween has been in the same building for over one hundred years, and most of their machinery is original to the company, built of wood, steel, and iron. Why? Because since their founding, Horween has believed there’s a right way to tan leather, and the right way isn’t always the fastest way. Horween doesn’t focus on how to expand the company; instead, they focus on how to consistently improve their products and their processes. Skip Horween III, the current president, has said, “Our greatest enemy is the phrase, ‘It’s good enough.’” Horween still insists on completing the bulk of their tanning steps by hand and only works on a made-to-order basis. Mass production is not their game, and as a result, Horween leather has become synonymous with American craftsmanship.
A Few Leather Terms to Know
This is probably Horween’s most popular product. Chromexcel is a pull-up or aniline leather, meaning it’s colored with soluble dyes, so the color shifts without affecting the natural grain of the leather. The more Chromexcel is touched, pulled, creased, and worn over time, the better it gets. They even make a version that’s waterproof. Be warned that the tanning process of Chromexcel (which includes “hot stuffing” with grease, oil, and wax) makes it susceptible to scratching and scuffing, which can add tons of character to your new pair of boots, but will frustrate you if you don’t know it ahead of time.
Genuine Shell Cordovan
If you come across a pair of shoes made from Horween’s Genuine Shell Cordovan, you may experience some sticker shock. It’s not uncommon for shell cordovan shoes to sell for up to $800 per pair. But when you consider the fact that Horween shell cordovan leather takes six months to make and that it’s the most durable leather available, the price makes sense. Shell cordovan comes from the hindquarters of horses, with each horse producing only a small “shell” of leather in contrast to the large amount in a cowhide. It’s thick. It’s strong. It holds a ridiculous shine. And since the shell comes from under the top layer of hide, it will never crease.
Yes, Horween produces the leather for NFL footballs (and the basketballs for the NBA, and baseball gloves as well). The leather is treated with their in-house blend of extracts to keep it rugged while maintaining a tacky grip.
Vegetable tanning uses oils that come from natural sources, usually tree bark extracts (Horween still makes their own tanning oils by the way). Vegetable-tanned leather is often used for bags as it tends to be thick and will hold its shape well.
Chrome tanning uses chromium (it’s an element), and results in a thinner more pliable leather with greater water resistance than vegetable tanning. Chrome tanning is faster than vegetable tanning, but that doesn’t have any effect on the quality of the tanning. Often found in footwear, gloves and furniture.
Some Items Made with Horween Leather Worth Checking Out
The 1000 Mile Boot should be a sartorial staple in every man’s closet. Goodyear welt construction adds to longevity and means the boot can be resoled in perpetuity. What’s Goodyear welt construction, you say? Check out our guide to shoe construction.
Here's our video on reconditioning a pair of Wolverine 1000 Mile boots made with Horween Leather:
Your high-top Converses just got a serious upgrade. If you’re feeling extra confident, check out the green version.
It doesn’t get more prep than the beefroll penny loafer. Try this one in navy for an added touch of modernity.
Wear them with jeans. Wear them with chinos. Wear them with bare feet and shorts in the summer. These suede loafers will match just about everything you own.
Classic court sneakers for a casual night out. Grab a pair of these while they’re still on sale.
Allen Edmonds has been making shoes in Wisconsin since 1922, and when you see these boots, you understand how they’ve stayed in business this long. I have three pairs of Allen Edmonds, and they’ve only gotten better with age.
One the easiest ways to spruce up an old watch is to pick up a new strap. Barton Bands makes straps from canvas, nylon, sailcloth, silicone, and yes, Horween leather.
This strap by Worn and Wound is made in New York City and features a supple leather lining under the top Horween layer.
Ashland Leather was started by employees of Horween, so yeah, they know leather. Try this minimalist wallet to keep your bare essentials for a night out.
Want to step it up? Nomad Good’s shell cordovan wallet will darken with age and may just outlive you.
Inspired by the original mailman satchel, this handsome bag is made from vegetable-tanned Horween leather and solid brass hardware.
If you ball, you already know. The Spalding official game ball comes pre-inflated. Just keep in mind that this model is only for indoor use on a wood court.
Made in Ada, Ohio, these Wilson footballs are sewn inside, then steamed to soften the leather for turning, lacing, and molding.
A Rawling is the Leica of baseball gloves: You could leave it on the shelf, but it’s itching for a game of catch. Pick one up, then leave it to your kid in your will.