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Men's Fashion

Plenty of horsepower

Cordovan has been around for hundreds of years, but few tanneries take it on. Now a British company is rising to the challenge to help meet increasing demand, says Nick Foulkes.

March 29 2012
Nick Foulkes

“Today, it is definitely the ultimate statement in male indulgence when it comes to leather. For people in the know, this is as good as it gets. Compared to exotic skins, where you have multiple treatments, this leather is tanned using a much simpler process, but the results are much more rewarding for the consumer – it is leather that people recognise very quickly.”

Christopher Colfer, CEO of Dunhill, is eulogising the qualities of cordovan, the unique, tough, claret-coloured horsehide that the British luxury house is using to make shoes (from £495), belts (from £445), wallets (from £180) and larger leather items, starting with a range of recently launched document cases.

Cordovan is familiar to aficionados of the great American penny loafer; such legendary US shoemakers as Alden and Allen Edmonds make much of their cordovan shoes, and charge accordingly. At Allen Edmonds, for instance, a pair of classic Kenwood penny loafers in a regular oxblood leather is $195, while the same pair in burgundy cordovan, which to the unenlightened eye might look startlingly similar, sell for $575. Cordovan examples are similarly priced at Alden, starting at $599.

But Colfer points out that the cordovan lover does not need to see the leather to be able to identify it, as it is waxy and smooth to the touch. “The one thing about cordovan is that the subtle texture means you can pick it out blindfolded,” he says.

Cordovan leather comes in “shells” rather than hides, and although horses are large, each shell is small in size – ranging from 1sq ft to 3sq ft – and the proportions are dictated by the part of the animal from which they are taken: the cheeks of the horse, but not the cheeks that cover the teeth. And while one shell suffices for a pair of whole-cut shoes or a wallet, anything larger has to be designed within the confines of the shell, making it difficult to realise large pieces of luggage, which is why Dunhill is starting with a document satchel (price on request).

Another reason for the scarcity of cordovan products is the small number of producers. There are just three major suppliers: one in South America and another in Japan, but the majority of cordovan is tanned by Chicago-based Horween, which has been in business since 1905. And it is from this tannery that most of the cordovan found in the UK is sourced. Moreover, according to Philippa Jones, sales and marketing manager of British-based Crockett & Jones, which makes boots and shoes in the leather (from £450), it is to the US that much of it returns, on the feet of the Americans.

It was not always this way: when Horween first started, horsehide, or crup, was being tanned and used in Europe. But by the 1930s it was proving difficult for European shoemakers to source, as the in-house journal of Northampton company Edward Green explained in 1939: “For quite a while, we have wanted to offer you a crup or horsehide shoe, but supplies of this leather since the German manufacturers stopped making it have not been good.” It was probably just as well that Edward Green looked elsewhere with war looming, and it was able to give its customers some good news: “Now we have got good leather and offer with confidence a shoe similar in style and weight to our Derby brogue shoe.”

Today, Edward Green has noted a revival of interest in cordovan. “Ten years ago we were making three or four pairs of crup shoes per year,” says technical director John Garner. “Now it is more like two or three pairs a week.” In the past, it tended to be a minority taste, only available to order, but now there are ready-to-wear shoes (from £760) at its Jermyn Street store in many colours, including black, cognac and blue.

The prices reflect how expensive cordovan is: a shell costs about £70 to £90, while regular calfskin is about £7 per square foot. Moreover, it has to be worked in a slightly different way; for instance, the traditional double pig’s bristle method of stitching is impossible as the hide is so thick. But while cordovan is a robust material, it is, paradoxically, delicate too: it cannot be skived to the papery thinness that can be achieved with calfskin and it cannot be heat-treated in the way that other leathers are. Dunhill, too, had to find a different way of working with cordovan for its document cases; when the company’s artisans in its Walthamstow workshops were making the prototypes, they found that the waxiness of the finish meant that a different type of adhesive needed to be used.

It is not just Edward Green and Dunhill that have noticed an upswing; Church’s is also selling more pairs (from £545). But, just as in 1939, there is difficulty in obtaining enough cordovan to meet demand. The tanning process takes six months, and Horween can only make so much.

Ever since Garner started working in the shoe business 48 years ago, the Chicago tannery has enjoyed a near monopoly on cordovan production. However, that is about to change. Just as in the early decades of the 20th century, it has been able to find an alternative supplier and, what’s more, a British one. It will continue to use Horween shells, but it can now offer its clients a British cordovan.

Joseph Clayton & Sons is a tannery founded in 1840 that specialises in heavier-weight leathers, mainly sourced in the UK, and primarily for equestrian and industrial usage. “We have had to move with the times and diversify. We knew that there was a shortage of cordovan and that we could get a supply of horsehide. It has taken a year to develop it,” explains managing director Pat Stevens. “Then we asked Edward Green to trial it on footwear. Cordovan has been around for hundreds of years, but very few tanneries take it on – you can count them on one hand. The difficulty for us was not the expertise so much as assuring ourselves of a constant supply of horsehide to satisfy customer needs,” Stevens adds.

At Joseph Clayton & Sons, after the hides arrive, they undergo pre-tannage preparation to neutralise chemicals and remove hair. This is followed by a period in pickling pits to stabilise the skin and stop it from putrefying. And then the tanning begins in earnest. Each skin is suspended in a succession of pits of tanning liquor of gradually ascending strengths. Tanners tend to guard their formulae as closely as Coca-Cola protects its recipe, but among the ingredients favoured by Joseph Clayton are mimosa, chestnut and quebracho, which is a South American hardwood that translates as “axe breaker”. It is this vegetable tanning that makes for leathers that burnish and age with more grace than chromium-tanned products, which is the most commonly used process.

Then follows a crusting-out stage – gentle washing and at least one week’s drying – after which the leather is oiled, sorted and graded. Finally, the shell is ready to be worked on, requiring another mysterious blend, this time of tallows, oils and greases, which are rubbed into the shells by hand, after which the skin is left for a number of weeks so the mixture permeates deep into the leather. Shells are inspected to see if they need more dressing to acquire the correct lustre, and if Joseph Clayton & Sons decides further softening is needed, a final touch is given. In other words, it is ready when it is ready.

But, apparently, it is worth the wait. While I was in the Edward Green shop looking covetously at a pair of cordovan boots (£880), the shop manager told me that more first world war boots have survived than second world war ones because horsehide was the favoured material. He did preface his remark by saying it was something he had heard rather than knew for a fact, but if true it makes the £760 for a pair of Edward Green cordovan shoes very good value. Given that the first world war started 98 years ago and that some of the cordovan boots that saw active service are still going, that equates to about £7.76 a year.

See also

Leather