Nick Horween (Horween Chicago)

February 6, 2013


Dear Mr. Horween, in this area tradition is very important. Please tell my readers briefly the story of your family and how Isodore Horween create this famous brand in 1915.

 My great, great grandfather, Isadore Horween, founded Horween Leather in 1905. He emigrated from the Ukraine where he had worked as a tanner as a young man.


Isadore Horween

He attended the Colombian Exposition in Chicago and was hired at another tannery from 1893 – 1905. He worked his way up to plant superintendent and ultimately left to start his own tannery in 1905.

Why is Horween leather so exceptional so that all major shoemakers use it?

We are just a small tannery and are lucky enough to work with some of the best companies in the world. Our products are special in that we’ve never been driven by anything other than quality. We put the best raw materials and work in, and we end up with some of the best leather.

What is the difference between Cordovan and Genuine Shell Cordovan?

Cordovan has become a more generic term to some people. Some view it as a color and others call any horsehide cordovan. Shell Cordovan is a very specific part of an equine hide that has very unique cosmetic and performance characteristics.


How the selection of leather is made? How hard is to find good leather? Where do you find it?

Good leather starts with good hides. We source our cowhides from North America and our horse hides from France, primarily. It’s a constant challenge since every single hide that comes in is unique and no two are alike.

How many stages are necessary for a hide to become Genuine Shell Cordovan? 

Our Shell Cordovan takes at least six months to tan and goes through more than 75 operations – this includes at least a 60 day pure vegetable pit tannage. Vegetable tanning is one of the most traditional tanning methods and utilizes a variety of different tree barks to preserve the leather. Tanning in this way takes time because the process must be very gentle. The tanning solutions start relatively dilute, and we strengthen them every day for a good part of the process. This is necessary to properly tan the very dense shell in the hide.

Many tanneries have moved away from this type of process because it is slow, expensive, and difficult to do.

What other items are made from cordovan? What is the proportion between leather used for shoes and for the other items?

Shell cordovan is also used in accessories – briefcases, watch bands, wallets, notebook covers, belts, etc. 85% or more is used in the making of shoes, since it is so well suited to this application.

In term of figures how many leathers do you produce annually?

We tan about 100,000 cowhides and about 10,000 horse-hides per year.

Is there any secret in taking care of cordovan?

Wear it, a lot, and don’t polish it too much! Cordovan looks so much better when it is properly worn.

I only polish my shoes every 15 – 20 wearings, depending on the condition. In between polishing, a damp, soft cloth and a good quality brush are all that is needed. When it does come time to polish, be sure to not use too much. Since the shell is so dense, excess polish will only collect in the creases and leave a dirty buildup.


I now that over the years Cordovan became more and more beautiful. Why?

The leather is very dense and has a very high oil content making it resilient and long wearing. Also, the natural tanning products and dyes age and patina very well.

We can buy cordovan leather from minor manufactures from Spain or South America but it is not comparable in term of texture and beauty with Horween Shell Cordovan? Why?

Our techniques and raw materials are very traditional. And, foremost, we have very skilled employees that take special care in their work. Where many factories have automated certain operations, we still do most of our processing by hand. Since each hide is a little bit different, and there are so many steps, this special attention makes our product what it is.

We’ve tanned our shell cordovan continuously since 1905, so we’ve had a long time to make mistakes and get it right!


What are the major shoemakers that buy directly from you? Tell me also a few minor shoemakers in terms of leathers sold.

We sell to many companies that make a variety of shoe types – Timberland, Allen Edmonds, Wolverine, Alden, Yuketen, Ralph Lauren, Visvim, Trickers, Alfred Sargent, Carmina, Vass, Crockett and Jones, Eastland, Oak Street Bootmakers, Russell Moccasin, Quoddy, Viberg, Whites Boots, Edward Green, Danner, and many others.

Please tell us about the training system in Horween and about how the legacy is transmitted to younger employees? Which is your oldest “crew member”?

All of our training is done on the job. Many of the operations performed take a special eye for detail. We have several employees that have worked with us for nearly 40 years. We recently had our cordovan sorter, Otis, retire after 50 years.

Despide the fact that is a rare leather why do man not were more often this superb leather called Cordovan? Is there any misconception about this leather?

I think shell cordovan is like anything else – some people like it and some do not. In my experience, if someone wears and enjoys a pair of shell cordovan shoes, they will often buy many pairs and enjoy each pair for different reasons. There’s a misconception that shell cordovan is hard to break in and does not breath well. For me, a properly fitting, properly constructed pair of shell cordovan shoes is comfortable out of the box, and only gets more comfortable with wear.

Being in a industry close related with bespoke shoemaking and close with luxury market how do you see the future of this market now, with the recession and with the decreasing of luxury market clients.

It’s difficult to tell what will happen. For now, it seems that people are more interested in spending their money on items that are functional, and will last, than in previous years. High quality leather products are something that fits this description perfectly. You can buy one pair of shell cordovan shoes that will last you for 20 years, or 6 pairs of shoes that will last one year each. For me, I’d rather have quality over quantity.


What future plans do you have? Do you intend to increase the production?

Unfortunately, we cannot increase shell cordovan production. The combination of the time it takes to tan, and the scarcity of horsehide, sets our production levels for us. Our plans for the future are to continue making all of our leathers to the highest quality standards possible.