Material Matters: Horween Leather
Chicago’s Horween Leather Company (or Horween for short) have produced some of the world's finest leathers for close to 120 years. While their sturdy skins are commonly found on the feet of hardcore hikers and the backs of badass bikers, or covering footballs and basketballs, your sneakers have been copping a hiding from Horween as of late.
Horween's presence in the sneaker world is not just skin deep. However, to understand how they got to become one of the premier leather makers in the world, you have to go back to where it all started.
Chicago’s Last Tannery
Isadore Horween spent years learning the hide (animal skin) tanning trade in his native Ukraine, before moving to Chicago to further perfect the art. In 1905, he founded the eponymous Horween Leather Company, quickly gaining a reputation for developing specialty-use leathers, such as razor strops and oil seals. The following decades saw vast innovation in tanning techniques and signature leather products coming out of the Horween tannery, earmarking the company as the go-to for quality leather. Their products would provide the durable base for footwear, accessories, and sporting equipment.
As the years went on, local leather tanneries dwindled. As production shifted overseas to cut costs, there were inevitable cuts to quality. However, Horween have stayed true and on track with a proud tradition of being made in USA. When Isadore founded his company, there were over two-dozen leather tanneries in Chicago. Now, Horween is the very last tannery operating locally.
Leather production is largely broken down into two procesess, tanning and currying, and Horween obviously specialise in both. They offer over 50 tannages, each with their own unique properties, like handfeel, finish, and waterproofness.
Chromexcel is one of Horween’s best-known products. Known as a ‘pull-up’ leather, its surface is composed of oils, greases, and waxes to add richness and depth of colour instead of using paints and pigments. It develops patina with use, but also has ‘self-healing’ properties because the oily coat can shift and ‘repair’ scuffed sections. This makes it a popular choice for hard-working footwear like work boots, but is popular on casual options, too. Horween have kept their Chromexcel formulation top secret for almost 100 years!
The other well-known Horween product is Shell Cordovan, a leather painstakingly sourced from a specific part of horsehide, which takes over six months to produce. Once finished, Shell Cordovan has an incredibly glossy finish that ages beautifully. It’s not uncommon for shoes made from Shell Cordovan to be passed from generation to generation as an heirloom object. It may not be as prominent in the sneaker world, but it is very much a viable option for high-end customisers. Shell Cordovan commands a high price because of its laborious processing and increasing scarcity of raw material.
Since 2008, Nick Horween has continued the family business as Vice President and Quality Direction, and immediately injected fresh vision into the heritage company. The past decade has seen a noticeable uptake in Horween’s leathers used on iconic sneaker silhouettes across brands - big and small.
New Balance are perhaps the most vocal champions of Horween, dressing their limited edition, Made In USA domestic releases in the primo leather. The 997 and 998 are among some of the sturdiest sneakers made entirely of Horween, while it’s also been tastefully used as a panel accent on some of their other models, too. Most recently, the 2020 retro of the mythical 1300 JP debuted Horween-made suede for the first time.
Vans and Reebok have similarly rebuilt their classics in Horween, also opting for complete upper rebuilds to really dress them up. Converse and adidas have joined the leather party over the years on the All Star and Stan Smith, respectively.
On the smaller scale, Japan’s visvim were early on the Horween train, working closely with Horween for special edition sneakers. Gourmet (RIP) dropped a slew of premium models made from Horween back in the day. Meanwhile, FEIT, Yuketen, and Viberg have used Horween over the years, too.
Horween Leather will always be synonymous with enduring quality, and hopefully more of the sneaker world is draped in their lifetime leathers in the years to come.