Words and photos by Julia Ahtijainen
Walks and talks with the 5th generation of Horween tanning.
Horween has set the standard for the highest quality leathers since 1905. They offer tannages from vegetable tanned genuine shell cordovan to sport and footwear leathers. What is amazing about the place is that even today all of the leather is still made by hand, and all formulas are fully developed and produced at their historic location on the corner of Elston and Ashland in Chicago. It continues to be a family-owned business, and even rarer: It is one of only 5 tanneries worldwide taking care of the entire process from their raw state to finished leather.
Horween prides the high level of traceability and transparency within their business. Making sure they make responsible and ethically sourced choices, thus, ensuring a long-lasting and sustainable outcome. What they have done in recent years, Nick Horween tells me, is upgrading their facilities to reduce energy and water consumption. Making high-quality leather is for the most parts a question of the longevity of the materials. To have fewer products but make them last longer.
The art of tannery is simply beautiful. This place is filled with small things; patterns, pieces, relics, words, actions, sounds, and smells. And what is the most beautiful about that enormous brick warehouse is how it oozes authenticity. The walls exhale honesty and hard work.
As we enter the next level, Nick tells that 40% of the production goes into sports – the finest football, basketball, and ball glove leathers are made here. Horween’s specialty is first and foremost in top quality, aniline and semi-aniline finished leathers, suited to footwear, sporting goods, and accessories. However, Horween is also a household brand within menswear in fashion. Nick explains, that they have always had a stronger presence in menswear than in womenswear due to their products and processes: “Our leather takes longer to make and oftentimes the traditional “fashion” timelines are too short for us.” Making garments without compromising on quality because of deadlines corresponds perfectly with the values of Less Magazine.
On the 4th floor, one is faced with the Cordovan Rooms. The air here is extremely dry and warm. Cordovan is a specific type of leather from a particular part of a horsehide. Genuine Shell Cordovan is the art of tanning at its finest. The irregular oval shaped shells are tanned, stuffed, shaved, and then polished – a process that takes, at least, six months to complete. Each shell is slowly steeped in gentle vegetable liquors. The shells are genuine hot stuffed then stuck onto glass frames to dry, each shell being hand carried. Dyes are hand rubbed on for a deep aniline finish. Finally, the shells are hand glazed to achieve a classy, rich and shiny look.
For Nick, real “craft” is something requiring both skill and proficiency – this can only be learned through time and experience. And finding new craftsmen proves to be a hard task: “It can be a challenge. At Horween, we train new employees from the very beginning, as most have no experience in the tanning industry. We have many craftsmen that are family members or friends that have come to us over time,” explains Nick, underlining the importance of well-trained and trustworthy people in key positions at the company.
I also visit the production rooms in which Horween works with Essex vegetable tanning and Chromoexcel tanning. I am told that these two methods ensure versatility as well as durability when finished – and they both require a high level of craftsmanship.
After visiting and experiencing the different leather in multiple forms and levels, it is clear to me how time-consuming this craft is and that Horween Tannery is definitely one of the most important leather experts in the world. Their team meetings aren’t about “how to grow” but about “how to become better.” As Nick Horween states: “Making the best leather possible is our mission and passion. Our pursuit is completely dependent on a customer understanding what makes our product special and why it costs what it does. We don’t take this for granted and we sincerely appreciate our customers and the users of our products.”
There is something very clear and simple about Horween. I admire their attitude towards craftsmanship, hard work, quality, and the honesty evident when visiting this place.