Shell cordovan leather is one of the most unique and rare products in the world of men’s footwear. It is an acquired taste with it’s rich animal aroma and supple but firm feel, and a pair of shoes that is well cared for will last multiple lifetimes.
Shell cordovan is a horse-hide leather and the strongest leather available. When treated it looks perpetually shined and the skin never creases, instead it rolls. It is this rolling that protects the leather from wear and the signs of age.
The tanning process is very time consuming and there are only a handful of tanneries that still have the specialised skills to treat and prepare cordovan properly. The undeniable leader is century old family run American company, Horween Leather who is based in Chicago.
The finest horse-hides come from France and these are shipped already salted, to prevent decay, to Horween. The hides are cut by hand and then pass through a series of processes to remove the hairs and pores, before the tanning stages begin. Horween makes their own tannin, plant extracts that help convert the hides into leather as we know it. Horween’s tannins are extracted from chestnut and quebarcho trees. The leather is placed in frames and these are stored in pits for 30 days and constantly agitated so the tannin doesn’t settle in one place. The hides are then removed, shaved and soaked in another solution for a further 30 days. Four more months of treatment, polish and most importantly rest, are needed to complete the process. As this process is incredibly slow, Horween shell cordovan is more than twice the price of their other leathers.
Spanish shoe company Carmina produces a stunning collection of shell cordovan shoes using leather from Horween. Their range includes everything from Penny loafers to monk straps and brogues.
The Cloakroom made-to-order service provides men with the opportunity to design their own pair of customised shell cordovan shoes from Carmina with different lasts, styles and leather colours available.
Photos by Nick Horween and title image by Gian-Luca Wright.