WSJ on the Shell Cordovan Shortage
If you’ve been in the market for shell cordovan shoes, you may have noticed there’s been a shortage lately. Retailers have been slow at getting them in, largely because manufacturers can’t get the material from Horween, who is the most popular supplier for the leather. When they do get some in, it’s usually in darker colors (such as the Horween’s “color 8” and black), as lighter colors show imperfections in the leather too easily. Which means if you’ve been wanting a pair of cigar shell cordovan boots from Alden, like those shown above, you’ve had to sit on a waitlist that stretches back almost a year (I’m on such a list, and am still waiting for a phone call). 
The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about what might be going on:

In the clubby world of men’s high fashion, there are rumors and theories. Some blame hide speculators who snapped up skins as the price of leather was about to rise. Others point to Chinese shoe manufacturers, saying they bought up entire horsehides—which include both the coveted small rear shell pieces and the cheaper and larger front pieces—in lieu of more expensive steer hide when prices for the latter spiked to historic highs in 2012. However, there is little proof of either.
Matthew Abbott, technical sales director at tannery Joseph Clayton & Sons Ltd., based in Chesterfield, England, said the supply of hides was also hurt by a horse-meat scandal last year in the U.K. “There was nothing wrong with the meat, just that it was misidentified,” he said. “But I suppose people didn’t want anything to do with horse for a while.”

On the upside? Things might be rebounding. 

Nevertheless, there is a glimmer of hope for those seeking a pair of loafers or oxfords. Mr. Horween reported that the hide supply began to return to pre-drought levels at the end of the last year, which means cordovan supplies for shoemakers may soon be back to normal. His advice to covetous shoppers: Sit tight. More is coming soon. That doesn’t quite mean that cordovan shoes will be plentiful, however. “It’s still not as much as the market wants,” said Mr. Horween.

Here’s to hoping. 
(Photo via LeatherSoul)

WSJ on the Shell Cordovan Shortage

If you’ve been in the market for shell cordovan shoes, you may have noticed there’s been a shortage lately. Retailers have been slow at getting them in, largely because manufacturers can’t get the material from Horween, who is the most popular supplier for the leather. When they do get some in, it’s usually in darker colors (such as the Horween’s “color 8” and black), as lighter colors show imperfections in the leather too easily. Which means if you’ve been wanting a pair of cigar shell cordovan boots from Alden, like those shown above, you’ve had to sit on a waitlist that stretches back almost a year (I’m on such a list, and am still waiting for a phone call). 

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about what might be going on:

In the clubby world of men’s high fashion, there are rumors and theories. Some blame hide speculators who snapped up skins as the price of leather was about to rise. Others point to Chinese shoe manufacturers, saying they bought up entire horsehides—which include both the coveted small rear shell pieces and the cheaper and larger front pieces—in lieu of more expensive steer hide when prices for the latter spiked to historic highs in 2012. However, there is little proof of either.

Matthew Abbott, technical sales director at tannery Joseph Clayton & Sons Ltd., based in Chesterfield, England, said the supply of hides was also hurt by a horse-meat scandal last year in the U.K. “There was nothing wrong with the meat, just that it was misidentified,” he said. “But I suppose people didn’t want anything to do with horse for a while.”

On the upside? Things might be rebounding. 

Nevertheless, there is a glimmer of hope for those seeking a pair of loafers or oxfords. Mr. Horween reported that the hide supply began to return to pre-drought levels at the end of the last year, which means cordovan supplies for shoemakers may soon be back to normal. His advice to covetous shoppers: Sit tight. More is coming soon. That doesn’t quite mean that cordovan shoes will be plentiful, however. “It’s still not as much as the market wants,” said Mr. Horween.

Here’s to hoping. 

(Photo via LeatherSoul)

A Little History On the Casualness of Shell Cordovan

Shell cordovan is sometimes thought of as a “dressy leather,” presumably because of how expensive it is, but it’s actually something historically considered to be quite casual. Indigo Shrimp has some neat advertisements from the shoe company Wolverine, originally printed in 1910, showing one of shell cordovan’s original applications as a workboot material.

Shell cordovan, as many readers will know, refers to leather drawn from the rears of horses. The word cordovan comes from the city of Cordoba in Spain, which was once renowned for its prowess in tanning. In the 16th and 17th centuries, skilled workers there would tan horse skins so they could be used to decorate wall hangings, armor, and trunks.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the term “cordovan” began to refer to the shell of horse butts (hence the name “shell cordovan”). Much of shell cordovan production at this time was in Germany, where it was sold under the name “Spigelware,” which translates to “mirror goods.” It’s a name we can safely presume comes from shell cordovan’s natural shiny finish.

In a letter written in 1934, Horween (a famous Chicago tannery) claims that the original German versions of shell cordovan were too thick and stiff to be used for shoes, and that it wasn’t until shell cordovan tanning came to the US (via German and Dutch tanners), did the process become perfected for footwear. Whether that’s just company marketing propaganda, or actual history, it’s hard to say.

In any case, when you see the term “cordovan” nowadays, it’s often just referring to a specific color – something that’s a bit reddish brown, and slightly darker than burgundy. It’s very close to what Horween markets as their “#8.” It’s really only when you see the full term “shell cordovan” that you can trust it’s the thick horse leather that so many people covet. Today, the material is mostly used for the making of casual boots, country shoes, and loafers (particularly the tasseled kind). You’ll occasionally see it in a “dressier” shoe, but the material is really something that should be considered quite casual. And, when you wear it, the rest of your outfit should be equally casual as well. Workwear jackets and work shirts with shell cordovan boots; chinos and Shetland sweaters with shell tassel loafers; or button down shirts and tweed sport coats with almost any kind of shell shoes.

It’s On Sale: Chester Mox Wallets

Chester Mox is having a number of promotions this week. First, personalization is free. That means you can have a monogram or message etched into any of their products without being charged. Second, shipping within the United States is also free. And third, their shell cordovan wiry flap wallets have been discounted from $190 to $125. No discount codes are necessary, and all adjustments will be made at check out.

I’m a big fan of Chester Mox, as I think they’re one of the few companies selling quality, handmade leather goods at an affordable price. My own daily wallet from them costs $39. They make everything themselves from their Los Angeles workshop. The leathers they use are sourced from world class tanneries such as Horween and Ilcea, the second of which supplies them the beautiful, slightly mottled, antique calf leather you see above. Once the leathers arrive, they’re handout and then handsewn, and the resulting products then have their edges handpainted and burnished. Each order is also made-on-request. That means if you like the shape of one wallet, but prefer them to use the leather from another, they can accommodate. When they made my wallet, I asked them if they could not put their company logo on it (as I personally dislike visible logos). Instead, I just had them place my monogram where their company name would normally go. The results were great. 

Note, the promotion for free personalization and shipping ends next Monday, the 25th, and the shell cordovan flap wallet discount ends this Friday, the 22nd

The Charm of Tassel Loafers
I really like tassel loafers. I’m wearing a shell cordovan pair now with brown sharkskin trousers, a dark green v-neck sweater, light blue oxford cloth button-down shirt, navy over-the-calf socks, and a dark reddish-brown alligator belt. With clothes that are a bit too fully cut, tassel loafers can look a little fuddy duddy; with clothes that are too tight, they can look overly hip. Somewhere in the middle, I think, is where they look best.
Tassel loafers came into being in the post-war period of the 1940s, right when tweed jackets, Shetland sweaters, and penny loafers dominated prep schools and Ivy League campuses. As college students graduated, they wanted something as comfortable as their slip-ons, but were a bit dressier and more sophisticated for their new life in the business world. It was around this time that an actor named Paul Lukas came back from Europe with a pair of oxfords. They had little tassels at the end of their laces, which Lukas thought made them look more lively. So he took them to a couple of New York shoemakers to see if they could make something similar, and they in turn took the job to Alden. The company’s president at the time, Arthur Tarlow, came up with tasseled loafers and they were an instant success. That makes Alden’s model the original, and Paul Lukas the first man to wear this style of footwear. You can read more about this wonderful history in this article by Bruce Boyer.
Tassel loafers come in a variety of colors and leathers. The most common is brown calfskin, but the ne plus ultra is the reddish-brown shell cordovan that comes from Chicago’s Horween Tannery. Shell cordovan has the particularly good quality of holding the color burgundy well. In calf, burgundy can sometimes look cheap, but in horsehide leather, it absolutely glows. 
As for where to get them, there are probably a dozens of versions on the market. I’ll only cover a few. As mentioned, Alden’s is the original and its history as the classic makes it hard to beat. They also make a similar model for Brooks Brothers. The main deviation is the piece of leather that’s added to the heel cup. From England, we have Crockett & Jones’ Cavendish and Edward Green’s Belgravia. Crockett & Jones also makes a shell cordovan version for Ralph Lauren called the the Marlow, and it has a slightly more unique shade of shell cordovan brown.
My own pair is Allen Edmonds’ Grayson. It’s quite similar to Alden’s, but it has a higher vamp, which is the part the shoe that covers the top part of your foot. I thought it looked slightly better this way, so I bought a pair in shell cordovan. I couldn’t be happier with the purchase and recommend them highly.
If you’d like more affordable options, consider Loake’s Lincoln and Meermin’s 101381. Both come in around $175, but Meermin has the added advantage of being able to do special orders. If you’d like to get a pair in shell cordovan or suede, or made from a different last or sole, they’d be happy to make you a pair for a small surcharge. I have a pair of their made-to-order shoes and couldn’t be more impressed with their value. To order, read this buyer’s guide and then go to Meermin’s website. My only comment on that guide is that you should ask Meermin for sizing advice; don’t just assume. 
Tassel loafers aren’t anything I’d call “an essential,” but they’re certainly very enjoyable to wear. If you work in an environment that lets you get away with more casual footwear, try wearing a pair of these with a wool sweater and corduroys, or maybe a checkered tweed and flannel wool trousers. Both will carry a great sense of American style that’s both casual and sophisticated. 

The Charm of Tassel Loafers

I really like tassel loafers. I’m wearing a shell cordovan pair now with brown sharkskin trousers, a dark green v-neck sweater, light blue oxford cloth button-down shirt, navy over-the-calf socks, and a dark reddish-brown alligator belt. With clothes that are a bit too fully cut, tassel loafers can look a little fuddy duddy; with clothes that are too tight, they can look overly hip. Somewhere in the middle, I think, is where they look best.

Tassel loafers came into being in the post-war period of the 1940s, right when tweed jackets, Shetland sweaters, and penny loafers dominated prep schools and Ivy League campuses. As college students graduated, they wanted something as comfortable as their slip-ons, but were a bit dressier and more sophisticated for their new life in the business world. It was around this time that an actor named Paul Lukas came back from Europe with a pair of oxfords. They had little tassels at the end of their laces, which Lukas thought made them look more lively. So he took them to a couple of New York shoemakers to see if they could make something similar, and they in turn took the job to Alden. The company’s president at the time, Arthur Tarlow, came up with tasseled loafers and they were an instant success. That makes Alden’s model the original, and Paul Lukas the first man to wear this style of footwear. You can read more about this wonderful history in this article by Bruce Boyer.

Tassel loafers come in a variety of colors and leathers. The most common is brown calfskin, but the ne plus ultra is the reddish-brown shell cordovan that comes from Chicago’s Horween Tannery. Shell cordovan has the particularly good quality of holding the color burgundy well. In calf, burgundy can sometimes look cheap, but in horsehide leather, it absolutely glows. 

As for where to get them, there are probably a dozens of versions on the market. I’ll only cover a few. As mentioned, Alden’s is the original and its history as the classic makes it hard to beat. They also make a similar model for Brooks Brothers. The main deviation is the piece of leather that’s added to the heel cup. From England, we have Crockett & Jones’ Cavendish and Edward Green’s Belgravia. Crockett & Jones also makes a shell cordovan version for Ralph Lauren called the the Marlow, and it has a slightly more unique shade of shell cordovan brown.

My own pair is Allen Edmonds’ Grayson. It’s quite similar to Alden’s, but it has a higher vamp, which is the part the shoe that covers the top part of your foot. I thought it looked slightly better this way, so I bought a pair in shell cordovan. I couldn’t be happier with the purchase and recommend them highly.

If you’d like more affordable options, consider Loake’s Lincoln and Meermin’s 101381. Both come in around $175, but Meermin has the added advantage of being able to do special orders. If you’d like to get a pair in shell cordovan or suede, or made from a different last or sole, they’d be happy to make you a pair for a small surcharge. I have a pair of their made-to-order shoes and couldn’t be more impressed with their value. To order, read this buyer’s guide and then go to Meermin’s website. My only comment on that guide is that you should ask Meermin for sizing advice; don’t just assume. 

Tassel loafers aren’t anything I’d call “an essential,” but they’re certainly very enjoyable to wear. If you work in an environment that lets you get away with more casual footwear, try wearing a pair of these with a wool sweater and corduroys, or maybe a checkered tweed and flannel wool trousers. Both will carry a great sense of American style that’s both casual and sophisticated. 

How to Examine Quality in Leather Goods, Part I
I recently had the good fortune of talking to Dave Munson and Frank Clegg – the two men behind Saddleback Leathers and Frank Clegg Leatherworks, respectively – about how to discern quality in leather goods. While many men at this point know how to judge the quality of suits, shoes, and even sweaters, few know how to tell if a bag or wallet is well made. So, given Dave and Frank’s expertise in the field, I thought I’d ask them for their thoughts.
This short-series will be covered in two articles. For today, we’ll talk about how to examine the quality of leather itself.  
The Basics of Leather
Obviously, at its foundation, the quality of any leather good should be judged on the quality of the leather itself. As many already know, you should always shoot for full-grain leather, ideally one free of scars, blemishes, or fat deposits. Lotuff Leather has a good primer on how to look for these things.
Other types of leather include top and split grains. These are made by splitting a piece of leather into two layers. The top (top-grain) is typically sanded down and finished with some kind of chemical processing. This is what we typically call corrected-grain leather, and while it’s cheaper, it also has a colder, more plastic-like feel, and results in less breathability. Over time, it will also age less well and you won’t get the nice patina that you would with full-grain leather.
Split grain is what’s left after the top-grain has been separated from the hide. This part is often made into suede or embossed with a print so that it looks like full-grain. Unlike true full-grain, however, it’s often thinner and not as durable.
Finally, we have bonded leather. This stuff is basically junk. Here, leftover scraps of leather are grounded with glue and then bonded together in a process similar to vinyl manufacture. It’s basically to full-grain leather what particleboards are to solid wood. It neither looks nice nor lasts well.
How Manufacturers Cheat
So you know that full-grain should be preferred to top and split grain, and certainly to bonded leather. But this isn’t enough, as manufacturers often cheat. How?
Well first, there are semantics. A manufacturer can say that something is made from “genuine leather” when it’s actually top or split grain, or even bonded leather. They’re not lying. It is made from genuine leather. The other way is to say that something is “made with full-grain leather” when only part of it is. Again, they’re not lying. A bag can be partly made with full grain leather, while something as cheap as vinyl is used for other parts.
The other way to cheat is by buying full-grain leather that hasn’t been processed fully. See, after a tannery removes the moisture, oils, and hair from an animal skin, they put it into giant drums with tanning solutions. These drums are expensive, however, and can cost upwards of $100,000. The tanning solutions they use can also be costly. To curb some of these expenses, some tanneries won’t let the hides sit in the drums as long as they need to. That way, they can process more hides using fewer drums and less tanning solution. In the end, the leather on your products can fade and crack with too much sunlight. You can tell whether something has been fully tanned by looking at the edges. Assuming it hasn’t been painted over with some type edge finishing, such leathers will appear blue in the middle, which shows that the tanning solution hasn’t been allowed to soak through all the way. You can see this in the write up that Dave published on his website.
When we spoke, I asked Dave whether such “half-tanned” leathers are really something you’d ever find on more expensive products. “All the time,” he said. “Not all of them, of course, but if the company they outsource to is not carefully watched or if it is something that the brand is not aware of, then they’ll be getting low quality leather that is hidden with rolled or painted edges to cover up the poorly tanned leather.” Dave also noted that this isn’t something you tell just from the outside grain. The leather feels the same, but the middle will dry out and crack. The only way to tell is by looking at the edge and seeing if the middle is blue, but this also assumes that the edge hasn’t already been covered.
Takeaways
In the end, if you’re buying a leather good, you should aim for full-grain leather, but also make sure that the tannage has soaked through all the way. You may also want to ask the manufacturer whether the product was fully made with full-grain leather, and examine the skin for defects such as scars, blemishes, and fat deposits. Of course, many products will have some kind of defect somewhere. Often this will be done in places where the consumer can’t see, such as the inside of a bag. This doesn’t automatically discount the quality of the good, necessarily, but it is something you may want to consider if you’re paying top-dollar for something.
Come back Monday, when I’ll talk about the quality of hardware that’s often used, as well as a bit about the construction of leather goods. 
(Pictured above: Leather swatches from Horween, one of the best tanneries in the world. Photo taken from Carryology)

How to Examine Quality in Leather Goods, Part I

I recently had the good fortune of talking to Dave Munson and Frank Clegg – the two men behind Saddleback Leathers and Frank Clegg Leatherworks, respectively – about how to discern quality in leather goods. While many men at this point know how to judge the quality of suitsshoes, and even sweaters, few know how to tell if a bag or wallet is well made. So, given Dave and Frank’s expertise in the field, I thought I’d ask them for their thoughts.

This short-series will be covered in two articles. For today, we’ll talk about how to examine the quality of leather itself. 

The Basics of Leather

Obviously, at its foundation, the quality of any leather good should be judged on the quality of the leather itself. As many already know, you should always shoot for full-grain leather, ideally one free of scars, blemishes, or fat deposits. Lotuff Leather has a good primer on how to look for these things.

Other types of leather include top and split grains. These are made by splitting a piece of leather into two layers. The top (top-grain) is typically sanded down and finished with some kind of chemical processing. This is what we typically call corrected-grain leather, and while it’s cheaper, it also has a colder, more plastic-like feel, and results in less breathability. Over time, it will also age less well and you won’t get the nice patina that you would with full-grain leather.

Split grain is what’s left after the top-grain has been separated from the hide. This part is often made into suede or embossed with a print so that it looks like full-grain. Unlike true full-grain, however, it’s often thinner and not as durable.

Finally, we have bonded leather. This stuff is basically junk. Here, leftover scraps of leather are grounded with glue and then bonded together in a process similar to vinyl manufacture. It’s basically to full-grain leather what particleboards are to solid wood. It neither looks nice nor lasts well.

How Manufacturers Cheat

So you know that full-grain should be preferred to top and split grain, and certainly to bonded leather. But this isn’t enough, as manufacturers often cheat. How?

Well first, there are semantics. A manufacturer can say that something is made from “genuine leather” when it’s actually top or split grain, or even bonded leather. They’re not lying. It is made from genuine leather. The other way is to say that something is “made with full-grain leather” when only part of it is. Again, they’re not lying. A bag can be partly made with full grain leather, while something as cheap as vinyl is used for other parts.

The other way to cheat is by buying full-grain leather that hasn’t been processed fully. See, after a tannery removes the moisture, oils, and hair from an animal skin, they put it into giant drums with tanning solutions. These drums are expensive, however, and can cost upwards of $100,000. The tanning solutions they use can also be costly. To curb some of these expenses, some tanneries won’t let the hides sit in the drums as long as they need to. That way, they can process more hides using fewer drums and less tanning solution. In the end, the leather on your products can fade and crack with too much sunlight. You can tell whether something has been fully tanned by looking at the edges. Assuming it hasn’t been painted over with some type edge finishing, such leathers will appear blue in the middle, which shows that the tanning solution hasn’t been allowed to soak through all the way. You can see this in the write up that Dave published on his website.

When we spoke, I asked Dave whether such “half-tanned” leathers are really something you’d ever find on more expensive products. “All the time,” he said. “Not all of them, of course, but if the company they outsource to is not carefully watched or if it is something that the brand is not aware of, then they’ll be getting low quality leather that is hidden with rolled or painted edges to cover up the poorly tanned leather.” Dave also noted that this isn’t something you tell just from the outside grain. The leather feels the same, but the middle will dry out and crack. The only way to tell is by looking at the edge and seeing if the middle is blue, but this also assumes that the edge hasn’t already been covered.

Takeaways

In the end, if you’re buying a leather good, you should aim for full-grain leather, but also make sure that the tannage has soaked through all the way. You may also want to ask the manufacturer whether the product was fully made with full-grain leather, and examine the skin for defects such as scars, blemishes, and fat deposits. Of course, many products will have some kind of defect somewhere. Often this will be done in places where the consumer can’t see, such as the inside of a bag. This doesn’t automatically discount the quality of the good, necessarily, but it is something you may want to consider if you’re paying top-dollar for something.

Come back Monday, when I’ll talk about the quality of hardware that’s often used, as well as a bit about the construction of leather goods. 

(Pictured above: Leather swatches from Horween, one of the best tanneries in the world. Photo taken from Carryology)

We Got It For Free: Chester Mox Wallets

Chester Mox recently got in some very interesting leathers. They asked me to review some of them, so I selected a couple of designs to be made out of their new materials. 

The first is Japanese shell cordovan. There is a very small supply of this leather in the world and only a few tanneries are able to get it. The most famous is Horween out of Chicago, but there are tanneries in Japan and Argentina as well. The difference is in the liquors they use and how thick their skins are. Japanese shells, for example, come in black and a natural tone that slowly darkens over time. They’re also slightly thinner than the Horweens I’ve handled, which means they’re a bit more pliable. Aside from that, compared alongside my Horween shell wallets, I saw no difference in quality (at least for the purposes of a wallet). Perhaps most exciting of all, Japanese shell is cheaper, which means shell cordovan products like these will be more affordable for the final consumer. 

The second new leather, called Essex, is from Horween. It’s a cowhide that has been tanned in the liquor Horween uses for shell cordovan. They’ve been developing this technique for about two or three years, and the results are pretty marvelous. The full-grained leather is very rich to the touch and has a beautiful, slightly variegated, color to it. The color was hard to capture with my camera, but it’s definitely now one of my favorite leathers from Horween.

You can get any of Chester Mox’s wallets made in these new materials. Just contact them for a price quote (shell will obviously be more expensive than calf). I should also note that I’ve found the stitching on these to be even better than before. They’re now using a slightly thinner thread, which I think makes for a cleaner appearance. And as always, they can also customize any wallet with an engraving. I usually request a simple monogram of my initials in the same font they use for their logo. 

How Leathers are Made

A good friend, GW, sent me this wonderful video about shell cordovan. The film reminded me of another video I’ve seen about how calf leather is made. Both are worth a watch. 

As a note, if you’ve never handled shell cordovan shoes before, your priority for the next week should be to get your hands on some immediately. Reading about shell cordovan on the internet is no substitute. There is a reason why so many menswear enthusiasts go crazy over the stuff.