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Nick V. interviews Nick Horween, Horween Leather

Nick V.

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Nov 12, 2007
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Editor's note: As an ongoing series, one of Styleforum's resident footwear experts, Nick V. of B. Nelson Shoes in NY, is compiling interviews with shoe industry insiders, including company owners, designers, and other personalities. This edition finds Nick V. talking with Nick Horween, Director at Horween Leather, Chicago.

Check out Nick V.'s previous sessions--more to come soon:
William Church, Joesph Cheaney & Sons Shoes
Paul Grangaard, CEO, Allen Edmonds
Also be sure to check out this video on Horween's production process from Allen Edmonds, starring Nick, his father Skip, and of course hundreds of square feet of leather (also embedded below).


Nick V.: Tell us about how Horween was founded.
[B]Nick Horween: Horween Leather Company was founded in 1905 by my great, great grandfather, Isadore Horween. He came to Chicago from the Ukraine, where he had worked in a tannery. He attended the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 and found himself a job at one of the many tanneries in Chicago. From 1893 to 1905 he worked his way up to plant superintendent, at which point he went into business for himself and founded HLC.[/B]

[B]From 1905 to 1912 the tannery only produced shell cordovan for razor strops. In 1912 the popularity of the safety razor necessitated that the tannery expand its offerings and adapt the cordovan tannage.[/B]

What was it like growing up around the business?
[B]I had lots of leather stuff. Footballs, baseball gloves, shoes, and the like. As a little kid, the process always seemed a little bit like magic. I would see the raw, hair on hides coming in, and then I would see the products that were produced from the finished good. I will admit that I didn't realize how complex the process is until I started working summers in high school. Even before then, though, I always looked forward to coming into the factory. My father and grandfather were both working, and the smells and the sounds were almost overwhelming.[/B]

Your father, Skip, has been very committed to the business. How did he influence you?
[B]We've all been committed to making the best product we can, which basically means no compromises. It takes a measured stubbornness to do business that way. I don't know if I'd call it influence, but there was always a clear message to do the right thing. [/B]

Your own background?
[B]I studied business at the University of Vermont, went to culinary school, and then worked for 3 years as a chef in New York City. Cooking is a lot like tanning-you follow a recipe where you take a bunch of different materials and then you try to end up with the same thing every time when you're finished.[/B]


Do you cook much these days? Chicago's a legendary food town, are you a regular at any restaurants around town?
I cook as much as I can, and it's still something I have a passion for. I wouldn't call myself a regular at any restaurants - I like to try new places whenever I can. Though The Publican is one of my top choices.

What made you decide to get in to the business?
I always enjoyed making things, so the business was always appealing. But, I had always wanted to do something else for a while. I didn't want to come work for HLC just because I had the right last name. When I came in I felt like I could make a contribution.

How long have you been in the business?
A little bit more than 3 years.

Other than footwear made of widely-beloved shell cordovan, what else do you manufacture?
Our customers produce about 40 percent footwear, 40 percent sporting goods, and 20 percent everything else. The footwear ranges from dress shoes to work boots. Sporting goods means primarily footballs, baseball gloves, and basketballs. The remainder is dedicated to accessories, upholstery, etc.

Approximately how many horse hides do you tan per year?
We process about 30,000 horsehides each year.

What percentage of a typical horse hide is the shell?
Each shell is a different size, but a typical hide contains about 10 percent shell. The rest of the hide we tan differently for use in a variety of other products.

Regarding footwear, can you give me a brief explanation of your tanning process?
The process is different from tannage to tannage. Shell cordovan is unique in terms of total time and the amount of steps. To be brief:

Receive hide, cut/trim hides, wash and soak, dehair, flesh, bate, pickle, tan, press, sort, split, shave, retan, condition, dry, apply stain/color, adjust color, adjust feel, iron/plate, trim/sort, pack, and ship.

For chrome-tanned leathers this takes us at least 4 weeks, and for shell cordovan this takes us at least 6 months.

Where do you get your hides from?
Our cowhides come from North America and our horsehide is from France, primarily. We receive some from Quebec as well. Both are byproducts of the food industry.

What is the percentage breakdown of cow vs horse hide in your business? I see that about 10% of a horse hide is shell but what's the approximate animal breakdown?
15 to 20 percent of our business is horsehide.

No matter what the expectations are, no skins are perfect. Do you agree?
Absolutely. No two are the same, either. That's one of our special challenges--to take something that is unique in every occurrence and try to make it as uniform as possible.

In my shop, we see how your skins are so cherished, new and worn, by shell wearers.
It's the ultimate compliment. When discerning customers choose to invest in a pair of shoes made from our leather, it makes all the hard work we do worth it. Though, I must add that we are we are just a component part of shoes and leather goods. Much of the credit belongs to the crafters of these goods that bring the product to life. We're humbled by the beautiful things that people are able to make out of our leather.

What maker/makers does Horween have the longest relationship with?
We've had long standing relationships with many companies. Alden, Wilson, Rawlings, Crockett and Jones, Timberland, Allen Edmonds, Weinbrenner Boot, C.W. Marsh, just to name a few.


How involved are your customers in specifing product from Horween? Are they mostly ordering stock leathers or, are they helping drive the direction of Horween with special requests such as colors and other characteristics?
We make everything to order, so our customers are as involved in the process as they choose to be. We have core products that we make the same way for several customers, but many orders specify that we make changes to the process.

Do you have a favorite/sentimental meaningful leather good of your own? Maybe one of those baseball gloves, a hand-me-down or, a pair of shoes?
There's a long list! I have a pair of Whiskey Alden Saddle Oxfords that belonged to my grandfather and a cordovan check book cover that belong to my great-grandfather.

There are various ways of maintaining the appearance and health of cordovan leather footwear. What do you recommend?
Less is more. 90 percent of all maintenance should be done with a damp cloth, a fine brush, and a soft, polishing cloth. I condition my shoes very lightly ever 15 to 20 wears and then brush and buff them. Cordovan contains a very high wax and oil content, so adding too much conditioner or paste wax will just cause it to sit up on the surface and build up.

All that, and wear the heck out of them. Cordovan is meant to be worn year-round.

What are your favorite products to use for the preservation and maintenance of shell cordovan?
My standby is neutral Venetian Cream. C.A. Zoes is a great, old Chicago company and they make great stuff. There are so many different great products out there, though. The Saphir line is also great, and I know there are a million different products that people swear by. Everyone has a slightly different preference, so I always encourage people to use the products that give them the appearance they like.

Once shell cordovan is broken in it's very comfortable. However, since it's a more rigid skin the break-in period can be tough on your feet. Any hints on breaking in a new pair of shell cordovan footwear?
Make sure they are the correct size. Shell has very little stretch to it.

How many employees are there currently at Horween?
About 160 currently, plus our agents.

How has the business changed over the past 25 years?
It's become smaller and more specialized. We've had to increasingly do things that people can't do, or won't do. This doesn't mean adding unnecessary steps, it just means that our product has gotten more complex-with the exception of our shell cordovan and Chromexcel, which were just complex from the start.

Some products that we used to run huge amounts of have largely moved overseas. They're products that the market may view as commodities, so companies have reacted by using lower priced raw materials.

Where do you expect Horween Leather to be 20 years from now?
Right here at 2015 North Elston Avenue in Chicago.

When we develop new leathers we do everything the right way and then figure out how much we have to charge. We've made a serious investment in our workforce, and they are what makes our product what it is-that's one thing that won't ever change.

Images courtesy Horween
Last edited:


Distinguished Member
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Jun 1, 2006
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great interview! thanks!


Senior Member
Mar 7, 2011
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Excellent job. Fascinating


Stylish Dinosaur
Dubiously Honored
Oct 16, 2006
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I think Nick should have a talk show. Between Two Shoes with Nick V.


Senior Member
Oct 20, 2009
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Thanks for the interview, Nick. It's great to read a conversation between two masters in the trade. It would've been nice to hear about Nick's thoughts on the leather scarcity and price increases worldwide; it seems that every jacket producer I can think of has had to adapt/raise their prices. Probably a result of the decreasing number of tanneries? Though there are other reasons too I'm sure.


Distinguished Member
Sep 30, 2009
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Thank you Nick and the fine people at Horween!


Senior Member
Jun 3, 2006
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Thank you for posting this. I do wish you had asked about cordovan's reaction to water; both here and on other forums, it seems to be highly schizophrenic when it comes to moisture, with many speculating that hide differences and/or preparation differences contribute to this, but none having been in a position to find out from the source.


Stylish Dinosaur
Sep 3, 2010
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Nick Horween: Horween Leather Company was founded in 1905 by my great, great grandfather, Isadore Horween. He came to Chicago from the Ukraine, where he had worked in a tannery.



Stylish Dinosaur
Dec 6, 2008
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Wow, no idea it took 6 months to produce a piece of shell...

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