Shell Shock: The Growing Demand For The Horse Leather Known As Cordovan


A couple of months ago, while browsing at the Alden shop in New York, I made a casual inquiry about a shoe in shell cordovan. I must have asked for an unusual color and style combo, because I was told it would take six months to get it, and that there was a waiting list of 150 or so guys in front of me with orders at the factory.

I decided to investigate the topic for Apparel Magazine, which I’ve contributed to for over a decade. The story is slated to see print in the June issue but went online today. Here’s the text in its entirety. — CC

* * *

Shell Shock: The Growing Demand For The Horse Leather Known As Cordovan
By Christian Chensvold, 4/13/2016

When brothers James and Edward Tognioni revived the Nettleton shoe brand in 2013, they opted for a global approach to this storied American brand originally founded in 1879. They settled on a Belgian shoemaker to craft the footwear, which is priced in the $800-$1,200 range, and when it came to sourcing shell cordovan — that hardy leather made from the hind quarters of a horse — they practically had to scour the ends of the earth.

Cordovan comes from the Spanish word for from cordoba, and has long been a staple of traditional men’s dress shoes. It molds to the foot better than calf and develops a distinctive patina, a discrete signal of affluence and taste for the trained eye to spot.

Not to flog a dead horse, but there’s been a growing shortage of cordovan that’s not going to let up any time soon. Thanks in part to what can only be described as #menswear, demand for cordovan has skyrocketed over the past several years thanks to blogs, message boards and social media, which have exposed younger consumers to loafers and lace-ups made of shell cordovan.

Part of the crunch is that there are only a few tanneries that produce horse leather. Chicago-based Horween Leathers, founded in 1905, is the world’s leading producer. When Nettleton decided to start offering cordovan shoes one year into its comeback, it was forced to look beyond Horween. “Cordovan requires a long tanning process,” says Edward Tognioni, “the material is limited, and demand is relatively high. Prices keep going up and it’s increasingly difficult to get.”

Nettleton found an agent in London who sourced hides from Japan that were sent to England and Italy for tanning. So far the agent has been able to meet orders in six to eight weeks. Nettleton orders 50 to 100 “shells,” or hides at a time (it generally takes 1 1/2 shells to make a pair of shoes). Nettleton offers a variety of cordovan styles, which are priced at $1,295 and sold through trunk shows, e-commerce, and select retail accounts. “You have to care for cordovan a great deal more than calf because it dries out and there’s a lot of calcium in it,” says Tognioni. “But once it absorbs the creams and lotions it takes on a really beautiful patina finish and will last forever.”

Vintage Nettleton for Noone Shell Cordovan Full Brogue Budapester10D (2)

If Nettleton had to go to the ends of the earth to source shell cordovan, that’s because demand is also spanning the globe. Allen Edmonds CEO Paul Grangaard sees pressures beyond just men’s wear geeks on the Internet. “The increase in China’s interest in luxury goods, combined with a reduction in the consumption of horsemeat in French and French Canadian cooking, has resulted in a great deal of pressure on supply,” he says.

Allen Edmonds gets its cordovan entirely from Horween and wouldn’t think of using another tannery. “It’s a scarce resource for certain, so we’re careful with it. Availability is increasing slightly in 2016, but it takes several months for increased supplies of raw hides to be turned into finished cordovan for shoemaking. If there were more cordovan available, we’d be able to put it to great use. We’d thrill a lot more customers if we had more of it, and we’d market it much more consistently.”

Allen Edmonds chooses to stock the raw material rather than finished shoes, and shoes are made to order in a customer’s exact size. The extra weeks of lag time is because of a custom order, not a lack of raw material. A pair of tassel loafers or oxfords will set you back $650.

Middleborough, Mass.-based Alden, known for its quality and conservative styles, is another decades-long customer of Horween. “They treat us very fairly,” says president Robert Clark. “We don’t have a supply problem, we have a demand problem. Supply is not at historic highs, but nor is it really low. However, the demand for cordovan has skyrocketed.”

For Clark, Alden was a brand and cordovan a material that most men didn’t discover until farther along in their careers, but the Internet has changed all that. Alden does not sell directly, but via a handful of independently owned Alden retail stores and through select specialty stores. Wait times for cordovan are reasonable, Clark says, except when it comes to certain colors, such as the coveted “cigar” shade of brown. “There are special colors of cordovan that we receive only intermittently,” he says, which can result in customer wait times of six months.

allenedmonds_shoes_grayson_burgundy_cordovan (1)

Despite the price and demand, it’s still possible to be a small artisan and work in cordovan. Two years ago Jesse Ducommun founded Guarded Goods as a hobby (he works by day as a business analyst for a food company). Working out of his Burnsville, Minn., home, he became a self-taught leather goods craftsman and sells cordovan key fobs, watch straps and wallets priced from $55 to $385.

Ducommun first began sourcing cordovan from Horween through a program called Tannery Row aimed at individual craftsmen. Still, he had to wait five months for a hide that was less than a square foot in size. As he became a more regular customer, wait times decreased, but only in two main colors: black and burgundy. “Depending on what they have in stock, the wait could be a month or it could be a year. You just never know.”

In order to get more colors, Ducommun began ordering shells from Shinki Hikaku in Japan, Joseph Clayton & Sons in England, and Rocado SRL in Italy. The prices differ dramatically. Ducommun pays about $102 per square foot for cordovan from Horween; $70 for the English, $65 for the Japanese, and $55 for the Italian. “They all have a different feel based on how they’re tanned,” he says, “and they’re all chasing Horween, the gold standard.”

In sharp contrast, the most expensive calf leather Ducommun knows of runs $15 per square foot. There’s a reason Richard III didn’t say, “My kingdom for a cow.”

Top photo, Alden via Alden Of San Diego.

Second photo, vintage Nettleton via Classic Shoes For Men.

Third photo via Allen Edmonds.

28 Comments on "Shell Shock: The Growing Demand For The Horse Leather Known As Cordovan"

  1. Paul Carter | April 13, 2016 at 11:52 am |

    I have been waiting a couple of years for Alden to restock Brooks with the classic Bluchers. Did you get any intel on Brooks supply, Christian?

  2. I’m glad that for some of us cordovan is simply a shade of shoe polish that we use on our burgundy shoes.

  3. I’d welcome any advice as to the” creams and lotions”- I’m talking shoes here – as I have a care book I believe from Alden that rejects polish and says the oils come out through vigorous brushing. As my pairs were bought between 300-500 and apparently are my only successful investment I’d like to maintain them.

  4. @Paul Carter – Are you referring to the 5 eyelet plain toe blucher? Is there a difference between the rebranded one Brooks sells and the one that comes directly from Alden? I’ve compared the the tassel moc in color code 8 from Brooks and Alden, and couldn’t find a difference except the stamping on the insole and the boxes.

  5. Paul Carter | April 13, 2016 at 1:36 pm |

    To BeefSupreme: The Alden Blucher has a wider sole and is more or less the design of the long wingtip minus the perforated trim. The Brooks Blucher is a bit trimmer and a unique design with the brass eyelets on the outside of the shoe — truly a classic. Brooks used to carry a cordovan and a calf version, both from Alden.

  6. CC writes, “Grangaard sees (demand for cordovan) beyond just men’s wear geeks on the Internet.

    Christian, is that anyway to describe your adoring blog fan boys?

    Got my #8 Aden LHSs circa 1994. On my third set of soles and heels (i.e., resoled twice). I pretty much ruined the color and appearance of the leather through negligent use of ordinary polish (who knew?) but they came back great from an Alden factory refinish circa 2005.

    Horween used to recommend using Venetian Shoe Creme to keep the leather supple. That plus vigorous brushing has maintained a great appearance for me. Some people like to fade them in direct sunlight – prop them up in a window – which can produce interesting but unpredictable results.

  7. Are the horses grass fed?

  8. From 1935 Barrie Ltd. Booters in the J.Press building on York Street featured Cordovans tanned & finished by Arnold Horween “in the accepted models for Yale Men; plain toe Boucher, wing tip brogue, plain toe with black saddle.” 8.50 and $10.00 Another popular model featured Horween’s Shell Cordovan introduced by Barrie’s in the Norwegian Moccasin, “the shoe slipper that has taken the University by storm. This fine wearing leather gives you more sturdiness while retaining the comfort of the moccasin.” $7.00

  9. Absolutely agree. In Spain very close to Córdoba in the City Of Seville, we have an artisan Antonio Enrile, he splain the same for years. He does rtw mto and bespoke in Shell from horween. I give you the link If you like to see his works.

  10. Ah! He have cigar colour whithout problem. The most demanded are the 8 and black

  11. Alden sends their own polish with each horween purchase. I haven’t used it yet as I’m not big on the high shine look. So many of my colleagues live for the “I paid the guy at the airport $20 to get mine looking like this” look. A rather pedestrian look if you ask me.

  12. I recall reading somewhere that in the 1800s the primary market for cordovan leather was for strops to keep straight razors … well, razor sharp – untold thousands of barber shops.

    At the Horween site Nick remarked in 2009: “Horween Leather used to do their primary cordovan business for the making razor strops. Clearly, the invention by good ol’ Mr. Gillette didn’t do a lot to help that business.”

    Straight razors have made something of a comeback and a Horween sources cordovan strop to maintain them run $250+.:

  13. Paul Carter, I have been waiting too. I have been in contact with someone I know fairly well at Alden hq, and she said that Brooks isn’t ordering as much shell as it used to. Sounds like they want to discontinue that model. Same story with the shell wingtip.

    The Brooks model of the ptb is made on the sleeker M58 last, not the common Barrie. It also has metal eyelets and no storm welt. Better looking for sure to my eye.

  14. I don’t think I would want to be caught wearing shoes made from the carcasses of Slaughtered Horses, that were inhumanly butchered alive. Yeah that’s what I want people to know when they see my Slaughtered Horse Hide shoes!!!

  15. Ava Spencer | August 17, 2016 at 3:51 am |

    Leslie Baur. I am a horse owner. A kind and considerate one. That said, I believe we should have a decent place and laws governing the harvesting of horse product. You are correct that we are inhumane in our practices. That can be changed. There needs to e a place for the horse product to be harvested. There is no reason to not eat horse or use it’s product if it is done humanly.

  16. Ava, I too am a horse owner and a very kind and considerate one! I’d like to see you harvested, humanely, of course. Or perhaps humanly, as you put it.

  17. Do any of you lot understand that a horse died to make your fucking shoes?

  18. Did it die for the reason of making shoes or was it dying/dead anyway?

  19. I believe it had to die for your shoes. Our wild horses are being slaughtered against the wishes of most US citizens. Please do not buy these shoes . 🙁

  20. These are the beautiful, healthy horses you are using for your shoes. The killer buyer often outbids the rescuers each week at auction, then only leaves us an average of 2 days to save 40 horses, at double the prices he paid, but just over the prices he’ll get at the Mexican border. People cry when they drop the horses off, but have no options when forced to suddenly move for new jobs, or when landlords want to cash in on double rents. Realtors dump the horses of a dead relative at auction and pocket the money, because their remote adult children are too swamped to do anything else at such short notice. Bullets bounce off of their skulls, and captive bolt doesn’t work like it does on cattle, so the Mexicans stab the back of a horse, trapped in a squeeze, with a large pair of scissors, over and over, until the screaming, desperate horse is finally paralyzed in the back and falls. They then lift the horse up by a back leg and process them, fully conscious. If there is a foal inside, they are thrown into a pile alongside of the ID chips that were never scanned for possible theft. The vast majority of these horses are sweet, rideable. and sound, but it’s just crazy finding homes for them in just 2 days at $700-1000 apiece. Dude ranches dump perfect horses in order to not bother to feed them over the winter. Embryo transfer surrogate mares are dumped at the end of the breeding season by this one lady veterinarian who made a nice profit this year, but she was also too lazy to feed them over the winter. It is just horrible. And AQHA loves slaughter, because they make money on foal registrations. It is sickening, and completely unnecessary. Warmblood breeders don;’t overbreed, and we get $15-20K per horse, green broke at age 3. A good horse is rideable well into their 20’s, and a 21 year old won an Olympic medal in dressage. USDA will not allow sick, three legged lame, or mares just about to foal to ship. The ideal horse to ship is well behaved, fat, and sound. Mares not about to foal in the next day or two still ship. Many horses ship with shoes on their hooves, the sweat marks of a saddle on their back, and a bridle path shaved behind their ears. Many have registration papers, but at the border, they are swapped with 6 month older papers, so the horse is processed without any hope of flushing the human carcinogens from their systems. Here are some of these horses Many are pictured being hugged. Many have already been shipped several states from an auction to this killer feed lot, dehydrated and sick, and many are all injured and scraped from being stuffed into a poorly maintained sharp edged, stock trailer with 20-30 other scared horses. This lot owner’s trailer causes at least one horse to have a deep gouge down their face, shoulder, or rump — every time he hauls — their dozens of bodies each year, week after week, haven’t worn the offending piece of metal smooth yet.

  21. Oh, and thanks to a ban on stallions entering Mexico (they were being made to fight to the death for sport), colts and stallions are gelded WITHOUT PAIN RELIEF (would contaminate the meat!), before they are loaded to the trailer to Mexico. The USDA inspector will not sign off until their balls are off, and older stallions especially risk bleeding to death on the ride down. So in order for your feet to look studly, a male horse had to lose his manhood in excruciating pain (the clamp has to stay on for almost 2 minutes, each side, and that’s for a younger male).

  22. Horses have photographic memories. I can take my mare around an obstacle course, disassemble it, harrow the ground, and the next day she will make every exact turn, then demand a carrot. She would watch the horses ahead of her, going around the show jumping course before her, and automatically knew which way to go when it was her turn. If she was still confused between a double and a triple combo ahead of her, I would whisper jump-jump for a double, she’d line right up to it, and shorten her stride. Jump-jump-jump, and her stride would shorten even more as she found the triple. She knows dozens of verbal commands. Go for it! means that she can skim the last jump without worrying about being collected for another, and when she sees a finish line, she gallops full speed to it, then WALKS. When I lost a stirrup over a jump, she slowed her canter until I got my foot back in, and then sped back up, and we still got a ribbon. When her 1.5 yr old daughter wanted 2 carrots for free jumping the 4.5 ft jump in the chute, I said, no — not unless you jump TWICE as high, pointing toward the top of the 8 ft vertical posts. That filly went humpf! trotted right back into that chute, and I caught a picture of her body blocking the top of the vertical post behind that jump. She trotted out of that chute, turn sharply to me, and she got two carrots. I can go on and on and on, but when the world record for horse age in the 60’s and the oldest donkey was recently 70, and my black mare was still giving walk trot lessons to children the week she died at 30, and veterans with PTSD are given a reason to live while hugging a formerly abused horse, and when a little mare will risk her life, despite being shot repeatedly with bullets, to bring ammunition to her unit, and carry wounded back, all day long, on her own, without anyone leading her — these are not the individuals who you make shoes out of.

  23. Annemarie Fitzgerald | August 20, 2016 at 1:27 pm |

    You do realize that horses have done more for mankind than any other animal on the planet!

    And this is how you repay them?

    By you marketing these (cordovan) shoes you are telling the world you are Pro-Slaughter!
    Horses are prey animals, that means the littlest things can scare them so for you to look (what you call good); a horse died a horrific death!!!!

    You must care more about your wallet than other living beings!

    When it comes to your dying days, how are you going to explain this to your god?

    I would not want to be in your shoes! Pun intended!

    Annemarie Fitzgerald

  24. Bless the beasts and the children…..the use of our beloved horses for vanity is wrong on every level. Do not buy these shoes…please.

  25. Only a sick person would knowingly wear cordovan leather as it is made from slaughtered horses some of which were stolen from their owners, however it is a free world but consumers should know the truth. I for one boycott any business that sells cordovan leather.

  26. I think that it is sad that only a few tanneries still exist and that of the few still in existence, only three still produce Cordovan leather.

  27. Very sad. If more people knew the truth I believe the popularity of Shell Cordovan would decrease. Shell Cordovan needs to be renamed to “innocent-horses-slaughtered-for-your-gluttonous-savage-selfish-feet” Has a ring to it, correct?

  28. I was told that only hides from horses that died of natural causes were used in Alden shoes but sure enough, that’s a fairytale. No cordovan anything for me. I love well made clothing including shoes, but loathe cruelty to animals more.

Comments are closed.