By Jon Gaffney
on 3.25.10

Horween Leather has been around since 1905 and is located in Chicago, IL. They produce leathers for a myriad of uses and companies. Their offerings run the gamut from all the NFL and NBA game balls, to those Shell Cordovan Allen Edmonds you wish you had (Shell leather accounts for only 10% of Horween’s production). Recently, Horween’s presence has been more notable than ever in men’s style circles. We recently got to catch up with the man behind this push, Nick Horween, and pick his brain. We found out some interesting history on this American Heritage company, and a peek into what is next as we move into decade number two of the new millennium.

Gear Patrol: Horween has been around since 1905 producing finished leathers for a companies  in a wide range of industries. I might even go so far to bet that short of militant vegans there’s a good chance the overwhelming majority of our readers have come into contact with a Horween product, and never known it. To lead things off can you give us a brief history of Horween as a company and the leathers Horween produces?

Nick: My great, great grandfather (Isadore Horween) founded I. Horween and Co. in 1905.  He’d been a tanner in the Ukraine and moved to Chicago around the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition – he had some other family that had moved here.  He worked for another tannery before starting his own, and Chicago had numerous tanneries during this time due to tremendous stockyard business that the city did.  From 1905-1920 the company was located on Division Street, not far from our current location.  In 1920 we moved to the building we’re in now, which was actually a tannery previously (the building was built in the late 1880′s).  We originally tanned cordovan only (for razor strops), but the invention of the disposable razor necessitated a transition to a more dynamic mix of products.  As with all family businesses, each generation brings their own value to the operation, at least in successful family businesses.  In the 1940′s my great grandfather developed our business with Wilson for the NFL.  The one constant through the years has been our unwillingness to compromise in terms of our product.  We take the best, domestically sourced raw materials and pair that with really skilled employees who know how to transform those materials into something special.  We’ve developed ourselves to deliver what we feel is some of the highest quality leather available.

In terms of product mix, we have a really wide variety of tannages available (more than 100).  The most familiar being our Football and Sport Leathers, Chromexcel, and Shell Cordovan (a partial list can be seen here: http://horween.com/index.php/leathers/ – then download products at the bottom of the page).  We’re very well known for our Horween Genuine Shell Cordovan, but this accounts for only about 10% of our production.  We do a large amount of business with Wilson, who’s factory is still in the US, and other sporting goods equipment manufacturers – Nike, Spalding, Rawlings, etc.  Shoes and apparel make up the other big part of our business, and we sell to companies like Quoddy, Russell Moccasin, Yuketen, Timberland, Visvim, Alden, and Allen Edmonds, among many others.  All of our products, whether it’s one of the three mentioned above or one of our other leathers, get the same level of attention and scrutiny.  Our production is overseen and scheduled by our Tanner and Plant Superintendent, Chris Koelblinger, who can be seen in this video - http://vimeo.com/4814754.  The guy went to school in Germany to learn the trade, and his father was a tanner before him.  If you want a chemistry lesson, he can definitely give it to you.

GP: That’s really interesting on the whole company starting around razor straps. I wish the need for Horween to expand their product line never came about, then I wouldn’t be a slave to Gilette, but that’s another story.

So leather obviously runs in your blood. Was joining the family business always something you wanted to do?

Nick: It was always in my mind and something that I wanted to get involved with – and something I was involved with every time I needed summer job growing up.  There was never any pressure to join the business, I was lucky that way.  I wanted to get some different experience to establish a little bit of perspective.  As I got older I definitely felt the desire to join the business grow – it’s really special to be part of an entity that actually produces something.  I was never comfortable joining the business just because my last name happened to be right.  So, when there was job that needed to be done here, I gladly accepted.

GP: It seems like you picked a good/interesting time to join the family business with the renewed interest in Americana so to speak. As such what do you feel about the dissolution of mass-manufacturing in America, yet a new reinvigorated growth in smaller independent brands focused on high quality construction, high quality materials, representing the modern day American brand?

Nick: I’d obviously love to see more stuff made here, and the dissolution is strongly consumer driven in my eyes.  Companies move to locations where labor is cheaper and regulations are less stringent, but they’re only profitable in the end because they can still sell product.  The economist in me says that there’s something inevitable (maybe even necessary) about this shift, but it’s impossible for me to not feel troubled by the actual results. The saddest part of the dissolution is the “remember when…” sentiment, where people seek and talk about a product that they can’t find because it’s not available – at least not in it’s pedigreed form.  Although, the manufacturers aren’t without responsibility either – at many points the choice was made to produce it cheap, instead of produce it right.

The new surge of independent brands and labels is a welcomed lean back toward the product and where it comes from.  Perhaps the best thing to come out of the current economy is the informed consumer.  People are more conscious of what they’re buying, and that works well for companies that offer something that has the right balance of quality to aesthetic to price.  I’ll be one of the first to say that it’s easier to run huge volumes instead of the relatively small orders that are needed for a lot of the independent projects. But, it’s immediately apparent that it’s worth it based on the appreciation that the designers have of raw materials and the end consumer has of the finished product.

GP: I’m gonna put you on the spot here. What’s you favorite/most interesting account you’ve gotten to work with that’s come from this surge of independent brands? Why?

Nick: I’m not going to pick just one, since there are just so many interesting ideas and approaches out there.  I think that even the more established brands have been really stepping up and offering some products that are new and different.  Alden’s uncompromising tradition and quality, Visvim’s involvement and design, Yuketen’s design and practical approach, and Altadena’s and Makr’s appreciation for the leather and the product come to mind, just to name a few.

GP: All brands we lust over regularly here at Gear Patrol. Anything interesting coming down the pipe with Horween that you’d like to share?

Nick: We’ve been doing lots of wacky colors for spring for various customers – bright orange, emerald green, canary yellow, reds, and blues – so it will be interesting to see those products in shoes during the upcoming months.  Beyond that, we’re working on a little offshoot project – Horween Genuine Products.  The plan is to offer a collection of products, utilizing our leathers, to the end consumer.  Accessories, leather care products, etc.  Items that we feel are made the right way.  We’re still in the planning phases, but we hope to have a product line ready to go by late spring of 2010.

GP: Very cool! We fully expect a heads up when that goes live. Alright lastly, when can we come take a tour?

Nick: The next time you’re in Chicago.

photos by Rick Gersbach and Brett Nadal

ADVENTURE IS ONE CLICK AWAY

Subscribe to GP for a daily dose of the best in gear, adventure, design, tech and culture. 5pm sharp.