At Horween, the best is yet to come: a leather tannery with traditional methods and a modern approach

Isadore Horween was only interested in the best: “the best hides, the best oils, the best dyes and finishes.” He was a young man with vision, ambition, and a background in leather trade. Originally from Kiev, Isadore immigrated to Chicago at the turn of the 20th century and his leather skills helped him land a job with a local tannery. After twelve dedicated years working at one of the dozen tanneries located along the banks of the Chicago River, Isadore founded Horween Leather Company on Division Street in 1905. 

The company's headquarters at 2015 Elston Ave in Chicago, a five-story block-long building they moved into in 1920.

In keeping with Isadore’s philosophy, John Culliton started Tannery Row in 2011, a subdivision of Horween Leather Company. John, whose father worked at the tannery for over fifty years, and who spent much of his childhood around the leather trade, founded Tannery Row with the goal of diversifying Horween as a business and catering to smaller companies and artisans. Tannery Row allows someone to place a custom order without any minimum purchase requirements. Prior to its inception, Horween only allowed companies to place big orders. This opportunity for flexibility and attention to detail helps foster relationships with start-ups, a vital segment of the market previously pushed out. Now, after nearly a decade of steady growth, mainly thanks to word of mouth, Tannery Row has over 750 customers.

But Tannery Row’s success did not appear out of the leather-laden air. Horween came to an important juncture several years ago: outsource the majority of their production to China or stay put in Chicago, a decision that could ultimately decide the fate of a century-old company. During the late 1970’s-1980’s many US companies chose to shift their manufacturing overseas because it was cheaper. In keeping with its American roots, Horween continued to source and produce in the US. As Culliton says; “we stayed true to who we are, but we could have made a wrong turn and followed the wave”. It was risky, due to the additional cost, but ultimately very wise, since this choice benefited the company’s quality control and enduring all-American story.

When Ranchlands was searching for tanneries to partner with, Horween stood out because of its history and commitment to quality and sustainability. During the early 1980’s Arnold Horween Jr., the company’s CEO at the time, suggested Horween switch to water-based solvents, an environmentally conscious approach that few had even heard of. Arnold, a pioneer in the leather world, also said that “as tanneries go we’re not the biggest, the fastest, or the cheapest, which means we need to be the best. Our business is built on doing things other people don’t, won’t, or can’t.” Arnold didn’t want Horween to end up with a twisted fate like A.C Lawrence Leather Company, which “was fined $388,420, all for willfully dumping hazardous wastes into a river and lying about it.” He had the foresight to “see ahead of the curve” says Culliton, and lead the company into a dynamic future.

There’s a strong intersection of tradition and innovation at the center of the Horween brand. An unwavering commitment to the old ways but a fresh outlook on the future, a resolve to tan leather hides using eco-conscious and effective tanning methods. Horween’s most recent collaboration with Clarks shoes features an olive tanned leather boot which, you guessed it, uses olive leaves to tan the hide. For now, Horween has no plans to make their own leather products since they are far more interested in curating a small selection of goods made by artisans they admire. That’s the central tenet of Tannery Row, anyways, to provide entrepreneurs with the leather canvas to make their products and for Tannery Row to support them along the way.

 

Nicks Boots, a custom bootmaker based in Spokane, Washington, makes their boots using Horween Chromexcel leather. 

 

Chrome excel leather is a fantastic example of the marrying of old and new and a founding leather of Horween Leather Company. The original formula for this combination tanned leather is hand-written in a book and uses chrome and vegetable tannins. A blend is made from tree bark and chestnut and is cooked for twenty four hours in-house before it’s applied to a hide. The entire tanning process takes about thirty five days, short for the commercial leather market and normal for the tannery niche that Horween is a part of. Chromexcel is a favorite of the Horween staff and Ranchlands artisans because of the final stain, that glorious coat that allows you to “look into the leather.” Serving as a kind of magnifying glass into the grains of the hide, this aniline finish is a way to protect and celebrate the naturally occurring imperfections. Ranchlands artisans also like it because of its pliability, making it an ideal candidate for everything from bag gussets to chap fringe. 

A Ranchlands Crossbody Bag for Filson featuring a dark brown Horween Chromexcel leather gusset.

 

Horween is at the top of a very short list that includes Herman Oak, in St. Louis, Missouri and J&FJ Baker and Co., in Devon, England; two tanneries that are both more than a century old and employ traditional techniques alongside modern technology. Their successes are built on balance, a reliance on time-tested methods and a willingness to adapt. Exceptional craftsmanship and a truly American story, that’s what you’ll find in a Horween hide.