Horween Leather Company

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Aug 31, 2011 | By Andy

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While it's unlikely that you've ever heard of Horween Leather Co., chances are you've enjoyed the supple fruits of its labor, which can be found spiraling through the air in NFL stadiums, pinned against NBA backboards, and worn on the discerning feet of dudes who use the term haberdashery casually.

Horween traces its roots back to 1905 when the great-grandfather of today's CEO founded his eponymous tannery on the banks of the Chicago River. Despite intense local competition from over two dozen tanneries for the precious scraps supplied by Chicago's meatpacking district, Horween quickly made a name for itself tanning cordovan leather for razor strops.

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 Although razor strops eventually went the way of the horse and carriage, Horween's focus on craftsmanship, coupled with tougher-than-a-$2-dollar-steak resolve, allowed it to survive in a brutal industry and eventually expand into other arenas. And literally so. In the 1940's, Horween was tasked with designing a better football for the NFL. Fast forward nearly 70 years and almost every leather football you see today (Wilson, Spalding, Nike, Rawlings) first passed through the hands of a Horween craftsman. And by the way, pigskin is a misnomer; footballs are constructed from steer hides. !http://i1114.photobucket.com/albums/k538/aforch/Horween/Horween1.jpg! While Horween leather often enjoys the bright lights of stadiums and fashion shows, the path to the glitz and glam ain't easy. It's hot, sticky, and extremely complicated (...no, won't go there). Consider Horween's Chromexcel - its flagship leather used by footwear titans like Timberland and Wolverine - which undergoes at least 89 separate processes, takes 28 working days and utilizes all five floors of Horween's facility. Horween's world-famous Shell Cordovan leather is equally laborious. Sourced from the hindquarters of a horse, Cordovan leather requires six months of tanning and an entire butt cheek to make a shoe. Horween's manufacturing facility, a Chicago institution tucked on four acres between Elston and Ashland Avenues, houses over 150 skilled craftsmen who meticulously treat every animal skin that is trucked in. Fur is removed using chemical agents, and hides are softened in giant chemical vats, dried and cut into smaller pieces. Doesn't get any more roll-up-your-sleeves than this.   !http://i1114.photobucket.com/albums/k538/aforch/Horween/Horween3.jpg! All of which reinforces the fact that operating a tannery isn't for the faint of heart. Unlike his great-grandfather who competed against more than two dozen local tanneries, current CEO Arnold Horween III finds himself operating a virtual monopoly as one of the last American tanners standing, and taking blows his great-grandather never had to endure.  Blows you can't side-step, like through-the-roof hide prices and the outflow of business to lower-cost, less-regulated countries like China and India. The meatpacking plants that once surrounded Horween's facility have since been replaced by giant box stores like Kohl's and Best Buy, the result of skyrocketing commercial real estate prices. !http://i1114.photobucket.com/albums/k538/aforch/Horween/Horween2.jpg! Still, you get the sense that Horween wouldn't have it any other way, because they've never known any other way (that way being the proverbial hard way). And with a roster of entrenched customers-for-life, including the NFL, NBA, Timberland, and Allen Edmonds, coupled with a resurgence of American-made brands, it seems safe to say Horween will be around to see the Cubs win a few World Series. !http://i1114.photobucket.com/albums/k538/aforch/Horween/Horween6.jpg! !http://i1114.photobucket.com/albums/k538/aforch/Horween/Horween4.jpg! Photos courtesy of Chicago-based photographer Katie Hovland.