Shell Shock: The Growing Demand for the Horse Leather Known as Cordovan

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."

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.

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."

Christian Chensvold is a New York-based Apparel contributing writer.