A Little Known Luxury
Much has been written and blogged about shell cordovan leather—the ultra durable, beautifully hand-crafted, and mostly-tanned-in-America horse hide. A preppy/trad favorite since Brooks Brothers began stocking Alden shoe examples in the ’60s. Named for the shell-shaped hides that come from the rump of a horse, shell takes on a beautiful character through use — think of how dry denim, starting with the early Levi’s 501 shrink-to-fits of my youth and modern examples from R by 45rpm and Sugarcane take your personal imprint. Only shell does it through wear, not washing.
Like most things sartorial, my first introduction to shell cordovan was through my father. Alden shell cordovan saddle shoes matched up with odd blazers from Brooks and Alden plain toe bluchers, also from Brooks, were the shoe of choice with tan suits, gabardine in fall, and cotton poplin in summer. My college salesman days at Westwood’s preppy ground zero, At Ease, put me in touch with Alden shell cordovan on a daily basis. Too expensive for a student budget, we searched Bass Weejun boxes for inexpensive calf skin penny loafers, whose dye most closely matched the unattainable color of Horween leathers shell cordovan color #8, the traditional Alden/Brooks colorway. But, shell cordovan isn’t just about color, it’s about that magical fingerprint that each owner’s polishing and footprint make on each shoe or accessory.
This magic comes through the lengthy tanning process (see this amazing video here) in which shells are impregnated with natural oils that create a one of a kind creasing and a rubbery “hand” that immediately sets shell apart from any other leather. Polishing techniques for shell are as varied as the aficionados who love the skin, but a key success factor — like most things in life — is that less is more. Polish less frequently—once or twice a year — , use less polish, and brush them occasionally.
But, it’s not just about shoes, it’s about amazing accessories, that take on that delicious rubbery feel. Nick Gabarro of Gabarro Straps–sorry, to the trade only — is known worldwide for his special shell cordovan watch straps that are the bands of choice for enthusiasts and serious collectors like John Mayer, who finds Nick’s pieces at the IWJG watch shows in NY and Las Vegas. Nick also is responsible for the small leather goods now available at Brooks Brothers, and I saw an amazing shell toiletry kit at the NYC Alden store on Madison Avenue. While shell is most seen in the burgundy #8, Nick’s bands and accessories in the brown tones of Whiskey and Cigar are beautiful. I was lucky enough to score a jade green shell cordovan band from Nick at last month’s IWJG show. Alden can be coaxed to make up special order shoes in these less seen colors, and Honolulu-based shoe guru, Tom Park, at Leather Soul Hawaii, has done an amazing job of sourcing the iconic Alden saddle shoes, Indy boots (the kind that Harrison Ford sported in the Indiana Jones films), as well as Chukkas.
The much appreciated, current fascination with all things made in America has shined a light on shell cordovan, and Horween’s Chicago home. But, it was the Japanese love of the hide that brought forth some amazing shoes and products. And while Horween is the gold standard, there is a Tokyo-based tannery apparently turning out decent shell cordovan. On trips to Tokyo years ago, the displays of unique to Japan Aldens, small leather goods and belts, inspired my renewed interest in shell cordovan. Beams in Harajuku always features shell cordovan shoes and accessories.
My personal obsession with shell cordovan isn’t just about shoes. I wear a shell cordovan bracelet daily, carry a shell cordovan glass case, and have an indestructible Gabarro NATO-style shell cordovan strap on a watch that I wear surfing (it only gets better looking, the more it gets wet). My shoe collection includes some of my pairs from At Ease in the early ‘80s, and my original pair of Brooks Brothers, unlined penny loafers, in #8 from the same era. While Alden offers a very reasonably priced restoration service, I haven’t had to use it, but I have seen the results–very impressive. Others include traditional examples of long-wing wingtips in black and #8, Chukkas in cigar, loafers in black and whiskey. And #8 plain-toe bluchers like my dad’s. Ralph Lauren also offers Northampton, England-sourced examples from Crockett and Jones in an amazing rich brown, somewhere between whiskey and cigar. Master shoemaker Silvano Lattanzi is known for his bespoke, fully handmade derbys and bluchers that’ll set you back well into four figures.
I’m not there… yet.