I make a concerted effort to reduce the amount of leather that comes into my life. As a vegan-adjacent lover of nice clothes that last in both their quality and their style, and as one who tries to do his part as a guardian of animals and the environment, I choose what I buy very carefully.
It wasn’t long ago that my choices were far more frivolous, trendy and disposable, but I’ve tried to grow up since then, seeing my purchases more like investments for the long haul. This budget-conscious guy has learned the hard way that cheaper is not necessarily better. The $225 Florsheim Kenmoor Imperial wing tips I thought were such a great idea proved to be made with substandard leather that broke down after only a couple of years of regular wearing. Being extremely sensitive to animal welfare, I was not okay with just buying another pair, and then another pair two years after that, and so on, dumping more money and dead animal hide into a broken cycle. I needed something that was going to last. A “one and done” kind of a thing.
When suiting up, the shoes I lean on most are my wingtips and chukka boots from Alden. I came to Alden many years ago after reading the work of other enthusiasts of style and craft, who enlightened me about the time-honored craftsmanship standards of a company that has been making superlative boots and shoes in Massachusetts since 1884. I learned about things like Goodyear welt construction, pure vegetable tanning and Horween genuine shell cordovan.
The thing that always stopped me from purchasing Alden shoes was the price. A pair of shell cordovan wingtips or chukka boots costs almost $800/pair. That’s a lot of money for me. But the prospect of continually re-purchasing cheaper shoes every couple of years and throwing them away because they degrade or fall apart became less appealing (and more expensive over time, if you do the math).
About ten years ago, I tried on my first pair of shell cordovan Alden chukka boots at the Alden store on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan. I finally understood what really good shoes felt like. They felt amazing, and looked great, of course. That day, I pulled the trigger on a pair in Color 8 (a very dark burgundy, basically). They were a steep purchase, but I didn’t have any buyer’s remorse with them. I knew that these were a solid investment that would take care of me for the rest of my days.
Since then, when finances allowed over the years, I acquired three more pairs of Aldens in shell cordovan: the same pair of chukka boots in black, and two identical pairs of long wing tips, one pair in black, one in Color 8. These four pairs compose my core collection.
And let me be clear… When I say “when finances have allowed,” I’m not suggesting that the expense of almost $800 for a pair of shoes was easy. I’d say that each purchase put a considerable dent in my budget. The purchase might have hurt or stung a little, but only once.
The thing about shell cordovan…
I don’t get off on buying leather, as I’ve said. In fact, any new leather in my life is limited to the very rare purchase of new shoes. Shell cordovan is an extraordinarily durable leather that comes from the hind quarters of a horse. It gives me some comfort to know that the horses sourced for this leather are not young steeds bred for this purpose but, rather, older animals at the end of life. For a good explanation of shell cordovan, I’ll refer to an old issue of GQ magazine that laid it out pretty well:
… this leather is made from the “shell,“ a membrane on the part of the horse that goes over the fence last. For some reason, this is where the most nonporous leather known to man is found. Each horse provides two shells, enough to produce one pair of shoes. Genuine shell-cordovan shoes are known for their shiny finish, durability, and flexibility. The word cordovan comes from Córdoba, Spain, where the natural vegetable tanning of these hides originated, but the lone remaining factory in the States that produces shell cordovan in the painstaking, time-consuming traditional manner is Horween Leather Company of Chicago, the same outfit that tans the leather for NFL footballs. The process is labor-intensive, so cordovans are quite pricey. The most popular cordovan shoes are those made by Alden (the sole remaining shoe manufacturer in New England), Allen-Edmonds of Wisconsin, and Crockett & Jones of London.”
And there you have it on shell cordovan.
Shoes made with shell cordovan can be a bitch to break in – more so than regular cow leathers. But once you’ve broken them in, they’ve formed nicely to the foot and provide a lifetime of comfortable, durable wear.
As for care, they’re actually easier to maintain than other leather shoes. I basically just use a little Saphir Renovateur, which is arguably the best shoe care product on the market, and a good horsehair shoe shine brush, which I use every time I put the shoes or boots on. Occasionally, I’ll use Saphir’s black or burgundy shoe cream specially formulated for cordovan leather, but these shoes don’t always need that extra step, believe it or not. And I’m not one for a flashy mirror-like gloss to my shoes, so no extra steps there.
Another important point of shoe care: I don’t wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row, giving them a rest with cedar shoe trees in them between wearings. Cedar shoe trees help with drying, odor control and maintenance of the shoe’s shape while your foot’s not in it.
$3,200 for four pairs of shoes seems like a lot. It is a lot. But if you do the math (value = cost/time) and consider what many guys spend over and over through the years on cheaper shoes, many of which cannot be resoled or re-crafted, I feel quite confident that I made the right choices with these. As I write this, I’m still glad I spent the money I did. Because I don’t need to spend any more. For a very long time, if ever.
For further reading, check out this smart piece on shell cordovan shoes by Gerald Ortiz in Gear Patrol. And for advice from whom I consider to be the authority on shoe care practices, read my piece on Kirby Allison.