Cordovan Horsehide: The Best of Japan and Himel Bros.

horsehide

Curing horse butts and fronts

The journey of Himel Brothers Leather has been about  learning to make the most amazing accurate jackets possible.  I have travelled  the world looking for the best zippers, leather and parts that exist.  I spent years hunting the internet and carefully examining all the amazing Japanese and North  American brands looking at the plus’ and the minus of each one.  I counted stitches, disassembled jackets and contacted every living person I could track down that had worked in the leather jacket industry.  I was very very surprised  to find that many of the people who had worked for many of the great brands were still alive and well and that many of them were still working in the schmata business.  In my hunt for the perfect leather I spoke with many people who had built some of the earliest leather jackets in North America.  I asked them where they got their leather from, which tanneries,  and what kinds of leather.  Many of them regailed me with great stories and some of them even gave me specifications  right down to formulations for the tannages of the leather.  I spoke with the head tanner of Dominion Tanners now retired in Edmonton.  Wolfgang was the head chemist for one of the biggest tanneries in the world.  Each one was a small step or a clue to unlock the  puzzle of leather.  After reading several books published before 1900 on the art of tanning my email rang with a friendly hello from a stranger.   John Chapman of Goodwear Leather emailed me out of the blue and introduced himself.  Hundreds of hours on the phone later John and I became good friends.  Without people helping me I would have never found my way to Japan.

Nancy and I marvelled at our journey to the tanneries of Southern Japan.  Onto a bullet train we watched in awe as city after city flew past.  Names we had only seen on the news were right there flying by at hundreds of kilometres an hour and when we arrived at our destination.  The openess and generosity of Japanese culture astounded us.  The owner of the tannery picked us up at the train station with an took us on a tour of his town.  He was as proud of his city as he was of his business!

Horsehide tanning is an age old business as horses produce the finest shoe and garment leather in the world.  Horsehide is renowned for its strength and weight, waterproofness and wearability.  There are very few cordovan tanneries left in the world and Japan has some of the finest.  These horse skins are the pride of Europe, imported to Japan specifically for  the tannery.  The tanneries of Japan select the finest best grown and treated horses of Europe where stringent regulations and animal treatment produce well cared for animals.  At the end of the lives they are slaughtered for the food industry and the hides are exported.   When they come in the “green” horsehides are in the salted and preserved stage.  To make cordovan you must first use a cool notched bench to cut the bean shaped butt off from the fronts of the hide.  The butt has the best properties for shoes and the fronts are used for garments. The hides are washed, dehaired and cleaned of fat.  After that cleansing,  each hide goes for a long long bath…months long with agitators soaking in a liquor of bark and water imported from Australia.  This mimosa tannage produces an incredible product  After soaking in the bath skins are carefully sorted, dried and stored for months allowing them to cure and shrink.  This curing is part of what makes a superior hide.  This shrinks the fibres and compresses the skin.  Of course losing 30 percent of that skin by shrinkage is partly what makes the leather a premium product…that and it takes months to make a single hide.  After hides are tanned, stored and shrunk, they are finished.  Finishing involves milling, or tumbling the hides to soften them up, bring out the grain, dying, bating (adding oil or other solutions back into the skin) skiving and sanding, and finally putting finish on the leather.  I buy the best leathers in the world from the last few tanneries that have been open and family run since the war.  This father and son operation is run with the same care and commitment that goes into the production of every Himel Brothers Leather jacket.  Their clients include Goodwear Leathers, The Flathead, Real McCoys, Toys McCoys and Me!

 


Inspiration 2011: Los Angeles’ Premier Vintage Show and Himel Brothers

 

 

Some very exciting happenings and goings on have pushed me to buying plane tickets and travelling the long journey backwards in time to Los Angeles.  Rin Tanaka, the resident genius of vintage photography and networking organized the premier vintage clothing/surf /bike culture jam in L.A.  I attended last year with my first samples of jackets sharing a boot with my good friend Robert Medellin and his fledgling Ace Boot company .  I had every intention of attending this year as a press member to cover the happening for my other vintage leather jacket blog, however my good friend and colleague Eric Schrader of  Junkyard Jeans impressed upon me the need for a booth.  So I caved and brought my Himel Brothers Jackets to Los Angeles for Inspiration 2011 and am I ever happy I did.  This years show was bigger and more splendorous than last years show!

 

We landed in L.A and hit the ground running….straight to the rental company. It never ceases to amaze me how great customer service in the United States is especially when compared to Canada.  Rental cars are practically free!  After a night spent reminiscing in Culver City we got up early,  jet lagged and made our way down to the Queen Mary. What a sight the ship is.  Long Beach is gorgeous and the Queen Mary dwarfs the more modern cruise ships moored there. It just reeks of 1930s aesthetic right down to the visible bolts which hold the plating and skeleton of the ship together…but I digress.

 

I had a frenzied week leading up to the show to get some kind of display together.  Realistically I was in panic mode in Toronto and did not think I could design and print a handout in time to get to L.A. and the show.  I somehow pulled through with the help of my very patient co-conspirator Nancy, who was walking on eggshells with her gentle and constructive critiques of my last minute aesthetics.

 

 

 

As soon as we got our passes from Rin’s expert team I dropped off my giant dufflebag of jackets to our booth and immediately got my camera out.  Eric embraced us all and gave my wife one of his gorgeous Japanese denim bags.  It is stunningly made of old turn of the century indigo denim cloth used in Japanese workers garments and 100 year old saki bags!  I think this made up for the stressy state I was in and Nance had a pleased glow now flush with a new present.

The sheer scale of the ship is jaw dropping. Over 1000 ft. long and over 81000 Tonnes the magnitude of the “Grey Ghost” is astounding.  She was built to outcompete with other superlux ships, launched  in 1936.   The show was taking place on 3 floors of the Queen Mary in the centre of the boat.  The vessel had the centre guts removed and turned into a vast convention hall complete with rickety freight elevator.  I sent Nancy off to get herself breakfast and decided to look around at the “before” state of the booths, because the “after”  state everybody would be busy schmoozing.  It was clear some were tired, some people were jet lagged and some were having a gay old time just hanging about and greeting old friends.  I wandered up the stairs and started  the first floor.  The entry way contained many of the super-displays of the local vintage fashion and culture genius’.  Levis had a booth with all of there replica and sunset brand era denim, Hollywood Trading Co had a booth, and some of the coolest stuff there were old, and very very expensive vintage motorcycle displays by the likes of artist and sculptor (among other things) Jeff Decker.

 

For me,  most of these people setting up are alien and unknown.  I rarely get to attend shows or the Rosebowl living in the arctic breeze of Canada so I am a bit of a babe-in-the-woods.  I took my camera and my good Canadian nature and went around and introduced myself as I figured it was the proper thing to do.  Wow, some of the displays were just dope!

Nancy came back from foodification and she helped me set up our jackets in the booth.  Eric and the team from Junkyardjeans outdid themselves.  Our booth looked amaazing.  Old medical cots had transformed a black cloth square booth into a mash tent. At the centre of the tent was an original turn of the century chain stitch machine and its operator,  Fabienne gorgeous Swiss chainstitch genius.  We got set up and the booth looked ace so Nance and I decided to check out our stateroom on the Queen Mary.  Whoa..what a cool vintage moment.  The Q.M. is a preserved bit of 1930s art deco genius.  Our room had the original plumbing, burled wood laminate walls, even the original plastic and fan were still installed.  It was romantic and gorgeous.  After a brief respite it was back to the show for the pre-show hand shaking and pre-public deal making.  Nancy and I went to see our neighbour and King of vintage Larry Heller.  His booth was spectacular as always.  Right beside his constructivist style sign was one of his new leather jacket projects, a beautiful 1920s Grizzly jacket made for his brand Warehouse.  I immediately examined and compared his Japanese leather to my Japanese leather, his stitching and all the details.  What a lovely jacket it was!  Larry also brought an incredible rack of rare and inspirational leather jackets.  Larry and John Gluckow(Strongarm) are two of the most knowledgeable guys out there on leather and leather collection.  The first day of this show was a blazing success and it was time to bring on the party and the socializing.

 

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The Secret Plans to My Leather Jacket Empire!

I have spent the last 48 hours trying to put together an order form PDF for Himel Brothers Leather jackets.  Happily my procrastination has lead me down the garden path away from PDFs to my secret nerd compulsion for blueprints. I think back to my first set of plans that came in a tube:  20 posters for the Star Ship Enterprise. Well then I feel I should share!