Why we still make shoes from elephants
A shoe-makers guide to Modern Meadow and lab grown leather
Working in technology for 20 years has made me long for learning something a bit more hands-on. So when my wife and I took a year off to travel and reflect after running a company for 7 years I decided to try something different. I wanted to make shoes.
The technique I use is called Goodyear welting, named after the son of the man whose name appears on car tyres around the world.
To buy high quality Goodyear welted shoes will cost you somewhere between $600 — $2,500. It’s the most laborious and interesting way to manufacture footwear. It requires learning hundreds of steps, all incredibly intricate, with compounding levels of error. Small mistakes at any step tend to show up later on, ruining the 40–60 hours of work required to produce a pair of wearable shoes. Testament to this, I now have a wardrobe filled with single shoes, made badly, because of something I fucked up.
To make Good Year Welted shoes I had to find and read a lot of old books, but make no mistake, I have learned the most from youtube (From a kind man called Andrew Wrigley) and from asking endless questions of others around the world on Instagram — most of whom neither speak English or reply.
One of the (many) challenges of doing this work, is finding tools and materials. You become part archeologist when learning to make shoes. You need to learn French and Italian words for tools that simply no longer exist. Ebay in this regard is the goldmine. Everything you need is manufactured by companies all near insolvency. In a world racing to drive the price of commodities down, no one is looking to manufacture the worlds most expensive shoes, let alone run a business supporting people who do.
But the one constant is this. Dead animals.
We make shoes using leather. I have to admit, in my 35 years on earth, I have obviously known that leather is made from animals, but never really meditated on it for such lengths of time as I do now. Today, I think about it all the time.
Leather is fundamentally the dried skin of animals. They peel it off, dry it, tan it in big vats of either oak, bark, and bits of plant material, which we call vegetable tanning, or they use chemicals, things like chromium, which treat the hide, as well as contribute to an enormous amount of environmental pollution. Chrome (chromium) tanned leather is actually in the top 10 worst ways to destroy the environment. If you’re looking for one take away from this article so far, always buy vegetable (veg) tanned leather.
The thought of an animal dying (being processed) in an abattoir goes through my mind when I walk the isles of the place where I buy my leather. It’s actually kind of gross at first. It’s been a conflicting experience for someone who has never really thought much about it. But when I come across the most beautiful leathers, the thoughts fade away just as they do when a plate of ribs comes out, absolving me of my sins. The pig is dead. Eat the ribs.
But then came the elephants.
Some of the best shoemakers around the world, mostly in Japan and Europe, make incredible shoes. At the top end of town, they will charge around $6,000 for a pair of bespoke shoes. But there are a few types of leather that sit in a league all on their own. In the world of luxury shoes, elephant leather is the choice of pharaohs. I won’t lie, it’s nice leather. Jay-Z seems to think so too.
When I first saw elephant leather shoes I was stunned. It’s easy to identify. It has large grain, with strong cracks through it. It is usually left a natural colour, a kind of purple.
Elephant leather is expensive. But, not as much as you’d think. It’s not like buying diamonds or anything. The thing I can’t wrap my head around, it’s 100% legal.
I think this is a big problem.
I grew up as a child being constantly aware of poaching. Elephants were sacred, but the cows, goats, chickens, lizards, and 200 other animals that have been killed, dried and skinned to make leather, not so much. Carnivores do seem to draw a line, vegans draw it differently.
The more I started looking into elephant leather, the more of a paradox it seemed. I wanted to understand how it could be legal at all.
Elephants are protected. That’s a common belief. We think because an animal is protected, it is left alone in the wild, in all cases. But as the Netflix documentary The Ivory Game points out, this isn’t quite true.
In some places, for instance, if you have some apple trees growing on your farm, they are not protected, they’re a pest, a nuisance, and fair game for killing, or shoes. If they appear to threaten your children, also, their protection status maybe in question. The tusks though, from the same animals, are not okay to use. Unless you haven’t met your ivory quota yet. Which is also a bit of a grey area. It’s nearly impossible to clarify.
It all boils down to this. A CITES certificate. A document which says this leather was sourced properly.
But you cant use the tusks for anything. Nuisance or not. The supply and sourcing of elephant leather is mostly all taken on faith. Knowing how the hides were sourced is difficult to understand from afar. Consulting firm McKinsey has talked of how Blockchain might combat supply chain problems but in practice I worry it may not help as much as the crypto-trailblazers might have us believe.
In fact, there is a range of animals that fall into this category of luxury leathers, and mostly all from Africa. Hippos, and pretty much everything you can imagine (although I have never seen leather made from big cats) are available from South African dealers on the internet, all with CITES certificates, all legal, all importable to most countries.
Perhaps what is so curious about the whole situation is that when you ask luxury shoemakers, no one really knows what the CITES certs mean. Some say natural causes. Some say, from culling, but no one asks follow up questions. The truth is they don’t want to. It is, after all, really beautiful leather.
Elephant leather is a bit like the ocean. The further you go, the deeper it gets. If there is a line in the sand when it comes to animals, elephants appear to force those to define it, and reflect on where their moral boundaries are. If you check out one of the high-end shoemakers on instagram and review a post that displays elephant leather, there is real conflict in the comments.
Half the group says, you know what? This isn’t right. I don’t think you should use this. The others love it. I have never been one to hunt animals or anything like that, but it feels like the same real estate. It’s conflicting.
After a few years of learning I reflected on leather and thought, maybe I could come up with a way to still use leather, but find a better option. At first I tried to avoid leather altogether, trying to find materials that might be better suited. For a while I toyed with the idea of using barkcloth, but it’s just not the same.
Then I started reviewing Cane Toads. They are a highly invasive pest in the north of Australia and people do make leather from them, wallets, bags, that kind of thing. But the hide is too thin. It cracks like glass when you pull at it.
I then looked at Foxes. I thought foxes being hunted on Australian farms could be put to better use, but after talking to a taxidermist, they told me a similar story. The hides are too thin, they would break as you start to stretch them over the shoe last.
Finally I reached out to Modern Meadow to talk to them about lab grown leather, which is something they are working on now, but samples weren’t available when we talked. In 2017, Modern Meadow released Zoa™. A biofabricated material using collagen at its core.
What’s optimistic about Modern Meadow is they could introduce leathers to the market grown in sheets. When you buy leather as a shoemaker, this is a big deal. One of the challenges when you buy hides from a tannery is they are in the shape of an animal. It means you waste a lot. Shoes require certain large patterns to be cut out, and you often need very similar grain so the two shoes match.
To make matters worse, natural hides are thin and think at different places, meaning you only use certain parts of the hide for certain items in the shoe. For instance, the belly of animals is very stretchy. This is good for things that require more give, but if you use it for parts of the shoe that need stability, it will tear.
The second benefit of lab grown leather is they could potentially grow leather that resemble animals that are totally unavailable today, or even invent grains themselves. This would open up the leather industry to newer products. It sounds weird, but if lab grown leather could provide leather grains reflective of species now extinct, Jurassic Park style, grown to a precise thickness, it would mean the concept of naturally raised animal leather would be far inferior. Lab grown leather could simply offer more variety, with better reliability, in quantities that reduce waste.
I think this is the lesson we all took from Tesla. For years, electric cars were thought to be slow and for nerds. But when the Tesla came out, it wasn’t just an environmentally friendly car, it was simply a better, faster, superior car. If Modern Meadow can deliver that same outcome, we may see a more humane future for animals used in the leather trade.