Eric Musgrave

Since 1980, menswear & fashion retail commentator, opinionated thought-leader,
event host & all-round top bloke. Contact me to discuss working together.

Corthay’s camel leather creations

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The grainy leather of these handsome men’s shoes is camel skin. The French luxury bootmaker Maison Corthay this week took me to the United Arab Emirates to see where it sources this interesting and unusual leather. It was a fascinating trip.

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It takes very little time to escape the futuristic concentration of downtown Dubai and find yourself in the desert. We drove south-east into Abu Dhabi for about two hours, where very occasionally we’d spot a few wandering dromedary camels. The legendary “ship of the desert” has been domesticated for about 5,000 years and most of the locals here – it is true Bedouin country – keep at least a few camels. As well as being raised as a means of transport or for racing, the camel provides dairy products (you can buy camel milk chocolate in the UAE) and meat.

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The Al Khaznah Tannery, which is surrounded by sand dunes in what appears to be the middle of nowhere, was set up by the Abu Dhabi government in 2003 to process the by-products of the camel meat trade. It is a compact processing unit of about 75,000sq ft (7,000sq m) that employs 84 people to produce about 5.3m sq ft of leather each year. Some 80% of the production is of camel skin, with the rest being shared between cow, goat and sheep. The plant is extremely eco-friendly, with a fully integrated system for re-cycling the many gallons of water that are used in the tanning process. It is one of only four tanneries in the world to recycle its water.

Most importantly, the tanning process at the plant is claimed to be unique, being free of the chrome and aluminium commonly used in tanneries. The technically advanced leather produced here is also biodegradable, which is not the case with conventionally-tanned skins.The tannery general manager is Jean-Marie Gigante, a Frenchman who used to work for Hèrmes, and the operations manager is Wolfgang Schmälzle, a German with three decades of experience in tanneries around the world. For the detailed story of the tannery, I recommend a visit to its website. Monsieur Gigante, who clearly knows his stuff,  describes camel skin as “a leather and a half”.

The skins arrive from a nearby slaughterhouse and are wet and salted to begin the process of removing the outer hair. These are goat skins (sadly no raw camel skins were on show the day we visited).

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The entire tanning process takes about 10 weeks and it takes three to four days just to dissolve the hair and prepare the material for the tanning process. The bare skins look and feel like dirty versions of a wash leather. Despite the sophisticated mechanisation of the process, tanning is still a labour-intensive industry as every skin has to be handled and arranged at various stages in the process.

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The natural and sustainable extracts used in the eco-friendly tanning process are added in these drums or “reactors”. The skins have to be of a similar size or the larger ones will absorb more of the extracts than the smaller ones. Camel skins tanned here can vary from about 2sq ft to 20sq ft in size, depending on the age of the animal and how the hide has been cut, so sorting them is another labour-intensive task.

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The tanned skin can be left in a pile on a pallet to “pickle” or “age” for a time to give it more character. Many subtleties can be applied to the whole process. Camel hide is typically 2-3mm thick, which is too much for most end-uses, so it is sliced horizontally or “split”. The skin that was nearest the carcass is called a “split” and is commonly used to produce a cost-effective alternative to real suede leathers. The outer level is the more valuable and goes into Corthay’s high-quality shoes. These images show the skins before and after splitting.

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The uneven split hides are then shaved to a uniform thickness to a tolerance of only 1/10th of a mm – a gauge is used to check that the thickness is consistent.

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As mentioned above, water is a constant ingredient of the tanning process and before the leather is finished, most of the moisture has to be removed. Gently pressing the hides through a  heated roller is the first stage and then the skins are hung up for a leisurely tour of part of the plant on an overhead conveyor system to dry naturally. It is essential that the skins retain around 8-10% moisture – we all know the horrible damage caused when shoes are dried out too aggressively after a soaking in the rain.

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One of the distinct attributes of camel leather is its natural grain, as seen here, before the skin is finished. The older the animal, the more pronounced the grain.

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Among the many and varied finishing stages is the application of colour. The skins are dyed in bulk in drums, while individual finishes, like a high-gloss or patent coating, are done individually. There is no shortage of options at Al Khaznah.

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The tannery was conceived under the instructions of the BLC Leather Technology Centre in Northampton  England, which is one of the arbiters of leather standards worldwide. Its camel skins are widely used in the aviation industry, which is particularly demanding on the quality and performance of leather for aircraft seats. The lab at the tannery performs constant quality control tests for qualities such as resistance to abrasion, water-resistance and tensile strength. Camel hide has about 10 times more fibres in its construction than bovine hide, making it appreciably stronger, despite it being very soft and supple. In the standard test tearing test for respective leathers, cow hide ripped under a force of 240 newtons (the amount needed to accelerate 1kg of mass at the rate of 1m per second squared), while a comparable sample of camel hide finally ripped under a force of 725 newtons, making it three times as strong as cow leather. 

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Our short visit to Al Khaznah was a fascinating eye-opener for me to all the work and expertise that is needed to prepare leather even before it is used in any finished goods. I suspect that very few consumers know much about shoe construction; even fewer would have a clue about what had gone into getting camel skin from the animal’s back to the luscious soft, strong and seductive skin that goes into Maison Corthay’s shoes.

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The French brand has used the camel skin in its best-selling Arca style, which is a signature design by company founder Pierre Corthay. The camel style comes in four colours – black, white, cognac (a reddish brown) and light brown. It was launched in Corthay’s Dubai store last October as a salute to the region’s heritage, but this season it will be available at all Corthay stores worldwide, including the branch at 24A Motcomb Street, London SW1 8JU, close to Harvey Nichols. The camel leather shoes retail for around £1,000 – £1,100, at only a small premium to the standard Arca in calf leather, which starts at £940.

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