In our How Leathers Age series, we’ve imparted some surface-level knowledge and background about each of the leathers we’ve showcased. This time around, we’re taking a deep dive.
We’re highlighting two famous Red Wing Shoe leathers from S.B. Foot—Oro Legacy and Oro-iginal—by taking a look at the surprisingly complicated history and lineage of these leathers, along with their connection to Red Wing’s iconic moc toe boots. Plus, we’ll dig into some contest pairs from the inaugural Patina Thunderdome to see how these closely-related-but-not-quite-identical leathers develop their patina.
A big thank you to Michael Larson at Red Wing Heritage, who was kind enough to share much of the information discussed and photos featured below.
The Red Wing Irish Setter
You can’t begin talking about Red Wing’s Oro leathers without bringing up the name “Irish Setter.” Originally the moniker came about in 1950, when Red Wing model #854 was released in a golden-orange-brown leather known as Oro Russet (sometimes referred to as Setter Red Oro, Russet Red Oro, or Red Oro Russet). Because of how the leather’s color resembled the coat of an Irish Setter hunting dog, the 854 boot was given the nickname… “Irish Setter.”
The 854’s successor, model #877, was released in 1952. An 8-inch moc toe boot also made with Oro Russet leather, it was marketed as a hunting boot—its oil-tanned leather kept the elements at bay, and its “Traction Tred” wedge soles were quiet and comfortable to walk on. The 877 was a massive hit for Red Wing, appealing to customers of all kinds. It wasn’t long before there was a whole set of Oro Russet leather boots in the Irish Setter “family,” including a 6-inch moc toe boot, model #875, which launched in 1954 and was especially appealing to tradespeople looking for boots that provided some cushion and sure-footedness.
Red Wing trademarked the Irish Setter name and began including Irish Setter tags in their Oro Russet boots, adorned with a handsome illustration of their mascot, Red Mike. The Irish Setter label was largely associated with Red Wing’s Oro Russet boots for decades, from the 1950s up until the late 1990s when Red Wing launched a whole outdoorsman-focused brand known as Irish Setter.
By then, Red Wing’s boots had become world-famous, including in Japan, where people often wore Irish Setter boots as a fashion statement. To this day, many Japanese still refer to Red Wing boots like the 875 and 877 as Irish Setters, and Red Wing’s Heritage division has released several models bearing the classic Irish Setter tag in response to the label’s lasting popularity.
Oro Russet’s Origins
While S.B. Foot Tanning Co. has a long-standing relationship with Red Wing—they supplied leathers to Red Wing since the shoe company’s founding in 1905, and were acquired by Red Wing in 1986—they were not actually the original source of Oro Russet leather. Instead, the first Oro Russet leather came from a California tannery known as Leo Metten, which Red Wing partnered with beginning in the 1930s.
Leo Metten’s Oro Russet leather got its coloration from a six-month tanning process that included the use of bark tannins sourced from Californian redwood trees. Oro Russet in the original Irish Setter era tended to have a lighter complexion, though some hides came out darker and more orange than others, and its significant oil content meant that it tended to grow darker over time. (Years later, Red Wing Heritage would release a limited-edition leather called Gold Russet Sequoia, named in tribute to Oro Russet’s original tannage and designed to imitate the lighter golden hues of the original leather. Keeping up with all this???)
As the popularity of Irish Setter boots grew and grew after the 1950s, Red Wing met the demand by contracting S.B. Foot and other tanneries to make Oro Russet leather for them. While these other tanneries kept the color more or less consistent with the original Oro Russet, this would later change dramatically.
Around 1992, new batches of Oro Russet leather became less “russet” and more “red potato”—in other words, the color was now much more red. It’s unclear what precipitated this shift, though notably, it happened around the time Oro Russet’s original tannery went bankrupt and folded. While some customers liked the redder color, particularly in the burgeoning Japanese market, Red Wing wanted to return Oro Russet to its original golden-brown hue.
Red Wing enlisted S.B. Foot to develop a leather that more closely resembled the original Oro Russet. In 1996, this leather debuted as the cleverly-named Oro Russet Oro-iginal, or simply Oro-iginal. Meanwhile, to appease fans of the redder Oro Russet, Red Wing introduced a red-pigmented leather known as Oro Russet Portage.
Red Wing Heritage and The Advent of Oro Legacy
In 2007, Red Wing launched its Heritage brand to cater to its fashion-forward customers, reviving old Red Wing styles from throughout the 20th century and foregoing more modern construction methods in favor of the tried-and-true Goodyear welt. While the 875 and 877 were still being produced in Red Wing’s flagship workboot line, the Heritage line also used the same model numbers for its own moc toe boots. The work and Heritage versions were essentially the same, both using Oro-iginal leather.
Around this time, Oro-iginal’s characteristics had also drifted, much like its predecessor’s. It was less oily, and its natural color was touched up with a light layer of pigment that muted the orange undertones of the leather. Red Wing decided once again to correct course and get their legendary moc toe boots back to their original looks.
In 2013, Red Wing introduced its Oro Legacy leather, an oil-tanned leather that closely resembles the Oro Russet leather of the 1950s through the 1980s. This S.B. Foot leather clocks in at about 2.2-2.4 millimeters thick, slightly thicker than Oro-iginal, with an aniline grain that shows off its natural character.
In tandem with the arrival of Oro Legacy, Red Wing made some clearer distinctions between the moc toe boots in the main work line and their Heritage cousins. Red Wing’s workboot line now has style numbers 10875 and 10877—basically the same models as the originals, but with black eyelets and a Red Wing Shoes logo embossed on the side. These models continue to be made with Oro-iginal leather. Meanwhile, the Heritage mocs kept the 875 and 877 designations, but are now made with Oro Legacy leather and feature nickel chrome eyelets.
How Oro-iginal Leather Ages
We’re fortunate enough that both Oro-iginal and Oro Legacy saw representation in our first Patina Thunderdome contest.
Let’s first take a look at the Oro-iginal leather here on the 10875 and 10877 moc toes. Again, because of the subtle pigment and finish on this leather, it has a fairly uniform appearance and less of a warm orange glow.
While this leather has no trouble taking on crocking and other stains, the overall color stays more or less intact—though it gets more of an orange hue in direct light. Likely because of how the leather has a less-heavy oil content, scuffs and other areas of heavy wear are lighter and stand out more in contrast.
How Oro Legacy Leather Ages
Looking at Oro Legacy side-by-side with Oro-iginal, its darker, more oily character immediately stands out. In spite of its unvarnished grain, Oro Legacy often has a very uniform appearance on the 875 and 877—a testament to the expert grading and clicking carried out by the bootmakers at Red Wing.
The heavy oil content of Oro Legacy means that scuffs tend to darken, and the color even takes on more of a red hue.
Both the Oro-iginal and Oro Legacy leathers seem perfectly capable of handling all kinds of abuse, and bounce back quite well. From a patina perspective, the edge may go to Oro Legacy, as aniline leathers generally have an easier time showing how they age—but don’t count out Oro-iginal completely, as it can still be an excellent canvas for showing the wearer’s lifestyle and adventures.