Chicago: a helluva town, if you like leather. And quality footwear. And jawnz. And party busses. And hot dogs.
And that rare camaraderie that springs from getting more than two dozen upstanding boot-loving weirdos from the Internet, and putting them together for three full days in one wonderful place, at the Stitchdown Discord Shoenanza Chicago ’22. [ed note: event name has been changed from the original so I don’t get sued, hopefully??]
The internet is rife with footwear-obsessed communities: Reddit, Instagram, Facebook, StyleForum, comments sections galore, our own humble little Stitchdown Premium Discord. And they’re wonderful. It’s where I and so many others have learned an infinite amount about shoes, and how they’re put together, and leather, and sizing, and all of it.
We live our lives, helplessly obsessed with this thing, surrounded by family and friends and children and Ruby Tuesday servers who care not about said thing, which we cannot help but care endlessly about. In comes community. Finally, other people who get it. We understand each other. This is about as good as good things get.
But in the end, as wonderful as those communities are, it’s still…the Internet. So that was the idea with this trip—changing that. Getting real life people together! In real life! Including special guest Wyatt from Grant Stone! And lord did it work.
There will be more of these Shoenanzas. We’re thinking two per year, from here on out. The destinations are endless. The knowledge we can soak up together is unbounded. The connections we can make are irreplaceable. You should come. It might sound weird! But trust me you’ll love it.
For now, though, let’s focus on Chicago.
Here’s what we did…
The Rightly World Famous Horween Leather Tannery
Over the pandemic, Horween—situated in the heart of Chicago since 1905—turned into Wonka’s chocolate factory to visitors: nobody came in (although they did let people out, to like, go home for the night). Somehow we managed to convince Nick and Skip Horween, plus Horween VP John Culliton, that plowing in this rabid mass of leatherheads was the right time to break that barrier wide open.
But Horween really IS Wonka’s factory. It’s mysterious, and deeply magical, and seems to run on a combination of primordial recipes and technology twisted up with pure imagination.
There’s an ancient-ness to the craft of shoemaking that draws me to it; there are ways to do it right, they were figured out a very long time ago, and seemingly nobody is capable of determining a way to really do it better. To visit Horween is to read that same book. A cackle got contagious when someone spotted a digital machine for the first time, 2.5 hours into the tour.
Yes, Horween is constantly innovating—new colors, new tannages; we handled their olive-leaf-tanned leather, which I was quite impressed by—but the roots of the business, and the science behind it, only keep digging deeper in, and further back.
We’ll be putting out a true Horween Tour/This Is How The Joint Works article in due time, but for now, just enjoy some of these photos of a truly remarkable place—plus Nick Horween’s personal Edward Green Amblesides he’s been competing with in the Patina Thunderdome.
Ashland Leather: Leatherworking at Its Highest Level
Phil Kalas spent over a decade working at Horween himself—he joined our tour for fun/content and couldn’t keep up with the group because he had simply too many hellos to dish out around the factory. But now, along with Dan Cordova, Phil runs Ashland Leather, whose workshop is just a shell’s throw from Horween.
I consider Phil to be among the preeminent leather educators in this world, and we got to plug directly into his knowledge mainline. After a quick workshop tour, Phil took us downstairs to hold leather court, ratcheting up our tanning knowledge, but also going deep on how Ashland deploys Horween leather to create exceptional wallets, belts, watch straps, and plenty more. Also while the tannery tour focused a lot on the machinery and how leather is made, Phil helped push that knowledge further by focusing on the product—how it can be used, and used best.
Phil led a demonstration showing what imperfections are in the hide—and how to cut around them. He schooled us on how different leather thickness are required for different products and functions, and did a demo on hand-boarding and how looseness can be used for good and not evil. He answered questions, including a very good one about how shell cordovan is chaotic and random for thickness—and how selecting and weight-gauging shells by hand is very important to making a quality product.
And as with every stop, I had to make everyone leave far before they wanted to. Sorry, everyone.
Also Phil has great boots. At least three people tried to buy these natty shell 110 Vibergs off him. Tried.
Independence Chicago: Epic Menswear and Shoe-Boots For All!
Independence is one of Chicago’s two great heritage, etc menswear stores. Even though they were in the middle of a shop move, they set up their very temporary location for us, and plied us with beer. I bought some pants. A lot of people bought pants. They have good pants. (The Orslow fatigues I got are insane btw—everyone was right!).
And then there was this: two weeks before the Shoenanza began, Oak Street Bootmakers founder and Independence Chicago owner George Vlagos called me up. “Now this might sound crazy, but what if,” George began, “we made everyone on the trip boots?”
“You’re crazy. Not just because it’s two weeks away.”
“I may be. And that’s why I want to do this. I already have the leather. Can you get me everyone’s sizes in 24 hours?’
“I can get you sizes in two hours.”
And George DID IT.
Behold, the Stitchdown Shoenanza x Oak Street Bootmakers Seidel Trail Crazy Horse Trench Oxford. (Could it have been me who was responsible for a boot-shoe on a Vibram cavity wedge? No! It was George! I swear!)
George Vlagos: eternal Shoenanza legend.
The Bus and the Boot Nerds Who Filled it With Beer
Oh right we had a party bus…sponsored by Untitled Art, the very very good brewery owned by budding boot nerd Levi Funk (one pair of White’s MPs) and disturbingly effective boot-pusher Isaac Showaki (who wisely insisted Levi get those White’s, and has been diving deep into the world himself for a few years now).
I absolutely love their stouts, especially their pastry stouts, especially especially their barrel-aged pastry stouts. We drank none of them. Which was good, as they are 12% ABV and I’m pretty sure the first bus-beer was cracked before noon. Instead, it was excellently refreshing IPAs and hard seltzers (plus some zero-alcohol IPAs that were quite tasty!).
Support brewers who support the boot industry! Like this one!
Dashing: Chicago’s Home of Alden and Edward Green
If you’re in Chicago and desire some dress shoes, there’s but one place to go: Dashing Chicago. Owner Sean Moran formerly managed the Chicago of Leffot—one of the great shoe stores in the world—and opened Dashing in the very same cozy space about six months before we charged in to hear about his Alden makeup plan, and the wonders of Northampton stalwart Edward Green.
Sean measured us up with his SATRA STD 219 Size Stick (you may have heard of a Ritz Stick; it’s similar to that) a Brannock alternative which, while not having a width measurement—Sean’s eyes are highly trained on that front—has the added benefit of dishing out the measuree’s exact foot length in millimeters, which can be used for sizing in other brands, made-to-measure shoes, etc.
Sean can talk shoes like few people I know, and I basically spend all my days talking shoes with people who can really talk shoes. You should talk shoes with him too. Stop in, give him a call, or shoot him a DM on Instagram. You won’t regret it.
The Tannery Row: Purveyor of Horween’s Finest Treasures
John Culliton led one of our three groups for the Horween tannery tour. For some reason he wasn’t sick of us by Saturday, and invited our merry shoeband to visit to The Tannery Row, his simply resplendent leather palace that handles retail orders for Horween products—often the rarest of them all.
There was education, there was a leather-guessing contest with Tannery Row gift cards as a bounty (congrats Tim and Ticho!), there were absolutely delicious chocolate chip cookies to keep us thriving. And there were a LOT of people carrying out rolls of leather when we left. I can’t wait to get like 10 hours in there one day to myself. Again, photos:
Mildblend Chicago: a Truly Bountiful Menswear Mecca
Let me say this first: Luke Cho is an absolute gem of a man. When we tore into Mildblend, Luke was in the front window hemming some denim, which isn’t something every owner of a top-flight shop tends to do. He weathered our barrage with grace and kindness, and one of his boot-nerd employees had to place his eyes back in his head after seeing White Klouds and Flame Pandas and rare Vibergs.
Mildblend opened its doors in 2011 and has become Chicago’s deepest stockist of, well, just about everything in heritage, etc menswear: Iron Heart, Rogue Territory, Pure Blue Japan, 3Sixteen, Howlin’, Naked & Famous, Momotaro…I could go on, but just check out their site instead.
Oh and boots: Alden, Red Wing, White’s, and some incredible OG Trumans that someone needs to grab asap.
The World’s First Grant Stone GMTO
THEY SAID IT COULD NEVER HAPPEN. And then…it happened. Wyatt had come down from Grant Stone’s HQ in Michigan for the weekend, bringing with him a bounty of samples GS’ll be coming out with over the next year or so…
…and this sheet, which sealed his fate.
We were to design, collectively, the first-ever special makeup Grant Stone boot or shoe. With over two dozen people. Easy, right? Well, if you consider the definition of “easy” to be an hour and a half of (very courteous) hollering across a hotel suite by a group of jawnzed-out folks powered by passion, creativity, and Malort, and instead creating two boots and one loafer on a wedge sole. And then having a raucous Brannocking party break out.
God bless you Wyatt, you highly tolerant and understanding man, you.
Oh Right We Drank Malort
This stuff is healthy or something!! Chicago’s national liquor!
Food may not be as important as boots and jawnz, but it’s up there. Chicago is not a city for the weak of stomach (and I may have been accused of pushing that truism ever so slightly too far, but everyone made it through).
Necessary classics were visited: the Lou Malnati’s Chicago deep pizza (Nick Horween-recommended!) was in fact exceptional, and I say that as a dyed in the wool NY pizza person. Portillo’s provided Italian beef, 8,000 calorie shakes, glorious crinkle-cut cheese fries, and did not forcibly remove me for ordering a Chicago dog with nothing on it, to which I added ketchup. Luckily we were in the back room where the cops couldn’t could see.
And then some newer-school stuff: Rick Bayless’ Bar Sotano under his empire-foundation Frontera Grill was fabulous (Yucatan fire-fried chicken let’s go!!), and everyone who braved the snaking Green St. Smoked Meats dinnerline was rewarded with supremely delicious BBQ (especially one of our own, who got the last helping of smoked pastrami I had my eye on the whole time. But we’re cool.)
Also Stan’s Donuts around the block from the hotel certainly never saw a better dressed crowd.
Uh, Will There Be More of These Shoenanzas? What’s Next?
Yes there absolutely will be, this coming October and then again in Spring ’23. Best way to stay apprised? Sign up for the Stitchdown newsletter and follow along on Instagram and this very website for plenty more info on both coming soon.
We’d absolutely love to boot/shoe/leather-nerd-out with you.