A.F. Gallun & Sons was once an American leathermaking powerhouse, set on the banks of the Milwaukee River in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Originally known as Trostel & Gallun upon its founding way back in 1858, later on Albert Trostel and August F. Gallun decided to divide up their growing business, and A.F. Gallun & Sons—otherwise known as Gallun Leathers—went on to become a world-renowned tanner of calfskin and other fine leathers.
At its height, Gallun was one of the largest tanneries in the United States for a major stretch of the 20th century. Sadly, it wouldn’t last. During the wave of outsourcing that was all too common in the US during the 1990s, Gallun’s business dropped, and they had to close their doors.
Now for the good news!
Ed Gallun—five generations removed from August Gallun—has relit the Gallun torch. After an all-too-brief stint as a young man working at his family’s tannery, Ed continued in the leather business for several more years before just recently deciding to relaunch Gallun Leathers. Gallun’s big reintroduction came in the form of some very distinct-looking Oak Street boots made with Gallun’s waxy boarskin. The leather certainly turned some heads.
With our interest highly piqued, we sat down with Ed Gallun to learn more about his story, why he decided to resurrect Gallun Leathers, how he’s managed to adapt decades-old leather recipes for the 21st century, and what we can expect to see next from this exciting new/old company.
Josh Bornstein: So I’m very curious to learn a little bit more about your story, and about the Gallun Leather story, but let’s start with you. It sounds like you were working for a bit at the original Gallun tannery when it was still around?
Ed Gallun: I worked at A.F. Gallun & Sons all through college while my father was the president. It was kind of a leviathan back in the day. I think at its peak, its footprint was about 900,000 square feet on the Milwaukee River. We ran some kidskin, some pigskin, but the bulk of our production was men’s and women’s calf leather. When veal was still a big byproduct of the US market, the skins were just gorgeous and beautiful, kind of a standout product. Today, veal isn’t as popular as it once was, so the raw material itself is harder to find.
I worked in that facility in college, and then I graduated, and the job market was such that I didn’t know if I wanted to go into the tanning business or not. But, my father made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. [Laughs] So I said, alright, I’ll give it a shot, let’s see how it goes.
“You’d BETTER go into the family business, it’s a big deal”?
You know, one of my other brothers was in the business and it didn’t work out. That was my fear for me, but for him that was more of a personality issue. My dad had the whole “look whose name’s on the building, you do what I say” kind of attitude, and it didn’t go well. So my brother was asked to leave. I didn’t want to get into that. That wasn’t really my personality, but knowing I had that ghost floating around out there, I knew it would be a little bit of an uphill battle going into this thing.
My experience started at the tannery working in every department for my first year. I got to learn the business from the ground up, from receiving hides in the hide house, all the way through every single process in the beamhouse, to retans, to tanning, to everything that was possible. I spent time working with the supervisors in each department, learning each application.
The best part for me, though, was when they sent me to Europe. I spent six months at a tannery in the UK learning how they did things differently from how we did it. Then I spent another six months in Italy working at another tanner, Conceria Faeda, where they did both-side leather and a lot of patent leather. It was a very high-tech tannery. So, my first two years in the industry was basically just to learn. It was a really nice experience.
Yeah, that’s quite the education!
It was fun. In the first six months I was at a small tannery in the UK, Tusting and Burnett. They’re still there—little boutique-y tannery—but they’ve moved most of their operations for their volume leathers. They bring in finished product from the Far East where labor’s much cheaper for some volume programming they do. But they still do finish in Northampton. So it’s a neat little boutiquey operation, in the English countryside, it was a great place to spend some time. I made some lifelong friends and met some extremely unique characters while I was in that part of the world. Not so much in Italy—the language barrier made that a bit difficult—but I got to see what it’s like to operate in a tannery that was state of the art. That was impressive.
My impressionable 21, 22 year old mind really wanted to see those changes come over back here. But I ran into a wall of “no, what we have works. This is what makes our product unique. We leave the operation alone.” I’m like, okay, all right, I get it. I did like all the processing controls they had over there, because it made made mistakes and problems much less of an issue, but it is what it is.
Sure. So, you got all this education, and then you came back and worked at the tannery for a bit?
I did. I was there for about two years. In that two-year period, the Japanese yen was very strong and they were very luxury-brand-obsessed, and they started getting into our calfskin raw material market and driving the prices up incredibly high for the raw material, and we had to pass that on to our customers. Our customers started getting price resistance at retail with the increased price.
As things started to change, the whole manufacturing economy kind of flipped on its side. People were looking for alternatives to calfskin that were more economical. Suddenly side leather tanners were picking up and making similar finished looks in side leather, in cattle rather than calf. Our volume of production got cut in half in about 18 months. We had a big mouth to feed, and without that volume going, it really made it difficult.
That’s a hell of a drop.
The decision was made, amongst my dad, his brothers, myself, and everybody on the team that, we should think about consolidating this. At around the same time, I was also working in our import department where we were importing products and building products that we didn’t or couldn’t produce at our facility.
Long story short, I ended up buying that from the family and went that direction, once I realized we were going to be shutting down the tannery. So, I stayed in that line of work for probably another 12, 13 years. But then again, as everybody that’s been around the leather business knows, there was another consolidation of manufacturing from the United States that moved a lot of business offshore.
My biggest clients at that time were ones like Brown Shoe and Nine West, they still had footprints and factories here in the United States. But as they started to move that production to the Far East, because their costs were so much less, they didn’t take their suppliers with them necessarily.
So suddenly I’m in the same boat again, and I’m like, okay, so now what do we do? So I consolidated that operation. I moved it to upstate New York into the Johnstown-Gloversville area, got a warehouse and had half a dozen employees on the floor there that would go out to the contract facilities to make specialty products. But again, there was a contraction of the business, so I just decided, okay, this is it, I’m gonna shut this down one more time.
I became a manufacturer rep for a number of years, working with tanneries that had products that my still-existing customers wanted, but there was such a massive consolidation of manufacturing that wasn’t here in the United States anymore. Later I got into consulting and ended up getting into the security business. I just covered a lot of years very quickly, but that was kind of my experience in a nutshell.
So when did you decide that you wanted to bring the Gallun name and brand back into the tanning business?
I got a call from a good friend of mine who lives in Northampton, who no longer is in the leather business. He used to be a designer for Edward Green, and he came back to me through one of his friends and said, “listen, can we still get the burnishable calf?” I said, I haven’t made that in forever. And he’s just like, “well, there’s some demand for that. Could you make it again?”
And I said, yeah, it can be done. But let me dip my toe in the water and see where this goes. Raw material-wise, there’s a good producer here in Wisconsin. He was like, “well, they prefer a heavier weight, if you can get it.”
Long story short, I’ve got a good friend and colleague who I’ve sourced raw material for and brokered with on a number of occasions. He sourced a very interesting heavyweight calf for me that actually was coming out of Poland. It’s a Simmental breed, a much heavier breed than we can get here in the States or in the Americas. I’m able to get 20-foot skins that can consistently run 5/5.5 oz or 2.0/2.2 mm. I just thought, this is interesting. This is something unique that just isn’t in the market here in the United States, let’s play with this thing.
One thing led to another, and I started sampling for these guys. The bug came back. We spent about a year working off of our old formulas, finding suitable, compatible chemical signatures that would work and produce a similar product, and I’ll be honest, we’re actually making a better product now than we were then, from the standpoint of consistency. Some of the synthetic chemicals are much more consistent in the drum now. They have more depth to them. You can be a little off in heat and temperature and pH, and they’re more accepting. They’ve engineered these things so much better today than they were 30 years ago. So it’s been interesting working to get this process right. To be able to build what we were hoping for. And I think we’ve done an excellent job, I’m very happy with our first productions that have come out of this.
That’s great to hear. This dark waxy wild boar is quite an interesting leather. I was hoping you could tell me a little bit more about it.
It is an interesting leather. Actually, the raw material is all sourced here in Wisconsin. A friend of mine, who’s got a small facility up in Plymouth, Wisconsin, he’s an excellent tanner. He came to me with the product a while back and he’s just like, “listen, I can make this stuff. What do you think about it?”
I said, I think it’s great. There’s nothing like it in the market right now. Let’s let’s play with it, let’s make it so it’s factory-friendly, do some R&D on this thing. I happened to show it to George [Vlagos, owner of Oak Street Bootmakers] and he’s like, “wow, this is cool. I like it. Let’s make some boots on this thing and let me see how it goes.”
One thing led to another, and he did a limited-release boot. But I’ve shown that leather to probably a dozen manufacturers and they all love it. There’s some running right now through a Western brand called Anderson Bean. They use it a little differently. They strip some of that wax off in their process to expose that grain a little bit more. Then we’re in the process of R&Ding a shrunken version of this leather. We’re taking it to the pickle, shocking it, getting that grain to pucker, and then we’re then we’re putting it back in and hot stuffing it. So it should be interesting.
We’re just on the cusp of having what we consider a production-reproduction. We’re trying to see what it looks like, and if we can repeat it consistently so that Boot 1 looks like Boot 1000. We’re always good at making samples look great, but when it comes to production, the drum action sometimes isn’t the same as it is in the sample mill, so now we’re actually going on to making a few thousand feet just to see if we’re gonna get the same look. So those are actually being toggle-dried right now. I’m excited to see what those look like.
So very cool. Are there other types of leathers in production as well that you’re working on?
We’re R&Ding a number of different things. We used to make a product at the tannery that we considered to be a traditional box leather. It was based off of a European formula that the French do, but we used to make one at our facility that we ran a ton of, back before Nike owned Cole Haan, who was our number one customer for this product. We ran it in a burgundy cordovan color, and we ran it in black. I mentioned this to Brett Viberg and he was like, “I’d love to see a cordovan alternative! I love cordovan, I love what it does, but it’s a difficult leather to break in. I always like to see something high-end and new.”
These box leathers, when you’re doing ’em right, they should still have a round hand, a very tight break, but take on that shell cordovan look. It’s all the nuances in the impregnation. If you impregnate too much, it gets boardy and brittle, and it’s almost stiff. If you do it too little, the break goes all the hell and it looks terrible. So we’ve been working at fine-tuning the impregnation process on that, and I’m going to actually have our first production-ready samples probably by the end of this month. So that should be interesting.
I’m basically doing a slow limited release, like, hey, make some boots out of this, tell me if you like it or not, and what do you or don’t like about it. We’re kind of trying to be methodical about how we’re coming back with the brand, back into the business. I’m excited because we’re having way more success on the R&D side than I thought we would early on, cuz we’re reengineering off of formulas that haven’t been used in 30-plus years! It’s taken some time and I’m glad we took the time, but it’s been fun.
That’s really cool. I’m really excited to see the box calf in person. It sounds amazing.
You know, I wanted to work with a couple of guys that I could build a rapport with and gain their trust to make a good product. That ended up being George and Brett. I’ve got a few pairs of Brett’s boots here and he’s just like, “I love this, can you make me more? Can you match this color?” I’m like, yes, the answer is yes, let me work on it! So we’re just getting into production volumes with him. Then with George, we did the limited release on the wax-stuffed boar. So we’re trying to do it slow. I don’t want to be everything to everybody. I’m trying to make unique, interesting, repeatable leathers that are high quality and not stepping on people’s toes. I’m not trying to be Horween, that’s not who we are. Can we make similar leathers? Yes. But that’s not who we are.
Well, I have to ask, since it’s so unique for a tannery to come back. Are you working in your own facility right now, or with an existing tannery?
I’m working in other facilities. But I am in the process, with two other partners that I’m working with, of consolidating our operations. As you can imagine, from all the tanneries that used to be, there’s a lot of used equipment out there. One of the guys is a tanner, one of the guys is a finisher, and then there’s me [laughs]. I’m a little bit of both.
But I don’t call myself a tanner. I don’t call myself a finisher. I’m a hybrid guy who understands leather, knows how to make it, but do I sit down and mix my own formulas? Lately? Yeah. But that was not my traditional role. Like reading a recipe for baking a pie, I’m trying to make all these things that were written back in, you know, 1982.
Right now I’m making my own wet blues in Europe. But with getting re-tans done here, I was really not sure which way I wanted to go. I had conversations initially with Fred Seidel. Then I ended up going over to Ryan Law at Law Tanning. He’s like, “dude, I’m all about making boutique leathers. This is great. Let’s do this!” So with his team and my guys, we’ve built these products. Now, am I eager to go out and build a tannery? Yeah. Because of the control factor, we can kind of figure our way out. But, that’s a very expensive prospect to get a footprint, get the licensing put in place for the ecological side of it. It’s all doable, and we’re working on it right now, but we’re not sure what direction that’s gonna take just yet. So we’ve been doing our homework, but that’s down the road. Right now, we’re working with our formulas, and just like how they brew beer, you can have seven different beer brands coming outta one facility.
Law Tanning sounds like it’s a really good fit for you guys right now.
Ryan’s put in some serious investment into his equipment. He just redid his entire split-and-shave process into a lean, lean operation with all this Italian equipment. You set the machine for what you need it for with a digital panel, I think it has nine zones. It can take into account all of the highs and lows, and literally makes the most level piece of leather I’ve ever seen come out of it. And the shaving capacity on this thing is, oh my God. It takes a lot of the human error out of it. I was very impressed. He put in a new spray line, which is absolutely perfect because it’s wider for the whole-hide calf. Plus he’s got the open-ended presses. It’s perfect.
Ryan’s been great, and he’s been super helpful from the standpoint of giving me full access to his team. You know, their brand started in 1936, and actually his grandfather worked at Gallun, so there’s a little bit of a connection back there, way back. I told my father—he’s 89 years old now—I said, Hey, I’m bringing some of the leathers back! And he’s just like, “well good for you. Good luck.” [Laughs] I’m like, thanks.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
Other than the boot front, are you hoping to shop around your leathers to other industries?
Obviously, it lends itself to flat goods. But I’m concentrating on footwear. I love working with these men’s boot manufacturers. I think it’s cool. I like what they do, I own their product. So it’s like, this seems to make sense. There just seems to be only a handful of players that they really like dealing with. I mean, there’s C.F. Stead, Horween, Shinki, Maryam, Seidel. There just doesn’t seem to be that niche on calf though. Stead is really the only tannery that I see regularly using calf. There may be more, but that seems to be the predominant one. Gallun used to cater to the men’s shoe trade. Mostly in dress—we sold the bespoke guys like Edward Green, John Lobb, they were big customers of ours for a number of years. Allen Edmonds and Florsheim were also big clients of ours. I think it’s in my gene pattern to like vintage men’s shoes. I think it’s cool, it’s how I like to dress. At least for formal occasions, which aren’t much of a thing for me anymore.
Well, since we do happen to be a shoe enthusiast website, I suppose I should ask: how big is your footwear collection?
I’ve probably got 18 pairs. Let’s see, I’ve got a pair of Vibergs. I bought a pair of Oak Street Waxy Boar because I wanted them for sure. Then I’ve got a variety of stuff that I’ve had over the years from customers that I used to sell to. I’ve got a bespoke Cheaney made us for an anniversary, with our old burnishable calf. It’s a monk strap that I love, it’s one of my favorite pairs. That’s just a broad brush.
Well Ed, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I really appreciate it.
Happy to do it.