Visitors to the Maison Corthay boutique in Dubai last October were presented with a very rare sight, even in the world of luxury men’s footwear: pairs of shoes made of camel leather. To celebrate the opening of the store, which is located within the huge Dubai Mall in Level Shoe District, Corthay selected a product that had particular resonance for its local consumers.
Characterised by an attractive pronounced grain in the leather, camel skin is a highly appropriate raw material for shoes as it is three times stronger than comparable cow leather, yet is deliciously soft and supple to work with and to wear. Although it is believed the camel was first domesticated in southern Arabia about 5,000 years ago, there is a very contemporary angle to Corthay’s camel leather as it is produced in Abu Dhabi, less than two hours from Dubai, in one of the most modern and eco-friendly tanneries in the world.
The Al Khaznah tannery (the name means the safe or the treasury in Arabic) was established by the Abu Dhabi government 10 years ago under the guidance of the BLC Leather Technology Centre in Northampton, England, one of the world’s authorities on leather. The general manager is Frenchman Jean-Marie Gigante, a leather expert who used to work with Hèrmes. His operations manager is a German, Wolfgang Schmälzle, who has many years’ experience in tanneries around the world.
The plant uses only by-products of the local meat industry. Some 80 percent of the production is camel skins, with the balance made up of cow, sheep and goat hides. Natural and sustainable extracts are used in the tanning process, which means that Al Khaznah leathers are biodegradable, unlike conventional leathers produced using chrome or aluminium extracts. The tannery, which is surrounded by sand dunes in the desert of the UAE’s richest state, is one of only four tanneries in the world that recycles its water. The industry average sees 85 litres of water required to produce each kilogram of tanned hide; at Al Khaznah only seven litres are used for each kilo.
Before Corthay discovered the tannery, its best-known client was Etihad, Abu Dhabi’s national airline, which has discovered that camel leather performs and ages much better than bovine leather in aircraft seats. Xavier de Royere, a former Louis Vuitton and Loewe executive who is president of Paris-based Maison Corthay, explains: “We heard of this tannery in the desert in the middle of nowhere and when I came to see it in early 2012 I immediately had to call Pierre Corthay [the founder and creative mind behind the brand] to say, ‘wow, this is cool’. The tannery has amazing green credentials and, for us, using camel leather is about bringing innovation to the luxury men’s footwear sector. It gives us a great opportunity for storytelling and we chose to launch it in our new Dubai store as a tribute to the region’s customs.”
The camel leather has been used to make new versions of Corthay’s best-selling Arca style, which come in four colours: black, white, light brown and cognac (a reddish-brown). From spring 2013, the shoes are available to order from the company’s stores in Paris, London, Hong Kong and Tokyo, as well as its stockists in Europe and the US. The ‘ship of the desert’ is now ready to transport smart men in some of the world’s fashion capitals.