IT’S THE ONLY animal that can go without food and water for up to four days while carrying huge loads in the sweltering heat of some of the most arid areas of the world. You probably know what I’m talking about: the camel, cliché of Middle East travel brochures and an animal that, thanks to the many quirky factoids associated with it, could easily get a Trivial Pursuit game devoted to its lore.
It’s no surprise that these hunchbacked creatures of the desert are often referred to as “beasts of burden”, making cows, buffalo and other animals grazing green grass on lush prairies look like total slackers.
What you probably didn’t know is that beneath their thick coats, camels – whose dense milk is also used to make divine chocolate and dairy products – possess sturdy and supple skin that’s ideal for the creation of leather goods.
There is only a handful of camel-leather tanneries in the world, most of them in the Middle East and North Africa. Al Khaznah Tannery, the only one still operating in the United Arab Emirates, is a short drive from Dubai or Abu Dhabi through a seemingly endless stretch of barren desert – a route made less monotonous by some camel-spotting along the way.
A nondescript building that wouldn’t look out of place in an industrial wasteland anywhere else in the world, the tannery – which is fully owned by the Abu Dhabi government, aka the royal family – produces a wide range of leathers, from cowhide to goat, but eighty percent of its output is devoted to camel leather.
To achieve ultimate softness, only vegetable extracts are applied to the hides, making them completely chromium- and aluminium-free, as well as biodegradable.
As a specialist in the niche field of camel-leather processing, Al Khaznah has become a sought-after supplier to the world’s few luxury houses that have ventured into the use of this unusual material. Jean-Marie Gigante, the French expatriate who manages the tannery and once lent its expertise to Hermès, the ultimate purveyor of fine leather goods, explains, “A camel’s hide is meant to protect it in a hostile environment, so there’s actually more leather in it than in any other types. It’s much stronger and it has 10 times more fibres than cows.”
While showing a series of unprocessed camel skins marked by many insect bites – which helps you understand what these poor animals go through on a daily basis in such harsh conditions – Gigante adds that another key feature of camel leather is its elasticity. This makes camel-leather shoes, for instance, more comfortable than those made with cow leather – and this finally brings me to the point of my visit to the tannery.
One luxury house that’s been intrigued by the possibility of this sturdy, flexible and beautiful material is French shoemaker Maison Corthay. It was founded in 1990 by Pierre Corthay, who started out making bespoken lace-ups in a central Paris workshop after training with the city’s top cobblers and now commands a mini empire with stores in cities such as London, Hong Kong and Dubai, where the company opened its most recent outpost.
Unlike many fashion and accessories houses that on opening their first boutique in a new location pay homage to their host country with an “indigenous-inspired” limited-edition item (dragon watches, anyone?), Maison Corthay decided to delve more deeply into the tradition and history of the region, and thus discovered camel leather. As Pierre Corthay explains of this endeavour, “When we made the decision to open our first boutique in the Middle East, the team travelled extensively to Kuwait, Doha, Abu Dhabi and, of course, Dubai. The purpose of these trips was to interact with our future customers, meet the press and also learn about the culture of the region.
“Something kept coming back: pride for the craftsmanship from the region. Many people also kept mentioning that they considered camel leather a unique and prestigious skin – and close to their hearts.” It was a logical step for the company to pay tribute to local culture by creating its first pair of shoes made with this rare material.
Maison Corthay has long been experimenting with precious skins. Take its Arca shoe, an elegant Derby with its distinctive – and now much-imitated – shape (its front resembles an eagle’s claw or the bonnet of a ’60s sports car). Hand-finished in the company’s Parisian ateliers, it comes in an array of hues from purple to red and electric blue, and in materials such as crocodile and python.
Used to tinkering with all these exotic skins, the Corthay atelier found a new challenge in the grainy camel leather produced in the Middle East. It also embraced the material for the added benefit that it’s completely biodegradable and can even be recycled if left composting.
As Gigante explains, “It’s reassuring somehow to know that whatever we do with our leathers is not going to hurt you or kill anyone. We’re not the only tannery to not use chrome or aluminium, I must say, but I think we’re the only one to produce biodegradable leather.
“It all started from my concern when I was in Lyon, France with the chemical industry. I saw those water streams and all the colours going into the Rhone River. As a chemical engineer I wanted to do something, and because I work for a leather company I’ve focused on every possible way of improving the performance of tanneries.”
In another nod to sustainability, the tannery, which besides Maison Corthay supplies other high-end leather-goods makers that Gigante won’t name, “transforms the by-product from the meat industry, so we don’t kill animals for our leather – we just get the hides from the slaughterhouses.”
But what about the technical challenges of working with a material that few luxury houses are accustomed to? According to Pierre Corthay, “Camel leather lives up to our in-house slogan for it – lighter, softer, stronger – but let’s get technical for a minute. 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 tearing test for respective leathers, cowhide ripped under a force of 240 Newtons, while a comparable sample of camel hide finally ripped under a force of 725 Newtons. That makes it three times as strong as cow leather.”
So does that mean that the artisans at Maison Corthay have found a new favourite material to work with, at the expense of more commonly used skins such as cowhide? “Choosing one over the other would be pretty difficult, akin to choosing Lamborghini over Ferrari, or Bentley over Rolls-Royce: each one has its own characteristics and fans,” says Corthay.
Whether or not the sustainability mantra or the unusual material is reason enough to justify the purchase of a pair of lace-ups whose starting price in Hong Kong is more than HK$12,000, this new incarnation of the Arca shoe, which already has legions of fans among royalty, jet-setters, tycoons and Hollywood actors, will certainly bring more aficionados to the house of Corthay – and will undoubtedly make for a great conversation starter.