Building a Patina
As a guy who owns more footwear than he probably should, I’ve found that my best looking shoes aren’t the ones that were most expensive. They’re simply the ones I’ve owned the longest, and thus, have been worn the most. The nice thing about quality shoes is that they’re made from high-end, full-grain leathers, which not only last a long time, but also develop a beautiful patina.
To be sure, shoes can develop a “patina” in any number of ways. Michael Alden from Dress With Style once did a video on how to antique shoes with Pierre-Paul Hofflin of Talon Rouge. The process is quite involved, and probably best left to experts, but you can see some examples of antiqued shoes at Talon Rouge and Dandy Shoe Care. Brave souls who want to try such methods can refer to that video, as well as this post at The Shoe Snob.
Personally, I like how shoes look when they age naturally – that is, with regular wear and proper maintenance. The process isn’t terribly different from what you’ve read in other shoe care tutorials, although I’ve found certain modified techniques to be slightly useful:
- For workboots, do nothing at all. You might have to treat them to leather conditioner once a year, so the uppers don’t dry out, but rugged boots look best when they’re a bit dirty and dull. Andrew Chen of 3sixteen, for example, wore these Viberg service boots for eighteen months before using any conditioners or cleaners. Let your boots get beat up, and admire how they age.
- For shoes you might wear with tailored clothing, use conditioner and polish regularly. Conditioner will help deepen the color of leather, and give the surface a nice glow, while polish will build multiple layers of color. I use both cream and wax polishes on mine, with the wax polish being applied last, since it really helps raise a shine. Most importantly: don’t be afraid to use darker polishes. Some people use black polish on brown shoes, but I find this gives a slightly unappealing grainy appearance. Instead, I just go one shade darker than my shoes’ regular color. Remember, you want those multiple layers of color to look natural, but you also don’t want to match your uppers too closely.
- For loafers or similarly casual shoes, do the same thing as you would for dress shoes, but leave the wax polish off. I think of loafers as being in-between workboots and dress shoes – you want them to look a little dressy, so it’s nice if they have a bit of a glow, but you don’t want them as shiny as real dress shoes. So stick to leather conditioner and cream polish to give that gentle shine, and leave the wax off. The conditioner again here will deepen the color of leather, while the cream polish will build multiple layers of color (not overnight, but perhaps over two years’ time).
Most of all, wear your shoes regularly and don’t get too hung up on wrinkles and superficial scuffs. You don’t want to purposefully destroy your shoes — but just as raw denim looks good with honest wear, so does quality leather.
Breaking News: Waxed Cotton Jackets are Waxy
I recently ruined a brand new leather jacket, which taught me a thing or two about storage and cleaning. First, waxed cotton jackets are apparently waxy – waxy enough that you don’t want to store them uncovered and pressed up against other garments. If you do, the waxes and oils can stain other clothes. Like the sleeves above, which are connected to a lambskin leather jacket I just bought last winter, and then stupidly stored next to my Barbour Bedale. After finding the damage, I sent the jacket to RAVE FabriCARE – the best dry cleaner I know of – and asked what could be done. I learned a few things.
First, leather jackets are hard to clean. Much harder than wool sport coats. So when you’re choosing a leather jacket, think about the overall design. Something with a rugged sensibility, such as jackets from RRL or Schott, might still look fine (if not better) with a stain or two. Something from Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren Purple Label, or any of the high-end Italian brands, on the other hand, will not.
Similarly, think about the color and material. Suede is harder to clean than regular leather, and light colored materials will be harder to upkeep than anything dark. Black, of course, is the easiest to maintain.
Second, leather can react to dry cleaning in unpredictable ways. Sometimes the color can fade or bleed; sometimes the leather can lose its suppleness; sometimes the garment can shrink. Always bring your jacket to a specialist who knows what they’re doing (not someone who will just dump your jacket off at a local plant), and before dry cleaning, see if the company you’re working with can apply a topical treatment first to remove the stain. Maybe you can avoid the dry cleaning process altogether.
Lastly, garment bags aren’t just for suits or sport coats. Waxed cotton jackets should also be bagged, particularly if you’re storing them next to other clothes. Breathable ones made from natural materials will be best – not just because waxed cotton can get a bit musty, but also because cheap synthetic materials can degrade and let off a gas that can damage clothes. RAVE FabriCARE sells some for a reasonable price of $9/ piece.
As for my jacket, RAVE applied a topical cleaner, which reduced the visibility of the staining by about 50%. We decided to save the dry cleaning for later. Meanwhile, all my waxed cotton and oilcloth jackets from now on will be bagged.
WSJ on the Shell Cordovan Shortage
If you’ve been in the market for shell cordovan shoes, you may have noticed there’s been a shortage lately. Retailers have been slow at getting them in, largely because manufacturers can’t get the material from Horween, who is the most popular supplier for the leather. When they do get some in, it’s usually in darker colors (such as the Horween’s “color 8” and black), as lighter colors show imperfections in the leather too easily. Which means if you’ve been wanting a pair of cigar shell cordovan boots from Alden, like those shown above, you’ve had to sit on a waitlist that stretches back almost a year (I’m on such a list, and am still waiting for a phone call).
The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about what might be going on:
In the clubby world of men’s high fashion, there are rumors and theories. Some blame hide speculators who snapped up skins as the price of leather was about to rise. Others point to Chinese shoe manufacturers, saying they bought up entire horsehides—which include both the coveted small rear shell pieces and the cheaper and larger front pieces—in lieu of more expensive steer hide when prices for the latter spiked to historic highs in 2012. However, there is little proof of either.
Matthew Abbott, technical sales director at tannery Joseph Clayton & Sons Ltd., based in Chesterfield, England, said the supply of hides was also hurt by a horse-meat scandal last year in the U.K. “There was nothing wrong with the meat, just that it was misidentified,” he said. “But I suppose people didn’t want anything to do with horse for a while.”
On the upside? Things might be rebounding.
Nevertheless, there is a glimmer of hope for those seeking a pair of loafers or oxfords. Mr. Horween reported that the hide supply began to return to pre-drought levels at the end of the last year, which means cordovan supplies for shoemakers may soon be back to normal. His advice to covetous shoppers: Sit tight. More is coming soon. That doesn’t quite mean that cordovan shoes will be plentiful, however. “It’s still not as much as the market wants,” said Mr. Horween.
Here’s to hoping.
(Photo via LeatherSoul)
Determining Quality in Leather Goods
Our friend Réginald-Jérôme de Mans has a very good and very active bullsh*t detector, and there’s surprisingly more bullsh*t on menswear blogs and in fashion magazines than there is in companies’ marketing materials (which already sets a high bar). In a recent piece at A Suitable Wardrobe, de Mans talks about the dumb and not-so-dumb ways to determine quality in leather goods. An excerpt, pulled from the part about Esquire’s recent advice to ask salespeople whether something has been made with French or Italian calfskin:
No salesperson in any store I can imagine - including Hermès, the best well-known quality leather goods maker - would know whether an item was made with French or Italian calf, and most would make up a response on the spot. If the item had an Italian-sounding brand name, like David Brent’s Sergio Georgini, or was tagged “made in Italy,” they would suppose the leather must be Italian. The same would apply if the brand sounded French. But, of course, no matter where an item is made, or by whom, its materials are often sourced from somewhere else, for both good reasons and bad. So even if an item is marked “made in Italy,” for instance, its leather could have been sourced from Brazil, among many other places. (This leaves aside the thorny issue of country-of-origin labels not always meaning much work was done in that country.) The only way a salesperson would know where the leather came from would be if some sort of marketing materials for the item in question mentioned that fact specifically – but marketing materials are by definition self-serving too. I certainly wouldn’t expect a salesperson in a multi-brand department store to be so familiar with the materials used in a specific item, and wouldn’t trust one who claimed to be.
We all do want an easy metric, which is why we hope we can rely on essentially commodifying quality, as ignorant magazine writers do when they suggest all English shoes, all Scottish cashmere, or all Italian leather is of similar quality. The reality is far more complicated, boring, and ultimately discouraging, because brands and marketers use those metrics to substitute buzzwords for integrity. That has led to, ultimately, the perpetual one-upsmanship of brands like Loro Piana bringing to market new luxury fibers when cashmere was not enough: they announce “baby cashmere,” vicuña, lotus fiber and who knows what else, as well as to the arms race of ever finer yarn numbers (they’re not thread counts like on bedsheets) like Super 150s, 180s and 200s. A well-finished Super 100s from Lesser will feel better, wear better and look better than a Super 150s from a less trustworthy source. And unfortunately, Lesser and many other quality cloth houses like Fox and Minnis are generally only available in bespoke. But Loro Piana and Zegna have found an outlet for their lower quality branded cloth in having it made up by cheap suitmakers whose labels trumpet the brand which produced their cloth, without it having much bearing on the actual quality of make or cloth. What is the casual punter to do?
de Mans has some (reasonable) suggestions for how to assess leather quality later in the article. You can read the full piece here.
For what it’s worth, in my own attempts to learn how to determine quality in leather goods, I’ve found three things:
- As with everything, it helps to check out the best. Browse around, even in stores where you can’t afford any of the products. In doing so, you’ll start to get a sense of what qualities you might want to look for when shopping for things within your own budget. Of course, figuring out what’s actually on the “high end” is its own task, as not everything that’s expensive is necessarily good, but it’s useful to just keep an eye out and not be afraid to casually (and politely) browse, even in stores that are way out of your price league.
- Keep in mind that certain leather qualities are meant for certain design purposes. I was recently at a designer boutique in Canada, where slightly more “avant garde" leather jackets were being sold. The leather they used was somewhat thin, very waxy, and it crinkled easily. Someone might mistake it for bad leather, but it’s not in an objective sense. It’s just that the qualities the designer was looking for - how he wanted the jacket to drape, crinkle, and age - were very specific, so he needed a certain type of leather. When determining quality, it’s good to also keep in mind design purposes.
- Nothing substitutes for first-hand experience. After a while, once you’ve browsed around, seen things on the high end, and have had the chance to use leather products of different qualities, you’ll be able to spot the stuff that’s right for you.
Conditioning Leather Jackets
Folks who have read our blog for a while are probably familiar with the importance of treating leather shoes to conditioner every once in a while. Leather is a skin and needs to be routinely moisturized, otherwise it can dry out and crack. The same actually goes for almost any leather products, including leather jackets. Only here, you may need a different conditioner. Lexol, for example, is perfectly fine for shoes, but can be too watery for garments. If you apply it to a jacket, it can seep through the shell and stain the lining.
For garments, many leather care experts recommend Pecard. To figure out which of their products you need, you’ll first have to figure out what kind of material you’re working with. Most leather jackets are made from one of four types of skins – goat, lamb, cow, and horse – and each can have their own “treatments.”
Which Leather Conditioner to Buy
Generally speaking, lambskin and goatskin will be relatively lightweight and thin, while cowhide and horsehide will be thick and heavy (lambskin can goatskin can also sometimes be thick, but this isn’t common). Just check the thickness and weight of your piece to figure out the skin; it should be fairly obvious.
To figure out how your leather has been treated, you can place a droplet of water on the surface and let it sit for thirty seconds. If there’s a dark spot when you wipe it away (don’t worry, it’ll eventually disappear), it’s most likely an oil-tanned leather; if there’s no dark spot, it’s probably coated. Similarly, you can gently scratch the surface with your fingernail. If it leaves a mark, it’s oil-tanned; if it doesn’t, it’s coated.
For coated leathers, lambskins, and goatskins, spread a small amount of Pecard’s Fashion Leather Lotion with a lint-free cloth, and give it ten minutes to dry before wearing. For oil-tanned leathers made from cowhide or horsehide, apply a light coat of Weatherproof Dressing and give your jacket twelve to twenty-four hours to absorb the conditioner. Then, buff off any excess with a smooth, lint-free cloth (an old t-shirt will do), and you’re good to go. Their neutral dressing is perhaps most popular among leather jacket enthusiasts, but you can use black and brown to help cover any minor scratches or scuffs, or to help restore color. Just use a sparing amount, and as always, test the conditioner on some inconspicuous spot first, to make sure it’s OK for your specific garment.
Tip for Vintage Shoppers
Note, if you’re out thrifting for a leather jacket, you’ll probably come across a few that look old, neglected, and dry. So long as the leather isn’t cracked, you can sometimes restore these pieces with a few caring treatments of Pecard. This is a great way to pick up something nice that everyone else has passed on.
Ron Rider gives some simple tips on how to clean up and restore shell cordovan shoes. Above is a pair of black boots he worked on. The right shoe is what the restored one on the left used to look like. If you want to purchase the various products he mentions in his post, you can buy them from his store.
I love photos like this. It reminds me that if you invest in quality shoes, you can get as much, if not more, from taking care of your shoes as you can from buying new ones.
Also, note that in the comments section, Ron explains what causes those welts on shell cordovan shoes once they’ve gotten wet.
How to Examine Quality in Leather Goods, Part II
We talked last week about how to judge the quality of leather, but there’s more to leather goods than leather, of course. There’s also the hardware and how everything has been put together. High quality leather will mean little if the brass snaps on your bag break or the lining rips out. So today, we’ll review each in turn, and talk about some things you can look for when shopping around.
Any bag or piece of luggage will be made with a variety of hardware. These can include swivel snap hooks, which are commonly used to attach the leather shoulder strap to the bag; tucks, which are used under a buckled strap so the strap does not need to be buckled and unbuckled; and various latches. Any of these can fail if they’re not made well. Frank Clegg, the eponymous owner of Frank Clegg Leatherworks, told me last week that zippers are perhaps the most common point of breakage. “We had a $600-700 leather coat dropped by our workshop just recently,” Frank said. “It had eight different zippers, all of which had the pulls snap off. The zippers had pulls that look similar to the ones we use, but instead of taking a wire loop and casting around it, they cast the loop into the pull. The cast metal just snaps off when it’s that thin.”
Frank suggests that consumers look for something that’s of a good weight. High quality hardware has a thicker look and feel, and the casting seams are usually removed and polished. If the metal has been treated with some kind of finishing, you may also want to examine the quality of the job. Solid brass, for example, can be left natural (which is OK) or polished and then lacquered, and zinc and steel can be plated with brass or nickel. If these lacquering or plating jobs haven’t been done well, the metal can look dull or foggy in a short period of time.
In addition to the leather and hardware, there’s the matter of how everything has been put together. Much of this depends on the type of product at hand. For example, belts will have their own standards. A high-quality belt will have a leather lining (if the design requires one) instead of the cheap paper stuffing that lower-end manufacturers use. You may also want to examine whether the keeper has been squared off (shaped into a rectangle), and whether the details, such as any beveling, have been done well.
One thing you can look for on all leather goods is the quality of the stitching. Naturally, these should always look neat and straight. You may also want to see if the edges have been left raw or if they’ve been turned. Turned-edge leather is made in a way that’s similar to how the edge of a piece of garment has been finished – the edges are turned underneath and then stitched. This yields a more attractive and durable edge, but of course, whether it can be done depends on the job at hand. Alex Kabbaz of Kabbaz-Kelly & Sons has a good article on this you can read here.
Leather products can be expensive, but if you purchase the right ones, they’ll last decades and only get better with time. Look for fully tanned, full-grain leathers; smooth, durable hardware; and neat stitching. If applicable, also look for edges that have been turned and sewn, rather than left raw. You should examine for these things on the outside as well as the reverse side, inside, or any other parts that don’t normally show. Even if they’re not easily visible, a top-quality maker will make sure that all parts of the product are pleasing and well done, and these are signs that you’re buying something of quality.
How to Examine Quality in Leather Goods, Part I
I recently had the good fortune of talking to Dave Munson and Frank Clegg – the two men behind Saddleback Leathers and Frank Clegg Leatherworks, respectively – about how to discern quality in leather goods. While many men at this point know how to judge the quality of suits, shoes, and even sweaters, few know how to tell if a bag or wallet is well made. So, given Dave and Frank’s expertise in the field, I thought I’d ask them for their thoughts.
This short-series will be covered in two articles. For today, we’ll talk about how to examine the quality of leather itself.
The Basics of Leather
Obviously, at its foundation, the quality of any leather good should be judged on the quality of the leather itself. As many already know, you should always shoot for full-grain leather, ideally one free of scars, blemishes, or fat deposits. Lotuff Leather has a good primer on how to look for these things.
Other types of leather include top and split grains. These are made by splitting a piece of leather into two layers. The top (top-grain) is typically sanded down and finished with some kind of chemical processing. This is what we typically call corrected-grain leather, and while it’s cheaper, it also has a colder, more plastic-like feel, and results in less breathability. Over time, it will also age less well and you won’t get the nice patina that you would with full-grain leather.
Split grain is what’s left after the top-grain has been separated from the hide. This part is often made into suede or embossed with a print so that it looks like full-grain. Unlike true full-grain, however, it’s often thinner and not as durable.
Finally, we have bonded leather. This stuff is basically junk. Here, leftover scraps of leather are grounded with glue and then bonded together in a process similar to vinyl manufacture. It’s basically to full-grain leather what particleboards are to solid wood. It neither looks nice nor lasts well.
How Manufacturers Cheat
So you know that full-grain should be preferred to top and split grain, and certainly to bonded leather. But this isn’t enough, as manufacturers often cheat. How?
Well first, there are semantics. A manufacturer can say that something is made from “genuine leather” when it’s actually top or split grain, or even bonded leather. They’re not lying. It is made from genuine leather. The other way is to say that something is “made with full-grain leather” when only part of it is. Again, they’re not lying. A bag can be partly made with full grain leather, while something as cheap as vinyl is used for other parts.
The other way to cheat is by buying full-grain leather that hasn’t been processed fully. See, after a tannery removes the moisture, oils, and hair from an animal skin, they put it into giant drums with tanning solutions. These drums are expensive, however, and can cost upwards of $100,000. The tanning solutions they use can also be costly. To curb some of these expenses, some tanneries won’t let the hides sit in the drums as long as they need to. That way, they can process more hides using fewer drums and less tanning solution. In the end, the leather on your products can fade and crack with too much sunlight. You can tell whether something has been fully tanned by looking at the edges. Assuming it hasn’t been painted over with some type edge finishing, such leathers will appear blue in the middle, which shows that the tanning solution hasn’t been allowed to soak through all the way. You can see this in the write up that Dave published on his website.
When we spoke, I asked Dave whether such “half-tanned” leathers are really something you’d ever find on more expensive products. “All the time,” he said. “Not all of them, of course, but if the company they outsource to is not carefully watched or if it is something that the brand is not aware of, then they’ll be getting low quality leather that is hidden with rolled or painted edges to cover up the poorly tanned leather.” Dave also noted that this isn’t something you tell just from the outside grain. The leather feels the same, but the middle will dry out and crack. The only way to tell is by looking at the edge and seeing if the middle is blue, but this also assumes that the edge hasn’t already been covered.
In the end, if you’re buying a leather good, you should aim for full-grain leather, but also make sure that the tannage has soaked through all the way. You may also want to ask the manufacturer whether the product was fully made with full-grain leather, and examine the skin for defects such as scars, blemishes, and fat deposits. Of course, many products will have some kind of defect somewhere. Often this will be done in places where the consumer can’t see, such as the inside of a bag. This doesn’t automatically discount the quality of the good, necessarily, but it is something you may want to consider if you’re paying top-dollar for something.
Come back Monday, when I’ll talk about the quality of hardware that’s often used, as well as a bit about the construction of leather goods.