One of the big dangers for shoes in the winter is salt stains. When roads become icy and salt gets put down, the resulting slush can seep into shoes and leave salt at the high-water mark. If this salt isn’t taken out, it can leave a permanent line in the leather, much like how scum is left after a receding tide.
If you do get salt on your shoes, you should let them dry naturally and wipe them down the next day with a 50/50 mixture of water and white vinegar. When you do, you’ll notice your shoes considerably darken. This is OK, as the leather is just soaking up the solution. Just rub along where the salt has gathered and you’ll be able to take it out before it does any real damage. Afterwards, let them dry naturally again before putting on some leather conditioner and giving them a layer of wax polish. This should give them a minimal amount of protection next time you go out.
Truthfully, as simple as this sounds, this process can become a bit of a chore if you live in an area with long winters. So the other solution is to wear shoes you don’t have to worrying about staining. Work boots are particularly good in this category, such as those made by Red Wing (the Beckman, Iron Ranger, 875, and 877 models are particularly nice), Wolverine (1000 Mile is the standard), and Chippewa (J. Crew has some models on sale right now for 30% off). I also recently picked up some brown “trench boots” from Oak Street Bootmakers. Their model is a bit more expensive, but I find the shape less clunky and the shoes easier to break-in.
Pictured above is the same trench boot model, but in Oak Street’s “natural Chromexcel” leather, which they source from Horween. These were worn through Chicago’s last winter and purposefully put through a bunch of snow and puddles in heavily salted areas. Horween’s Chromexcel is a particularly “oily” material, so it doesn’t get salt stains easily, but even here you can see that what “damage” has been done only makes the boots look better.
Of course, you can only wear work boots with certain clothes, so if you need to wear a suit everyday for work, you might just have to put a little more time into your shoe care regime. But, if you don’t, wear shoes you don’t have to worry about ruining. Some shoes look better a bit beat up.