There’s a reason that most footwear and accessories like jackets — high-end to affordable — are made with leather. Not only does it look great, but it can last a lifetime, too. During times when sustainability is top of mind and shoppers are looking at ways to consume less, there’s no wonder secondhand and vintage leather options are becoming increasingly popular. You can even revive leather that seems beyond repair. All you need are the right tips from the right people. That is to say, people who’ve worked with leather their whole lives and pass down techniques over generations.
We traveled to Guatemala to speak with the third-generation artisans who make shoes by hand at Adelante Shoe Co., a brand whose direct-to-consumer approach lets them pay their craftsmen fairly. Their methods are often simple — and almost every step is by hand — but they explained that their methods were time-tested and have been used for generations to keep leather soft, supple, and pliable. Here are some tips to keep your leather looking like new.
1. Choose Wisely
Picking the right pair is the first step to making sure they last a long time. Look for a pair with a Goodyear welt, which is a strip of leather that secures the upper part of the shoe with the sole. Most importantly, this strip lets you resole the shoes, ensuring they’ll last as long as the leather.
Next, pick your color. The artisans say lighter colored shoes — tan, for instance — are harder to care for than darker pairs. Why? Because they need more frequent care with a product that’s sure not to alter its color. Also, lighter shoes are more likely to take on scratches and scuffs. But, as you’ll see below, that’s fixable, too.
2. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
If your skin’s feeling dry, what do you do? Apply moisturizer. The same rule applies to leather. “Just like you’d take care of your skin, that’s how you take care of your shoes,” says Adelante craftsman Adrian Gomez, who’s been making shoes for 25 years.
If your shoes have lost their shine, you can apply a traditional neutral polish using a soft leather cloth and brushing it out with a horsehair brush. Or you can do what the artisans do and apply baby oil. “It moisturizes the leather while maintaining the color,” says Gomez. As with any leather care tips, always test a small sample spot first before applying all over.
3. In a Pinch? Get Creative
If you don’t have traditional shoe products available, there are a few household items that can work if you’re in a rush. For dark shoes, Gomez says you can use hand cream to keep shoes moisturized. Just be sure to pick one without any artificial coloring.
For lighter shoes, you can rub the inside of a banana peel on your shoes then buff away with a clean, soft cloth or brush to restore leather’s luster until your next shine. It’s a quick fix, not a long-term method, but it actually works.
4. Don’t Sweat the Scuffs and Scratches
Watching these artisans work with leather made me realize this material is durable and resilient — anything but precious. Scratches and scuffs add to the character of any piece of leather, but if it’s a dressier item you’re trying to keep pristine, you have options. The easiest is to use a polish or cream that’s closest to your shoe’s own color.
Just use a clean cloth wrapped around your index finger to rub in the polish and then use a clean section to wipe away the excess. The scratch, which exposes raw leather, will now be the same color as the rest of the shoe and barely noticeable to the naked eye. For any more intense damage, your best bet is to visit a professional to get them repaired.
5. Don’t Let Rain Spots Dry
The idea that water ruins leather is a myth. Leather can get wet, according to the artisans. It’s the way leather dries that determines its fate. However, drops of water require a different approach than a total downpour, but neither scenario should leave your shoes ruined.
Small drops of water, while harmless, can actually stain your shoes if you let them dry that way. As soon as you get indoors, wipe your shoes off with a clean cloth (old T-shirts work great; tissues and other paper products, not so much).
If your shoes are soaked all the way through, wipe them clean and let them air dry away from any heat sources, which can cause them to shrink. Stuff each shoe with newspaper so it can absorb moisture from the inside and keep the shoe’s shape. Leave it for 24 hours or more to dry.
6. Storage is Key
Store your shoes well between wears, and they’ll outlive you. Gomez recommends keeping them dry to prevent mold. A shoebox or cloth shoe bag will let the leather breathe without accumulating dust. To prevent shrinkage, insert a shoe tree into a pair of leather shoes before they go back in your closet and they’ll keep their shape for years to come.