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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Caring for Vintage Leather Shoes

Can you tell which pair of cowboy boots are over 20 years old? 
Is it the pair on the left (Pair 1)? Or the right (Pair 2)?

If you've made the investment in quality leather shoes, you're probably going to want to keep them for awhile. The easiest way to do this is to regularly clean them, as well as check for scuffs, cracks in the sole, worn heels, etc.
  1. Check the toe for scuffs. 
  2. Inspect the sole at the toe - it can thin depending on how your shoes wear. 
  3. Look at the heel taps to see if they need to be replaced. 
  4. Test the insole to see if it's coming loose. 
  5. Inspect the insole to see if there's wear at the ball of your foot. 
  6. Check for wear inside the shoe where your big toe and little toe rub the sides.
If there's no noticeable damage, simply give your shoes a good cleaning; mademan has an easy-to-follow How to Polish Vintage Leather Shoes guide. If your shoes don't pass inspection, it's time to take them to the cobbler. When I lived in Austin, I sent my shoes to a local cobbler at least once every three months depending on how frequently I wore them. I recently just found a cobbler in SF who is able to reliably rejuvenate my shoes.

As you can see from the series of photos below my Amalfi Pumps need some minor repair at both toes and to the insole for one.

Now if you get a little lazy and your shoes fall into disrepair, before you toss them into the trash, visit a cobbler. They may be able to save them. I'd thought that my cowboy boots were destined for the rubbish pile - I'd worn into the stacked wooden heel. (I really wish I'd gotten a before photo - the repair was so amazing you'd never believe how badly I'd treated my boots.)

An example of 14-year old loafers that have had prior repairs made: new heel taps, three-quarters of the sole replaced, new toe taps, reinforced tongue, new insole. The cost of new repairs exceeds the cost of a new or gently used pair of loafers.
Luckily I took my boots to not one but two cobblers before deciding to give up on them. (I'd actually bought a brand new pair of cowboy boots to replace them after hearing from the first cobbler that the boots couldn't be salvaged.) The second cobbler completely replaced the heel. If you look closely, you can see where he added new wood. (I've lightened the photo to show the repair, it's not noticeable when you're wearing the shoes.)

I buy a lot of retro and gently worn shoes and boots. I'm intentionally avoiding the term vintage; some of the footwear is as new as five seasons ago (2005). Most are from the 1980s (I've bought replacements for shoes that I'd purchased new and loved to destruction). A few pairs reliably date back to the 1950s or early 1970s.

Here's a quick checklist of what I check for when I'm buying gently worn shoes.
  • Can the shoes be worn? Or does the seller recommend collecting or alternative use?
  • What are the actual measurements of the shoe? Sizes have changed a lot over the past 20 years. How were they taken - inside the shoe or from the sole?
  • Are the shoes leather or another material?
  • Where were the shoes made?
  • How much did the shoes cost new? Are they designer or a department store brand?
  • Have the shoes been repaired? 
  • If the shoes haven't been repaired, can any visible damage be repaired? Is the cost of the shoes plus repairs worth it? One of a kind - must have at any price. Or are you purchasing to save money.
  • Is the leather or fabric discolored? If the leather appears etched it could be due to salt and may not be repairable. I made the mistake of wearing soft leather boots with leather soles in Michigan. Each black shoe had a permanent ring about 1/2 an inch from the ground and the leather soles became so damaged water could soak through.
An example of Etienne Aigner loafers in need of some love. Unless almost free, I would pass on these at a thrift store as the repairs will typically run about $20 to $25. With new loafers running about $40 to $60, it's not worth the investment. 

Answer: Pair 2 are the boots that I had repaired. Pair 1 are a new pair of Dan Post Kylee boots from Zappos. Both pairs had been worn the same amount of time between the date of purchase/repair and when the photograph was taken. The boots currently destined for the consignment store are the Dan Post boots. First they'll visit the cobbler to see if he can fix the poor workmanship (the unfinished seams shred my ankle and calf when I walk).

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