Swell for leather: how to properly take care of shoes and sneakers

With the right kind of attention, a pair of shoes can last for decades – but neglect can be hard to undo

Good shoes are hard to find. That perfect balance of style, comfort and durability often proves elusive and is dependent on changing factors. Is it going to rain? How far do we have to walk? Will there be dancing?

When we find a shoe that fits one or more of those parameters, we want it to last – here, experts share their advice on how to make that happen.

Give them the best chance

According to Jenny Velakoulis, the owner of Evans Leather Repair in Melbourne’s Royal Arcade, shoes need to be protected before you wear them. This is a two-part process.

Step one is to have a shoe repairer apply a protective sole, or “Topy”. These are made of rubber and extend the life of the shoe by adding extra tread, which helps the shoe keep its shape. Velakoulis says: “The way shoes are made now, they wear very quickly so be sure to get a protective sole put on straight away, or you risk destroying the shoe.”

Step two is to apply a waterproofing spray. Velakoulis advises doing at least three coats for leather (suede requires more). Repeat this process after six months of wear.

Breeze Powell, one of the founders of Post Sole Studio, a shoemaking business in Melbourne, recommends Tarrago’s Nano Protector spray for shoes.

Sneakers also fare better if they’ve been waterproofed first. Eugene Cheng, the founder of Sneaker Laundry, a maintenance service available in Melbourne and Sydney, says sneakers that have been protected with a spray are much easier to clean because “the spray forms a barrier between the materials on your shoe and what you’re about to drop on it”.

Rest and rejuvenation

A regular polishing schedule is important for leather shoes in heavy rotation – Velakoulis recommends doing so at least once a week. According to Velakoulis, “leather needs nourishment, it really wants nourishment” and by applying polish routinely the leather stays conditioned, the pigments are restored and the waxy coating will prevent further marks.

Hand washing sneakers
Eugene Cheng says use a stain remover and clean off dirt with a small brush as soon as you notice it on sneakers – and avoid machine washing them. Photograph: Sneaker laundry

Powell has similar advice. She says to regularly apply a leather care balm with a soft, lint-free cloth and let it penetrate the leather for 10 to 15 minutes before buffing it off with a soft brush.

When taking shoes on or off, Powell says to always undo shoelaces and buckles to avoid putting excess strain on fastenings, and consider using a shoehorn so you don’t break the back of the shoe.

Never wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row, Powell says: “Excess moisture, including sweat, can damage your shoes. Ensuring your shoes dry out naturally between each wear will help extend their lifespan.”

To keep sneakers looking fresh, clean them regularly. Cheng says to use a stain remover and clean off dirt with a small brush as soon as you notice it. “Don’t leave them for a few months. The more often you clean your shoes, the better they’ll hold up.” He also recommends against putting sneakers in the washing machine.

How to save soaked shoes

If your shoes are saturated the first thing to do, before drying them out, is to make sure they’re clean. Depending on the type of shoe, apply a material-specific shampoo for leather, suede or sneakers to avoid any dirt drying into the shoe.

If your shoes are leather, Powell says you can use a soft lint-free cloth and mild, diluted soapy water.

Location matters for shoe drying: for leather shoes, pick somewhere dry, away from heaters and out of direct sunlight. Then apply a balm to nourish the leather.

Dry sneakers in the sun
Dry sneakers in the sun, with the insoles removed to prevent mould. Photograph: Amir Mukhtar/Getty Images

To dry sneakers, take out the laces and insoles and leave them outside in the sun. Cheng says: “We see a lot of mouldy shoes come in because they’ve been left in a closet or indoors.” He warns against putting sneakers in the dryer because it can make “your shoes shrink half a size to one size”.

Since shoes are in constant proximity to moisture, it helps to store shoes on a wooden shoe tree to help keep them dry. Ideally, find a shape similar to your shoes, which will help them keep their structure.

Routine repairs

“Maintenance of the sole and heel should be done at least once a year or every six months,” Velakoulis says. A shoe repairer can also replace any parts of the shoe that might need a refresh, like stitching, zippers or buckles.

A row of men and women in stylish shoes at a fashion show
Jenny Velakoulis says women’s shoes can be harder to maintain due to their thinner leather, colours and narrow heels. Photograph: webphotographeer/Getty Images/iStockphoto

For shoes with narrow heels, like stilettos, timely maintenance is particularly important. Velakoulis says if a stiletto has been worn down it can be dangerous: “Not only can you slip, but you risk damaging your heel as well because there’s a lot of pressure on it.”

She flags that generally ladies’ shoes can be harder to maintain because the leathers used are thinner and the colours are harder to sustain with polish.

Similarly, vegan leather is difficult to repair, she says: “It will deteriorate and, if anything happens to it, we can’t really repair it.”

On the other hand, well-maintained leather can always be repaired, touched up, remoulded or smoothed over, Velakoulis says.

“I like the idea of things being passed down in the family. We’ve got three or four generations of customers, I’ve seen a lot of shoes that have been passed down. It’s beautiful.”


Lucianne Tonti

The GuardianTramp

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