For most of my life I have been buying the wrong dress shoes. As I noted in an earlier post, I have been on a quest to find dress shoes that aren’t total garbage (see the above image). This search has turned out to be quite educational for me.
I used to spend between 25-40 bucks on a pair of dress shoes, and wear them until they broke or were unusable, then repeat the process.
What I couldn’t figure out was why the turnaround time for each pair was so short. I always made sure to buy shoes listed as “leather” rather than the nasty “man-made” (another word for plastic) materials found on the cheapest, lowest-end shoes. So why were my leather shoes creasing, cracking, peeling, and falling apart so quickly? Isn’t leather supposed to last a long time?
It turns out that there are different grades of leather. That may not seem like much of a surprise, but what I didn’t realize was just how much of a difference it made. Almost all shoes that are designated as “leather” on the label are made from something called corrected-grain leather – more on that in a minute.
Leather is sourced from the hides of animals like cows and deer. These hides usually have imperfections on them, like scratches, scars, mosquito bites, and other blemishes – much like your own skin, only more so, since these animals live outside and are exposed to harsher environments than humans.
Scratched, mangled hides might be OK for gardening gloves and saddles, but are generally not suitable for things like shoes, bags, and jackets. Since finding a nice, smooth, clean hide is rare, it is a much more expensive product. This leather, in its original state, is called full-grain leather – the highest grade available.
To save on costs, companies just take the cheaper, blemished hides and sand down the top layer to get rid of the imperfections. Then they coat or emboss the new surface with “leather” coloring and patterns. The resulting product is corrected-grain leather. Unfortunately, the top layer that was sanded off also happens to be the strongest and most durable layer of the leather, so the remaining material is much more susceptible to creasing, cracking, and falling apart than full-grain leather.
Corrected-grain leather also goes by other euphemistic code-names to mask the fact that you are purchasing janky leather coated in plastic. Terminology you might see includes phrases like “genuine leather,” “top-grain leather,” or “polished leather” – pretty much anything other than “full-grain leather.” This material might be OK for wallets and purses, but for shoes, which are subject to more extreme conditions (constant daily bending, exposure to moisture), they will wear out quickly.
Another major characteristic of great shoe construction is Goodyear welting. Traditionally, shoes were made by stitching both the leather upper and the leather sole to a welt, usually identifiable by the visible stitches along the edge of the shoe and along the bottom of the outsole. Goodyear welted shoes are durable and extremely long-lasting, and their soles are also easily replaced. However, welting is a relatively expensive and time-consuming process, mainly because most of it must be done by hand.
In contrast, most shoes today are glued together – much cheaper and faster than welting. The two main drawbacks to this method are the reduction in durability (glued shoes eventually fall apart) and the inability to replace a worn sole. Once a glued sole is worn out, the shoe is done. This has happened to me on several occasions. On the other hand, welted shoes simply need to have the stitches removed and a new sole sewn on.
Anything Goodyear welted and made of full-grain leather will be considerably more expensive than something glued together and made from corrected-grain leather. You will be hard-pressed to find them for under 150-200 dollars, unless you are a deal-master like me (check the site regularly for ongoing deals and shopping tips!), although the Beckett Simonon shoes I wrote about previously are a notable exception.
One time I “splurged” on some Aldo shoes on clearance, thinking they were better and “fancier” than my regular dress shoes only because the guy at the store was a snooty jerk and kept harping on about how “European” they were. Like an idiot, I wore these silly things to events like weddings and parties. While the leather quality was indeed better than my cheap “beater” shoes, the soles were still glued rather than welted. Worse, they were “over-styled,” with doofy squared-off toes and excessive stitching patterns criss-crossing all over the upper. In other words, they looked like they were supposed to be fancy and trendy, but in fact were ultra-gimmicky and went out of style after about thirty seconds, and couldn’t really be worn seriously by anyone other the guys who actually worked at Aldo. Better to stick with classic designs, like round-toe oxfords, derbies, or brogues, that never go out of style. Maybe more on that in a future article.
It sucks having to drop serious moolah on shoes, but after decades of buying crappy shoes, I have finally learned my lesson. My $30 junk shoes usually lasted less than 2 years with regular wear – and for half of that lifespan, the shoes already looked horrible from all the cracking. Not worth it! For all the $30 dress shoes I burned through, I could have invested in one or two nice shoes that will last a lifetime and retain their beauty throughout.
I have a few pairs of shoes to review, so keep an eye out for updates!