Do you have a “leather guy” yet? And no, I am not talking about a 50 Shades of Grey leather expert. More so a cobbler, or, in my case, a Leo. Leo’s Custom Leather in Chicago is without a website, but instead a small shop on Broadway Avenue, and is about as old school as you get. His storefront is loaded to the gills with custom leather coats and tack, and the shelves behind the counter are lined with bottles of mysterious elixirs and leather butter to buff away any scratch or stain. When the streets are salted and slushy over the winter, Leo is a pro at taking out the grit and returning boots to their original form. He even let me in on a little trick for dehydrated vintage leather, where a quick wipe down with milk can revive even the most moisture-starved piece without draining its color. While this tip worked for me and a few of my older Coach purses, I do recommend spot testing before taking milk to an entire bag.
Still, as any leather-lover knows, daily use can take a toll on this hearty fabric. A new leather bag is unbeatable with its smooth, supple texture and shine, but for those on a budget or vintage-inclined, this finish has a tendency to lose its luster over time. While some recommend moisturizing leather with La Mer skin cream, there are a few simple rules on how to treat leather without using high-end skincare products to do it.
Sessann Orne knows a thing or two about the material in question. Owner and designer at Three Arrows Leather, Orne handcrafts all of her pieces to create a unique and one-of-a-kind collection. The high desert of New Mexico where she has resided since 2009 inspires an earthy aesthetic to the line. Her leathers are locally sourced, hand cut and hand stitched with an attention to detail and authenticity deeply rooted in a southwestern tradition that pays homage to the area’s indigenous culture and history. Orne’s leather goods showcase her elevated craftsmanship as well as a simple elegance in the fringe and gemstone details. When we spoke with Orne via email, she wrote, “Regular wear and tear adds to the beauty and story of a leather bag, but water and stains can potentially ruin one.”
The best way to care for leather is to think of it as skin, because, well, it is skin—a skin that can no longer self-hydrate. According to Shawn McGowen, President of Leather Honey, leather needs to be conditioned—think moisturized—to keep the item from growing “brittle, dull” or “eventually crack.” Leather Honey has been in the leather business since 1968 and is one of the top companies in leather repair, conditioning and cleaning. Their Leather Honey Leather Conditioner, specially formulated by McGowen’s grandfather, soaks deep into the leather, adding moisture from the inside out, restoring each individual fiber’s flexibility. Leather Honey’s products are non-toxic and avoid the use of harmful chemicals, which allows the leather to breathe and stretch, as natural materials are want to do. Conditioners act a protectant as well and help expand leather’s lifespan.
Another leather destroyer, much the same as with our own fragile skin, is sunlight. The best way to protect against sun damage, which in turn can dry out a leather item, is to avoid direct exposure for long periods of time. By keeping leather goods in a low-humidity, dark space when not using them helps prevent discoloration as well as the drying effect. Stuffing bags with tissue paper also helps retain their shape in between use.
And don’t be fooled, not all leather is created equal. Orne, who works with all types, suggests knowing the type of leather since softer ones, i.e. deerskin and elk, are very porous and can absorb oil and stains more easily than other heavier leathers, as well as dry out from the sun a lot faster. Suede is its own beast and demands very different care than calfskin. When in doubt, of course, do research and ask a professional.
Mold and mildew can also crop up if you are not careful. These pesky white clouds can absolutely destroy a pair of shoes or bag and are sometimes a real pain to get rid of. After cleaning the leather with something like Leather Honey’s Leather Cleaner, McGowen says an at-home remedy works best to remove stubborn mildew: one part vinegar—apple cider vinegar for brown leathers and white vinegar for lighter leathers—and four parts water. “Simply wipe down your leather with this solution after cleaning, then allow it to dry.” And this last step may be the most crucial according to McGowen, when caring for leather or treating stains: “Always, always allow your leather to fully dry between cleaning and conditioning. If you don’t, conditioning can seal in that excess water, which can lead to mildew,” the very thing you are trying to avoid.
With leather, simplicity appears to rule all. More so than not, the less is more approach to caring for leather goods works best. McGowen cites a two-step regime of cleaning and conditioning as the best way to tackle leather care. Orne also recommends a preventative and lighter touch to leather treatments, suggesting a protective spray like Tarrago Protective Universal to stave away unwanted stains, oil and dirt. But, as with anything, always spot check first, and, when in doubt, a great cobbler like Leo can do the trick to keep your leather in fine condition for many years to come.