What is Man-made leather?
Also commonly known as faux leather, pleather or synthetic leather, man-made leather is commonly made from polyvinyl chloride, called PVC, and polyurethane, called PU leather. Sheets of these polymers are heat-stamped with an artificial leather grain to make them look like leather. Large quantities of these polymers can be easily produced at low cost, which explains why you can get a pair of faux leather shoes for about $30, whereas a decent pair of leather shoes start in the $200-$300 range in Singapore.
However, though faux leather shoes may be the ‘cheaper’ option compared to leather shoes, they’re by no means the more economical one. In fact, you may wind up spending more by wearing faux leather instead!
Between a cheap pair of $30 plastic / faux leather shoes and a $300 pair of proper leather shoes, I would almost certainly go for the $300 pair. This makes economical sense because the cheap pair of shoes will last you a year to three years, tops, no matter how hard you care for them (if you can even care for plastic). Leather shoes on the other hand, last up to decades with just moderate and consistent care. There have even been multiple accounts of children inheriting antique, expensive handcrafted leather shoes from their dads because they have been cared for with a little more effort. I think I would rather spend $300 looking like $300 for 30 years rather than spend $300 looking like $30 for 10 years, wouldn’t you?
1. Leather soles do not fall off until meant to be replaced
The most common reason plastic shoes cease to function is because their cheap, glued-on soles fall off from one flex and one step too many. The glue just isn’t meant to last that long, and you are supposed to replace the entire pair every year.
Most fine leather shoes, however, employ some form of stitched sole, in which the sole of the shoe is stitched with threads into the leather upper. This means that the soles will only fall off when the threads are worn thin, and the threads will only start wearing when your sole has been worn thin – in which case it is time to get a sole replacement. This brings us to the other advantage of quality crafted leather shoes: their soles can be replaced at a fraction of the cost, essentially giving you a brand new shoe!
2. Leather uppers last a lifetime – and more
PU and PVC are originally rigid polymers, and plasticizers have been added to make them flexible enough for shoes. However, they quickly turn brittle within a matter of months. This is the reason plastic shoes crease badly, and why faux leather shoes always seem to start peeling and cracking within a year and turn your shoes into a tramp’s sandals.
Leather is animal skin, which is naturally designed to stretch, flex and fold as in a shoe. Because it no longer has a natural supply of oils and nutrients, however, leather has to be conditioned from time to time to maintain its pliable nature. With a proper shoe care routine, leather uppers do not develop and significant creases, and can last you your entire life. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear of sons inheriting limited-make shoes from their fathers for wear!
Of course, the lifespan of your shoes also depends on the quality of leather being used.
3. Leather shoes are way more comfortable
A noticeable difference from the first wear is that leather shoes are much more breathable than their synthetic counterparts. By wearing a leather shoe on one foot and a faux leather in the other then going about with my day, I noticed that the faux leather shoe was considerably stuffier and made my foot sweat more, whereas the leather shoe even felt slightly cool when in an air-conditioned room. However, part of the reason is also that leather absorbs some amount of your sweat over the day, so it is very important to get a pair of wooden shoe trees into your leather shoes once you take them off, preferably of an unfinished wood since they absorb moisture better.
The other advantage of using leather in footwear can only be noticed after some time. Being a naturally flexible material, leather actually stretches around your feet as you wear them in, so that the shape of your leather shoes start to mould to your feet! This is important because every foot is shaped differently (even your left from your right), and no store-bought shoes can ever come in a perfect fit for your feet. Not only is this comfortable, it is also great for posture and joint health. In a shoe that is overly-tight at the toes, for example, we unconsciously shift our weight to our heels instead of distributing our weight across the entire feet and toes. This will affect our posture and gait along the entire body and can lead to chronic pain in the knees and lower back.