Shoes made of fine leather, expertly stitched together by learned craftsmen, are ubiquitous on men’s feet in most parts of the world. Not so in Malaysia, where the rainy tropical climate is harsh on leather and negates what makes leather so prized in the first place – its extreme durability and ability to sustain a lifetime of use.
On average, the synthetic (PU leather, PVC etc) shoes that most men wear here break down and have to be replaced once a year. In contrast, quality goodyear-welted leather shoes last at least 5-10 years or even a lifetime of wear when rotated with other pairs, and can be found for as little as $200. If you’ve ever had cracked leather shoes, you might be reading this with a healthy amount of skepticism, but the truth is that you have not been caring for this naturally durable material properly.
Here is a cheap and simple guide to weather-proofing your leather shoes so that they actually save you money over plastic shoes in the long run! It only takes 1-2 minutes, but makes all the difference!
How Malaysia’s tropical climate damages leather
The secret to leather’s strength as a shoe material is in its flexibility. Because leather is preserved animal skin (which flexes a lot without breaking), it is able to withstand thousands upon thousands of flexes caused by walking. On a microscopic level, this flexibility is the result of countless tiny leather fibres that criss-cross like woven yarn and hold together through chemical bonds, allowing the material to stretch, compress, and bend without breaking.
Malaysia’s weather seems to have taken the phrase “rain or shine” to their extremes – it’s either heavy downpours or scorching heat.
When leather shoes get wet, the water and salt leech the natural oils in leather, causing the fibres to become brittle and easily broken when bent. When enough broken fibres throughout the structure, the piece of leather becomes weak enough to form a visible crack when flexed.
Under extreme heat, leather fibres are almost ‘baked’ and the chemical bonds between them break or weaken. This also causes the piece of leather to weaken as a whole and become cracked when flexed. (On a similar note, NEVER dry wet leather shoes under the sun.)
How do I make my leather shoes last?
1. Replenish lost oils
If your shoes get wet, the first step is to dry them out with old newspaper and a good pair of unfinished wooden shoe trees. Next, you’ll want to replenish the leather oils that are keeping it strong and supple as soon as the shoes dry and before your next wear. A leather conditioner is commonly used here, although some forms of animal oils are also options. A good conditioner would be the Saphir Renovateur, which is also the conditioner of choice for most leather craftsmen.
The reasons for the Renovateur’s universal popularity are several:
- It has a mink oil base which is chemically similar to natural leather oils
- The Renovateur also removes old polish and dirt to help the conditioning oils penetrate deeper
- It is one of the most affordable conditioners around as only a minute amount has to be used each time
2. Waterproof your shoes
After letting the conditioner soak in, waterproof your shoes with several layers of wax polish so that less water penetrates your shoe leather when it gets wet again, and less leather oils are lost. The goal here isn’t a shine but to build water resistance, so you can quickly smooth the polish in seconds with a horse hair brush instead of going at it for hours with a rag. Because the wax layer diminishes over time, you should build up at least 4-5 layers so that the water-resistance lasts over a longer period and you do not have to polish your shoes so often.
A good wax to use would be the Saphir Pate de Luxe, because its unique 7-wax blend gives it great staying power against a variety of conditions. As these waxes are all natural waxes like carnauba and beeswax, they are also slightly nourishing to shoe leather.
Waterproofing sprays provide stronger water protection. However, most utilize a waterproof silicone layer as a cheap and quick way to do so, but silicone dries out leather and causes it to degrade. Saphir’s Super Invulner Waterproofing Spray is an excellent silicone-free compound that causes water to just slide off your shoes, yet maintains the leather’s natural oils.
While not as important as the shoe upper, the leather soles of shoes also break down faster when exposed to wet conditions. The same loss of natural oils causes leather soles to become weak and wear thin with less mileage.
A popular choice among leather shoe users in Singapore to guard against premature leather sole wear is the Topy, which is essentially a piece of rubber that is attached to the bottom of leather soles. Topys wear out much slower, and also prevent water from soaking into the leather from the underside. However, some shoe aficionados believe that the inflexibility of Topys cause leather uppers to crease more heavily and lead to more cracks, and would rather go for more frequent resoles than spoil the more expensive leather upper. Waterproofing compounds for leather soles like the Saphir Sole Guard exist, and are made of oils that imbue the leather and make it more hydrophobic. However, leather soles have to be replaced when they wear out anyway, and should not be a cause of major concern.
Should I wear leather shoes in Malaysia?
The answer is a resounding “YES!”. Not only do leather shoes cost less per year of wear, they also add class and sophistication to your ensemble. The next time you walk down the street and a pair of shoes catches your attention, try to take notice of its make. Most of the time, you’ll find that it’s made of leather because just the cost of the material demands that it be handled with a certain level of craftsmanship. (Who has ever given or received compliments on cheap, mass-produced plastic shoes?)