How to Care for Your Dress Shoes

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With a little TLC, your nicest pair of shoes will take you far.

Dress shoes can get a beating. We are nearly as active in them as we are in our Nikes. Running to the office, hitting the bar with business associates, and of course swerving on the dance floor at your best friend's wedding. Yet they can cost four times more than your best sneakers so you want to care for them for years to come.

We spoke to Rob Mcallan, founder of his own eponymous dress shoe line to get some tips and tricks on preserving our best footwear.

Types of Leather

The first key point of distinction is that all leather is not equal. Regular leather has gone through a tannery; it looks like natural leather you see on couches, jackets, gloves, and shoes. Then there is patent leather, which is treated with a varnish or coating so it is basically sealed. Finally, you have suede, and it is the trickiest of the three to maintain.

Patent: When making shoe choice, if you are banging your shoe around a lot and wearing them in an array of weather elements, patent may be an interesting choice. It maintains the polish and sheen and the surface is very easy to care for. So if you have any spills you just wipe them off with a damp cloth. If you have scrapes or nicks you use a polish or a wax. It’s kind of like a glass table, anything on it you can simply wipe off.

Care: You will want a microfiber cloth to use to wipe your patent shoes down. For something deeper that goes under the surface you want wax. Simply wipe them with the microfiber cloth and use a horsehair brush to buff them out. The longer you buff the shinier it gets. Some people love a high shine, some others like a little dull. I always go with Kiwi wax mainly because I grew up using it and I know the brand pretty well. They have a wide range of products and really do have a versatile range. Microfiber cloths are very hard to clean, so get a new cloth once the whole cloth has finally been used. I just use one corner at a time.

Natural Leather: You don't want to put wax on natural leather because it’s like skin. While it has been to a tannery, it is still porous and can dry out. When you glob wax onto natural leather is simply suffocates the skin.


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Three Stages of Care

Get a leather conditioner (or lotion) that adds a little bit of moisture to the leather. It’s the lightest of products you can put on your shoe. My recommendation is, do it like routine maintenance, once a week. You want to take preventative care—it’s like cleaning your kitchen every night or letting the washing build up. You can over-condition your shoe. If you run your finger along the surface of the shoe and it feels cracked or tough and the shine has faded, it’s time for a conditioner. It’s also a function of your environment. If you are in a warm, dry environment you will need to condition more. Or if you leave them in sunny areas, which is not recommended. Don't clean your shoe with water. It can leave sediment on the leather and tends to harden up the leather.

Leather Cream: This will slightly alter the surface and give your shoes a little protection. Go this route when you see a noticeable difference in your shoes or visible buildup of dirt. Simply use a microfiber cloth and gently rub the cream into the leather. When it’s snowy and you get salt on your shoes, cream is my first aid.

Worst-case scenario step up to a wax. It’s very thick and will cover the pores of the leather and moisture won't seep in. Once you wax you have to commit to that for the rest of the life of the shoe. The key to wax is you need to match the color of the wax to the color of the shoe. Often times you will see these natural colors in the leather and once you use a wax the color will be more uniform. So if a shoe is hand burnished you will lose those tones. I avoid wax on a leather shoe unless you have a deep cut or you spill wine on your shoe and stain it. If it is a bad stain you may want to take them into a shoe repair place. Wax will pick up every tiny scuff. When waxing, use a very light amount—a finger dab. Rub it in with a microfiber cloth and buff it out with a horsehair brush. You may wax them every time you wear them since every little thing may leave a mark.

Suede: This is a tricky one! This is the inner surface of the leather that has been rubbed/sanded to make a soft nap. People think suede is not waterproof but of course you can waterproof it (although that treatment can come off when you brush your shoes). When you buy suede you want to keep that suede look and texture, which is really rich and uniform.

Care: All you really need is a suede brush, which has a lot firmer bristles. Some are even brass or metal. This helps maintain the fluff. If you get any type of dirt or moisture on suede it will clump it and weigh it down, and it will look like the suede has disappeared. All you need is a dry brush, do not use any wax or cream. Just run the brush in the direction of the grain in a back and forth motion. While you may not see the dirt build up, it’s good to brush your shoes routinely once a week to keep them looking their best, especially if you are walking around dirty streets. The area that gets the most wear is the heel from driving your car but I still suggest getting your suede brush and go all around the shoe. It’s like dusting the surface of the table. It’s taking off the topical debris.

If you do have a stronger mark, like a dry mark such as food, you can pick up a suede eraser. You can use a regular eraser but don't use pink, only white.  I recommend a proper suede eraser. It’s like erasing pencil from a page. Go wider than the area affected. Use some medium to hard pressure. Then use the brush to see the end result. That should be enough to remove it. Do not use water or soap and never use a hand or dish soap on a shoe. They have abrasives in them that will strip away the natural oils. If you do get your suede shoes wet, get your suede brush out and give them a brush over and it should return them to their original state.

Last resort, if you have a really rich stain on your suede, I recommend taking it into a shoe repair place. There is such a craft of getting the stain out and not damaging the leather and keeping the surface clean. You don't want to rub it really hard and remove the suede.