To judge leather quality is a science of its own, and many times people confuse leather quality with specific properties of various types of leather. Here’s an ambition to pin out what the differences are between the two terms, to help give you and idea of when you have shoes with lesser quality leather and when you have shoes that just has a property that you mistake for bad quality.
Now to start, there’s a number of things that can go into what usually are wrongly defined as the leather quality. Smoothness, flexibility, how easy it shines, how it develops patina and so on. All these are, in general, leather “properties”, attributes, not actually “quality”, as when the word refers to “the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something”, as described by a dictionary. They can be the latter, but in general are just properties, attributes, of the leather. For example, a vegetable tanned thick chromexcel hide from Horween certainly isn’t lustrous and easy to shine compared to, say, a Vocalou box calf leather with a casein finish from the tannery Annonay, but it’s not supposed to either, it’s two types of leathers, with different properties, and both can be of good or bad quality on the side of having these properties. On the other hand, things like marks, dents, veins and so on are in general referred to as quality issues of leather (not by all, but in the dress shoe world it’s certainly the case), this is not properties.
In this article though, I will put my focus on creases, the thing that many defines leather quality by and what many spend large sums to avoid, thinking that as long as I pay hefty prices I will get leather that creases very finely. The fact that fit affects how shoes creases is obvious, I write quite a bit about that in this article about how shoes crease, now I will develop the part where we look at how leather creases due to how the actual leather is, not the fit, whether you use good fitting shoe trees or not, etc.
As a rule, when shoe manufacturers buy leathers they get batches of hides graded into three different grades of quality. The 1st grade leather has the least amount of blemishes, veins and scars, a tight grain on large parts of the hide etc., grade 2 have more issues and 3 even more. But on the hides the parts varies as well, so a part of the hide close to the spine with few blemishes on a grade 2 hide can be much better than a part with blemishes, veins and loose grain close to the belly of a grade 1 hide. And so on. So both quality of the hide and where you cut, and in turn then how much you use of the hides will determine a lot of the quality of the upper leather of the shoes the manufacturer make. But the general properties of the leather won’t differ much, if at all, between grade 1 and grade 3 three hides. If it’s tanned and treated to be for example lustrous and supple all hides will have these properties.
For creases, in general, the more that is used of the hides the more lesser good creases you get. And especially the more you use of the lower grade hides, the more issues you get. That is why cheaper shoes tend to have more of this than more expensive shoes. And when we talk about bad creases, the main ones are for example what is usually referred to as “loose grain”, which happens because the different parts of the leather have different consistency, and if the quality and/or tanning is less good, the layers are separated from each other, and the top layer, the grain, comes loose with distinct creases as a result. Another type of bad creasing is when you get sort of spider web-looking small cracks/creasing on large parts of the shoes, as if the leather has a dense coat that cracks also in areas that don’t move too much when walking. Or if you have clear veins running along the leather, which can’t be hidden with cream etc.
Since the upper leather is such an important part of the appearance of shoes, and it’s also relatively easy for a good clicker (the one who cut the hides/mark out what a laser machine should cut out) to determine good and lesser good quality hides and parts of hides, this is something that, in general, is addressed relatively early in the price ladder. To continue the generalisation, already at midrange level the manufacturers are quite good at only using good quality leather at least for the most important parts of the shoes like the vamp, toe, and outside quarter, only taking shortcuts on for example the inner quarter and the tongue which aren’t that visible, and when you come up in premium price ranges, say from €1,000 or so, be it RTW or bespoke, basically everyone is only using the best quality hides available (for them to source at least, for some, like smaller bespoke shoemakers, can be difficult to always get a hold of the best hides) and best parts of these hides on the shoes (don’t be fooled by the “only one pair per hide” thing some state, if you have a good hide it would be a total waste not to use more, and you can easily get out three top pairs if it’s a high quality hide and you have patterns that are in smaller parts. Also parts that aren’t used for the end top products are used for something, not thrown in the bin). When you charge that much for shoes, and spend the time you do in these price ranges, the leather cost is such a small part yet means so much that it’s just stupid to take shortcuts here.
Ok, so does this mean that if you buy shoes that cost more than €1,000 you always get shoes that crease minimal (if they fit)? Certainly not. Because, leather do crease differently, how they crease are also part of leather’s properties. I figured that I’d showcase this by using images of some shoes I have from various bespoke shoemakers, which certainly are known for their high quality. All in various calf leathers, no question they use the best materials, yet as will be evident there’s a lot of differences in how they crease, proving that it may differ much more between pairs from one maker than between makers, it’s all down to the properties of the leather used.
So you see, even if we have shoes from some of the best bespoke shoemakers in the world, and the fit is more or less the same between pairs, how the leather creases vary vastly depending on the “properties” of the leathers, that all are of high “quality”. If you find any of the leathers above problematic, when you go up in this price categories it’s more about making sure to find brands or have makers use leathers that has properties that you prefer, than whether a brand uses better leather than others.