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Polished Leather Shoes

If you're considering purchasing your first pair of Goodyear welt shoes then you should probably know about polished leather. It’s used extensively in the footwear industry and by many higher-end shoe makers, including Church’s, Loake, Allan Edmond, Gucci and Prada. Yet it's a controversial leather and one that gets the back up of many a shoe enthusiast. 

What is polished leather?

Polished leather, also commonly known as polished binder or bookbinder leather, has a fine top coat (often acrylic, resins and/or parmesans) added to the leather to give the shoe a highly-polished appearance. Better shoe-makers will add layers of wax to bring about a nice shine before adding the coating. Patent leather is corrected (lower quality) grain leather with a thick acrylic finish, pressed to a high shine.

The notable difference in shine between the same Church's Dubai in polished binder (L) and calf leather (R)

Why the disquiet?

A search on many popular shoe-related forums and blogs (e.g. Style Forum, Ask Andy and the Shoe Snob) reveals a sizeable community of detractors who warn against polished leather. I've summarised what I believe are their main concerns below:

First, polished leather is not as durable as uncorrected leather. It looks nice to begin with, but creases form quickly and scuffs are harder to remove. Once the coat cracks, it’s game over shoes. Aesthetically, It will not develop a fine patina over time like a pair of (similarly priced) calfskin leathers can.

A pair of polished leather brogues with a not-so-good quality coating. 

Second, the leather looks a bit artificial, like plastic. You can polish and buff all you want but you are never going to enhance the shine. Unfortunately, once the artificial shine begins to fade, which it is known to do over time, there is not a lot you can do about it.

Third, you don’t know for certain what leather is ‘under the hood’. According to Justin FitzPatrick from the Shoe Snob, the practice of using lower-grade leather underneath is far more common than people are led to believe. It's a way shoemakers save on materials to maximise profit. 

So why bother with polished leather?

There are of course advantages to polished leather. It is more water and stain resistant than uncorrected leathers and requires less maintenance. The coat is also more impervious to scuffs and general wear. For the busy person who appreciates good shoes, but just doesn't have the time or enthusiasm to care for them as one should, polished leather may be a logical choice. 

Also, contrary to popular belief, polished leather isn't necessarily a lower-grade corrected leather. Church's, for instance, use full grain leather and apply buffing waxes to enhance the natural patina of the hide before finished with a glossy polished binder coat. So there are some good ones out there. The problem lies in 'separating the wheat from the chaff.' 

My experience with polished leather

My pair of polished leather Church's and Loakes. The Church's are at least 15 years old.

Let it be known that I do prefer a calfskin leather over a polished leather any day. That being said, I own a couple of pairs and they've served me well.

My pair of polished leather Loake Elland Black Oxfords (bottom right above) are about three years old. They were a good solution at the time. They've developed some creasing across the vamp, but are holding up ok. They do, however, look a bit artificial and polishing has no effect. I won't be resoling. 

I'm pretty impressed with an old pair of Church Burwood II (burgundy bookbinder) I own - picked up on eBay for a steal. The leather looks more natural than the Loakes and responds well to polish. The polished leather has stood the test of time fairly well, contrary to popular opinion. 

For the man on the market

Polished leather isn't for a lot of people, but it's certainly for some people. Polished leather shoes look 'nice' and require little maintenance. They're also useful in wet climates. But the arguments against are many and many of them reasonable. 

For the gent looking to invest in his first pair of quality kicks, simply knowing what polished leather is will put him in good stead to make the right purchase decision. Knowing what leather he wants, or doesn’t want, is basic due diligence that will prevent crimson-faced buyers’ remorse later on.  

Comments

Black Tie:

I like polished leather shoes for black tie events. If I use a calf leather, I will need to give them a high shine. Or I can use a polished or patent leather without the time or effort. They do have their purpose and I think the Burwood’s pictured look very attractive.

Aug 13, 2018

Ron:

I also bought a pair of polish leather shoes thinking they were normal leather. I even got some nice shoe cream for them.. little good it did. Ron is not my real name.

Jul 23, 2018

Steve:

Similar situation to Giley, but actually bought a pair online. Should have read the description more carefully. Bit of an expensise mistake since it would have cost too much to send them back.

Jun 18, 2018

Gilesy:

I almost bought a pair of Loakes without understanding what polished leather was. I thought it was a polished calf leather. I’ve shared this with a few mates.

Nov 10, 2017

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