Published in: March 2012 Features > Guide: How to Care for Leather Bags (Page 1 / 1)

Guide: How to Care for Leather Bags

Fine leather bags—the end product of painstaking, ritualized craftsmanship—deserve to be treated with care. Here's how to protect your investment piece in five easy steps

Hermès Etribelt bag in smooth Togo calfskin, from the Spring-Summer 2012 collection

A leather bag is a special, near-universally beloved object, appreciated in equal measure by bon-vivants of both sexes, who cherish the supple hand, understated burnish and heady smell that can only emanate from premium quality skin. 

Remember, however, that your Valextra Boston and Mulberry Bayswater aren't wrought from metal or ceramic. They are organic artefacts, and as lustrous as your new purchases may be, they will, when left to their own devices, become desiccated and dull. That is why maintenance of your leather bags and other small accoutrements is so crucial, if you want to enjoy them for as long as possible. Here’s how, beginning with a glossary of terms you should know if you want to take proper care of your specific leather carrier.   

Know Your Skins

  • Most leather bags are vegetable-tanned with tannin. Downside: vegetable-tanned leather bags discolor and shrivel when drenched in water.
  • Chrome-tanned skins are more water-resistant, and are referred to in trade-speak as "wet blue" for their steel-gray tinge.
  • Full-grain is premium-grade hide that has not been buffed, to showcase the skin’s natural “grain” or texture. 
  • Top-grain: less dear on your wallet, this is thinner and has had its natural grain “corrected’ by sanding away scars.
  • Coveted exotics from non-cattle skin and patent leather, with its high gloss achieved by oils and resin, are just two other examples of the other finishes and leather types available on the market today.
  • Guide How To Take Care Of Leather 7The holy grail for most bag aficionados: a croc Hermès Birkin. All Hermès croc Birkins are crafted from the belly of the Porosus saltwater crocodile, the most commercially valuable species. Ironically, items made from crocodile skin are particularly susceptible to water damage, and should ideally be maintained by brand specialists
  • Guide How To Take Care Of Leather 15Alligator bowling bag from Burberry Prorsum. All alligator skins come from the American Alligator, classified by CITES as a non-endangered species. The difference between alligator and crocodile is subtle, but when examined closely, alligator scales are free from the pits present in genuine croc
  • Guide How To Take Care Of Leather 3One of the most recognizable women's bags, the standard Chanel 2.55 is made from quilted lambskin, which is the hide of young sheep. This superior skin boasts an incomparably soft, buttery feel
  • Guide How To Care For Leather Bags 6 Another firm favorite, the Louis Vuitton Monogram Speedy. Note the untreated leather handles and trimmings, referred to as vachetta. Bag collectors recommend sunning the bag for an hour or so over a few weeks, so that the handles develop an even "tan" or patina.
  • Guide How To Take Care Of Leather 6Leather is animal hide, usually sourced from cattle, that has been tanned to make it flexible and durable. The color in leather, such as that of these document holders, typically involves an aniline-dye, which saturates the skin in pigment while retaining its beautiful natural grain
  • Guide How To Take Care Of Leather 4General rule of thumb: full-grain is of the highest quality. Seen here is a stamp on a Coach tote indicating its full-grain credentials
  • Guide How To Take Care Of Leather 14Exception to the full-grain rule: the so-called Saffiano leather, produced using Prada's proprietary method of embossing corrected-grained skin to achieve its distinctive diagonal pattern
  • Guide How To Take Care Of Leather 8Nubuck is top-grain hide sanded on the grain or hair side to achieve a "nap", short fibers that yield a soft, velvety texture. Scratches are very visible, and care involves regular brushing of the nap to remove dirt
  • Guide How To Care For Leather Bags 5Proenza Schouler PS1 satchel. Suede is often confused with nubuck, but is made from the underside of the hide, resulting in a longer nap. Easily stained and matted, treatment options for suede are much the same as for nubuck

How to Clean

  • The general principle is simple: remove dirt build-up by wiping down with a cleaner made specifically for the leather in question. 
  • Most labels like Bally and Coach have their in-house leather care range, or they will endorse a particular brand, as in the case of Mulberry, so always ask the boutique assistant for care tips and recommended products.
  • Remember the hardware. Some bags have precious metal-plated buckles or chains. Always ask the boutique assistant for care recommendations.
  • Every other day, give your bag a brisk sweep with a soft dry cloth—this won't take more than a few minutes, but will go miles towards preserving the appearance of your leather.    

How to Condition

  • Think of conditioning as moisturizer for your leather, which will dry out over time. To prevent flaking and wrinkling, dab a dollop of conditioner on a soft cloth and rub gently all over.
  • Try mink or neatsfoot oil, which simulate and supplement the natural oils of leather.  Leave on for 10 minutes, then wipe off the excess. Dry thoroughly in an airy room.
  • Condition every month or so to keep your leather looking its shiny best.

How to Weatherproof

  • Leather is permeable and can never be entirely waterproof, so avoid toting your favorite Givenchy Nightingale in bad weather. Nonetheless, there are beeswax creams which function as a barrier against water.
  • Word of caution: beeswax may alter the hue of dyed leather, so test first on an inconspicuous corner. 
  • A more breathable but less effective alternative: a spray protectant, which is virtually invisible on your bags. 

How to Store

  • Stash your bag in its original dustbag and fill it with stuffing—use butter paper, never newspaper, which will smear— to maintain its shape. 
  • Keep the dustbagged product in its original box, along with packets of silica gel so your bag doesn't get damp.
  • Air once every two weeks to halt the growth of mold.  
  • Rotation is key. Everyday use of your bag will wear it out, so switch things up every month.

Some Final Tips

  • Let water spills dry naturally. High-heat measures like using a hairdryer will only cause the skin to crinkle beyond salvage.
  • Prevent color transfer by consciously resisting the urge to rest your bag against your jeans. Bring it back to the boutique immediately if your bag gets stained. 

Further Reading

  • Of course, this guide is by no means an exhaustive manual. Look to other excellent online resources for leathercare advice, like the numerous dedicated bag forums and the websites of international leather associations.
  • Arm yourself with these lovely books—not leatherbound, more's the pity—for an in-depth read on all things leather: 

Guide How To Care For Leather Bags 7

Bags - Claire Wilcox

Guide How To Care For Leather Bags 8

A Century of Bags - Claire Wilcox

Guide How To Care For Leather Bags 9

Handbag Chic: 200 Years of
Designer Fashion

Guide How To Care For Leather Bags 10

Exotic Skin: Alligator and
Crocodile Handbags