Cobblers on the secrets of durable shoes: no plastic, stitched soles and no flimsy zips | Fashion

I’ve had my favourite shoes for almost 10 years. They are black loafers with a small, block heel that were made in Italy from very soft leather. They’re so beautifully constructed that every time I get them refreshed by a cobbler they come back looking almost new. I’ve bought shoes since then for the same amount of money, but nothing compares in terms of their durability and comfort.

Unfortunately, due to the rise of mass production and synthetic materials, unless you know what you’re looking for, shoes with this kind of quality can be hard to find. Here, experts explain how to spot well-made shoes.

High-quality leather

Jenny Velakoulis, the owner of Evans Leather Repair in Melbourne’s Royal Arcade, says the most important thing to look for in quality shoes is real leather. “Leather’s beautiful, because you get a hole in your boots that can be patched on the inside and on the outside,” Velakoulis says. “Then the leather moulds to wherever we want it to. So it’s a really nice, beautiful thing to work with and it will last forever when cared for properly.”

A shoemaker and craftsman, Theo Hassett, says: “If you are after high-quality leather with all its strength and anthropometric properties then you want full-grain leather.” Full-grain leather has a natural texture on the surface because it hasn’t been sanded or buffed smooth. He says to watch out for leather that’s been coated in plastic or had a corrective surface applied to make the leather look excessively smooth and shiny, as these are techniques used to mask a split or poor-quality hides.

Plastic free

Similarly, be wary of shoes made from plastic – it’s so hard to fix. “If you get a stain on it or if it splits that’s the end of it,” Velakoulis says. “It’s very disposable.”

Sometimes the amount of plastic in shoes can be deceptive. It might be labelled vegan leather, or called mesh in ballet flats. Any material labelled “synthetic” or “resin” is, in fact, plastic. Similarly, Velakoulis says to be wary of stiletto or kitten heels that have been moulded out of plastic and are light enough to be hollow inside, because these break easily and, once a heel is broken, it is virtually impossible to replace.

Stitched construction

Look for stitches particularly around the inner sole of the shoe. Photograph: robertprzybysz/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Another telltale sign of a well-made shoe is the use of stitching to hold the sole in place. Hassett says this is especially important “if you are wanting the shoes to last longer than a few years because any glue in the place of stitching is going to come apart eventually”.

Look for stitches particularly around the inner sole of the shoe, as any glue used inside will deteriorate from the sweat of your feet and the friction under your heel, Velakoulis says.

Outer sole and tread

If you’ll be doing lots of walking in your shoes, Hassett suggests looking for a thick rubber commando or Dainite rubber sole. “They are some of the most durable,” he says.

For shoes you plan to walk a lot in, a commando (tyre) tread or Dainite rubber sole will last the longest. Photograph: art/Alamy

For dress shoes that have a smooth leather bottom, it’s important to get a cobbler to attach a thin layer or rubber to the bottom and heel (often called a topy) and to get this rubber replaced as needed.

“The traditional way is to fully replace the leather sole which involves removing and reattaching the heel and restitching a new sole on,” Hassett says. “But to be honest, very few places have the equipment, skill set or inclination to do this any more.”

Replaceable rubber soles and heels will help dress shoes last longer. Photograph: RobertPetrovic/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In place of this, he says to look for soles with structural integrity, such as a thin midsole stitched to something more substantial and an outsole glued to this, because the customer can then replace the sole as required. “I know this sounds like a glued-on sole but I think it’s very different when you have all the construction above to keep the integrity,” he says.

Another thing to pay attention to is how the heels are constructed. A well-made brogue or boot should have a stacked leather heel. Which is made by a cobbler cutting and stacking leather pieces on top of each other with glue. This means the heel is easy to repair as the layers can be stripped away and rebuilt as needed.


When it comes to buckles, zips and laces, Velakoulis says: “If the hardware looks flimsy, it will break.

“If it’s soft and malleable and doesn’t look like it’s strong, it will break. And the more buckles there are, the more chance of that happening.”

For Hassett, it’s zips that typically can’t withstand the wear and tear of being on your feet. “On footwear you’d expect to last 10 years or more, I think a zip is a risky addition,” he says. Which means the most durable shoes will be ones that fasten with laces, or slip on and off.

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