Leather Bound

Jim Metellus on preserving a fashionable fabric

Unlike mohair and go-go boots, some fashion looks never go out of style or out of season. Take leather, for example. Versatile and stylish, leather is getting printed, embossed, stamped, and boldly colored across product categories this season.

Jim R. Metellus, product development manager for footwear at Kenneth Cole Productions, loves the design challenge that leather presents. “For me, it’s the richness of it and being able to manipulate it versus dealing with cloth,” says the 29-year-old Harlem native, who has also helped develop footwear for Frye Co., Tommy Hilfiger, Phat Farm, Diesel, and Adidas.

Italy — home to Gucci, Prada, and Salvatore Ferragamo — is generally considered top in leather craftsmanship, but China manufactures about 60% of U.S. footwear, says Metellus. Countries such as Brazil, Spain, Portugal, and Mexico also earn strong marks for quality. But there’s more to a great leather item than its country of origin.

Here, Metellus — also a member of the Black Fashion Designers Association (www.blackfashiondesigners.org) — shares these tips for choosing and caring for leather this fall:

Texture reigns. Stamped crocodile, alligator patterns, as well as glazed and embossed leather take center stage. Continuing spring’s hardware obsession, tooling details such as chains, studding, and heavy brass buckles and closures made popular by designers Marc Jacobs and Gucci are key for fall bags and shoes. Metellus says rich dark navies, blacks, earth tones, and cognac are dominating men’s footwear, while luxe burgundies and rich saddle shades are making news in women’s shoes.

Price is not the only factor. The quality of an item’s raw materials, such as the original hide’s or skin’s age and thickness, as well as a garment’s stitching helps determine its cost, say Metellus and the Leather Apparel Association. You’ll pay a premium for butter-soft calfskin (from young female cows). Heavier, durable cowhide comes from older animals. Another price factor: leather soles on footwear. “It’s better for the shoe because you want it to age gracefully,” he says.

Pay attention to details. Metellus suggests purchasing only lined garments “because you don’t want the tanning to rub off on your clothes.” Regardless of the product, “make sure the stitching is not sloppy.”

Make it last forever. Never pretreat suede, says Metellus. “It’s silicone-based, so basically you’re spraying plastic.” When your goods need cleaning, take them to a leather specialist, not the local dry cleaner. During the wintertime, sponge off salt stains with clear water. And no matter how logical it seems, never dry wet shoes or garments by placing them near heat sources, as the leather will shrink.

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