What's In A Costume Designer's Kit? Fancy Leather Care Edition

You've made the investment, now learn how to protect it.
Publish date:
October 21, 2013
shoppables, Ask Alison, what's in a costume designers kit, moldy shoes, leather care

A costume designer's kit is a magical thing. It's full of clever tools and tons of fancy tricks meant to keep every part of an actor's wardrobe in tip top shape.

So when reader Cassie sent me the email below, I cracked open my kit to solve her shoe problem pronto. You can read all of my "What's In A Costume Designer's Kit?" posts, featuring the items I regularly use on set right here.

Dear Alison,

I have a problem. I was gifted a pair of super expensive leather knee high boots by a wonderful aunt.

This, obviously, is not really a problem! The problem is that I live in Scotland, and just moved out of 'The Dampest Flat In The World' .

Despite drying them thoroughly after each use and polishing regularly, the boots didn’t fare so well. The leather soles have a little white furry bloom over them that I’m pretty sure is mold. It’s also peeking over a little on the tops of the soles, where it meets the uppers.

How do I get rid of this? Do I have to get them resoled? Will I have to shell out big bucks? Is there some sort of spray I can use to prevent this? And how do you take care of leather, anyway?

Cassie from Scotland

Cassie isn't kidding about the boots being super expensive! The Milana boots her aunt gifted her retail in the $300-$500 range. They are Italian-made, all-leather beauties meant to last a lifetime. This makes it especially heartbreaking that they are besieged by pesky mold blooms, but it's also their saving grace, because a well-made pair of leather boots can fend off an attack of mold and keep on truckin' for years to come.

Let's talk about how Cassie could have prevented that mold in the first place, shall we? Leather shoes + bad weather is a deadly combination, so before you even wear them, make sure you waterproof them. The term "waterproofing" is a bit of a misnomer, as all you are really doing is improving their ability to withstand water. I've always preferred silicone-based waterproofing sprays to mink oil, as oil-based waterproofers can darken leather. But I've recently discovered and started using a brilliant Nikwax product that uses a space-age elastomer (or elastic polymer) to repel water.

Whatever waterproofing product you decide to use, take the time to test a corner for any possible color change. And if your boots are made of suede, make sure to choose a waterproofing product specifically meant for use on suede. The nap (raised surface) of nubuck or suede shoes is easily disturbed and ruined.

Waterproofing your leather shoes or boots is only half the battle. Allowing all-leather shoes to dry properly after use in a damp environment is of the utmost importance. But be careful how you dry them -- never, ever, EVER use heat. Heat can cause the leather to become dry, cracked and brittle. Your best bet is to allow your shoes to air-dry with newspaper stuffed into the toes. You can speed up the process with a fan, or invest in an electric shoe-dryer like we use on set. (You'd barf in your own eyes if you saw how soppingly wet and sweaty an actor's shoes can get after a day of filming.)

If you are putting your leather boots away for the season, go the extra mile and pack them with a moisture-absorbing desiccant sachet. You can buy pre-made ones, or make your own with an old sock and a box of "crystal" cat litter. ("Crystal" cat litter is made of pure silica gel crystals, the same ingredient found in ready-made desiccant sachets!) Another smart idea is to invest in a Damp-Rid moisture absorber for your closets. You'll be STUNNED at the difference they make.

These steps should prevent mold from ever occurring in the first place, but if you find that some still happened to creep in, removing it isn't actually all that difficult. For starters, give the mold spots a good firm brushing with a stiff nylon brush -- you can use a kitchen or nail brush if you like. This should remove the bulk of the mold immediately.

Your next step is to carefully wipe the affected areas with a well-wrung rag dampened with a mixture of equal parts white vinegar and water. Vinegar is a natural fungicide! Make sure you don't allow your leather surface to become soaking wet -- a slightly damp application is what you are looking for. You can also use the same damp rag method using a water-diluted mixture of either Simple Green, rubbing alcohol, or tea tree oil. (The ratio should be 1/2 cup of water to 5-6 drops of full-strength tea tree oil.)

Make sure to allow the boots to dry thoroughly afterward. A caveat: if you have a mold problem on suede boots, I wouldn't recommend using vinegar or any other wet fluid on them. Your best bet is to invest in a good suede brush, give 'em a brisk brushing, and then leave them outside in full sun. Sunshine is a natural mold killer! (If you've got tough stains, a spot cleaning with a brass-bristled suede brush can help remove them, but be as gentle as possible -- and never use a brass brush on light colored suede or nubuck.)

After removing the mold, you may want to give your smooth leather shoes or boots a good washing with a mild saddle soap if they appear dirty or grimy. I find saddle soap especially useful to remove salt stains from leather. But proceed with great care -- as an improper washing with saddle soap can do more harm than good. If your boots aren't dirty or stained, skip this step completely.

Again, take care to never allow the leather to become soaking wet -- work the saddle soap into a lather using a soft bristled (horsehair) shoe brush, buffing in a circular motion to work out the stains. Then wipe the soap off with a soft, damp cloth, repeating as necessary to remove all sticky residue.

Any time you apply liquid into a fine leather hide, a proper conditioning treatment is a MUST. Just like your skin, leather gets dried out after ANY contact with water -- rain included. Combat this problem by regularly using a high quality leather conditioner such as Lexol to renew your leather's natural oils. The wipes are a super-easy delivery system, but if you choose to go with the liquid, rub it in carefully with a clean, soft, dry cloth. (Cotton cloth diapers are the gold standard for shoe care!)

You may find that even after all this effort, you're left with a pair of leather boots that looks less than stellar. But that's the beauty of buying quality leather goods -- they really do have 9 lives. To bring well-worn or permanently stained leather shoes back to life, send them to your favorite shoe repair spot for a professional dye job. A bottle of dye hides a multitude of sins!

This is also a great tip if you have boots or shoes in a color you detest. My favorite LA shoe dude successfully dyed a pair of boots that were once a boring light grey to a blazing hot pink color, much to the delight of my pal who was about to take them to Goodwill. Dyeing leather shoes on your own is, in my professional opinion, a fool's errand. I've absolutely never had it turn out right.

To keep your smooth leather boots shiny and scuff-free, treat yourself to an old-fashioned shoeshine, located anywhere businessmen congregate. Hop on up in the chair with a newspaper and chill out like a character in Mad Men! You can also do it yourself, but after watching my dad spit shine his Army jump boots, I can assure you that it's a hell of a lot of hard work.

Congrats -- just by reading this, you've now graduated from the master class of leather care! Be sure to keep sending me all your pressing wardrobe maintenance questions -- I love 'em.

I'm on Twitter: @IveyAlison.