What does leather upper really mean? A Deep Dive

Now, if you are in the market for a new pair of shoes, you would see the term “leather upper” being thrown around a lot on various eCommerce platforms and blogs. So what does the term “leather upper” even mean?

An “upper” usually refers to the upper part of the shoe. Basically, it is the material that is stitched or glued to the sole to make a complete shoe. A leather upper is simply an upper that is made of leather. A leather upper can be made of genuine leather, top-grain leather, full-grain leather, or suede.

But “leather upper” is a term that usually withholds more information than it reveals. By just mentioning that the upper is made from leather and not revealing any information about the grain or quality of the leather, manufacturers try to trick buyers into believing that the shoe they are receiving is of the finest quality ever.

Different types of leather uppers

Leather uppers can usually be divided into a few different categories depending upon the quality and the grain of the leather. Some of them are full-grain leather, top-grain leather, genuine leather, and in some cases even faux leather.

Full Grain Leather Upper

Full-grain leather upper refers to the leather upper that is made from the entire skin of an animal without the removal of any layers. A downside (or upside, depending upon your personal taste) to full-grain leather is that it also contains all the blemishes that were existing on the skin of the animal that it was made from.

Full grain leather boots
My full grain leather boots.

Although it does give the piece a unique and individual feel, full-grain leather may not be the best choice for formal leather shoes.

Top Grain Leather Upper

Top grain leather upper refers to the leather that is made from the outermost skin of an animal. It does not include the bottom portion of the skin and thus is less thick than full-grain leather. A good thing about top grain leather is that it does not have any marks or blemishes that are usually found on full-grain leather, but it retains most of the quality of it.

A top grain leather upper is a great sign of quality in a leather shoe. Personally speaking, this is my favorite top grain leather shoe of all time.

Genuine Leather Upper

This is the trickiest of the lot.

Technically speaking, genuine leather refers to suede. It is made of the bottom layer of the skin of the animal. But since suede has been widely recognized on its own now, genuine leather is usually referenced when talking about real leather. The “genuine leather upper” tag just means that the shoe is not made from artificial or fake leather.

suede shoes
My favorite pair of suede shoes.

Every shoe that claims to be made from genuine leather but does not reveal its grain should be scrutinized because manufacturers often sell bonded leather or corrected leather (the least quality leather which technically still comes under the genuine leather category) by advertising them as genuine leather shoes.

Faux Leather Upper

A leather upper is considered faux leather when the material that it is made from is not derived from animal skin. Faux leather also has many other names – vegan leather, fake leather, pleather (plastic leather). Most faux leather shoes are made from a combination of plastic and polyester, and thus are average in quality.

But unlike everything you would read on the internet, I will not tell you that going for a faux leather upper when buying a shoe is a bad idea. If you just can’t justify spending money on real leather or if you have a moral obligation against wearing leather, then by all means, go for a faux leather option. It makes much more sense for you.

What type of leather upper is best?

The best leather upper for you is going to depend on your particular individual needs, but if you are really confused, here is what I recommend to most guys.

If you can afford to spend a bit of money to get great quality, then go for a top grain leather upper shoe. If price is a bit of a concern but you still want a decent quality shoe, go for a genuine leather product. But if money is a bit tight and you still want a decent-looking shoe, then go for a shoe that has a faux leather upper.

Why is leather used as an upper in shoes?

A number of alternatives to leather have been invented in recent times. But still leather dominates the market of formal shoes. There must be something unique to it, right?

top grain leather shoes
Top grain leather shoes.

Leather is used as an upper in a shoe because leather is an excellent material in terms of breathability, strength, and stability. Add to that the ability to be molded and cut with ease, and the image of leather as a sign of quality in general, and it becomes very easy to understand the vast popularity of leather as a shoe material.

There have been alternatives in recent times that have claimed to be as good as leather, but their adoption has only been done by a subsection of the population. Most of the world still walks along in their sturdy leather shoes.

And I forgot to tell you the number one reason of their longevity.

They look freaking amazing.