What Does Leather Upper REALLY Mean? (Explained)

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 is an upper in shoes?

In the context of shoes, the “upper” refers to the upper part of the shoe that covers the top of the foot and ankle. It is the portion of the shoe that is visible when you look at a shoe and it typically consists of different materials and components that are stitched or glued together.

The upper is an important part of the shoe because it helps to provide support, stability, and protection for the foot and ankle, as well as a comfortable fit. The design and construction of the upper can also affect the overall look and style of the shoe.

The upper can be made with different types of materials like, leather, canvas, synthetic fabrics and it can also have features like lacing, buckles, velcro, straps and other things to close or adjust the fit of the shoe.

The main function of the upper is to keep the foot in place, provide comfort and support and protect the foot, in addition to the look and design of the shoe.

Synthetic Upper Meaning

A synthetic upper refers to the upper part of a shoe that is made from synthetic materials, rather than natural materials like leather, suede, or canvas. Synthetic materials are man-made and created in a lab or factory.

Some common synthetic materials used in shoe uppers include polyester, nylon, and various types of synthetic leather. These materials are often chosen because they are durable, lightweight, and water-resistant, and they can be less expensive than natural materials.

Synthetic uppers can be made to mimic the look and feel of natural materials, like leather or suede, but they can also be made in a variety of other textures, patterns, and colors.

They are commonly used in athletic shoes, hiking boots, sneakers and other types of shoes that require durability and support. They are also good for shoes that need to be lightweight and water-resistant. Additionally, synthetic uppers are usually easier to clean and maintain as well.

It’s worth noting that synthetic uppers may not have the same breathability and durability as natural materials, so they may not be as comfortable to wear for an extended period of time and may not last as long.

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.