Updated: Jan 30, 2022
It’s no secret that since it stepped on the scene in 1920, fake leather has made leaps and bounds in its ability to mimic its genuine counterpart. Faux leather, originally called Naugahyde, was invented in Germany to be used in the war effort when real leather was strictly rationed. While some historians contend that its history begins in 15th century China, synthetic leather became widely popularized and industrialized in the US and other countries throughout the 30’s and 40’s. Ever since, the production process of synthetic leather has only become more advanced, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish from real cowhide.
Synthetic leather is known by many many other names, including “leatherette”, “imitation leather”, “PU leather”, and “pleather”, and is often marketed by some variation of “synthetic” or “imitation” leather. Seeing as the definition of leather is “a material made from the skin of an animal by tanning or a similar process”, using the word leather in the advertising of synthetic leather is somewhat inaccurate, and can even be seen as false advertising in the EU. Faux leather is made from synthetic or natural fibres, and sometimes a mix of both, treated with dye and coated with a wax, or plastic polymer such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane (PU), or textile-polymer composite microfibres.
While its likeness to genuine leather benefits those who prefer a cheaper alternative, or who choose not to buy or wear genuine leather goods, others like to stick with the classics. Especially when shopping secondhand or from an unfamiliar brand, knowing the difference between faux and genuine leather can be an important factor in ensuring you’re getting what you’re paying for. Fortunately, you don’t need to be an expert to make this distinction; with our 4 simple tips, you’ll be a pro in no time!
Check The Label
While this step may seem obvious, many forget or simply don’t realize that, like clothing, the materials of shoes are often presented right on the tag! Real leather products will advertise as such with pride. If the tag reads anything like “genuine leather”, “100% real leather”, or “full/top grain leather”, you can likely bet they’re not lying if it’s any established brand. If you see “man-made”, “synthetic”, or the tag doesn’t list any materials at all, then you can be sure it’s not the real deal. However, seeing as some brands don’t include tags on their products, and, unfortunately, some will try to fool you, there are other ways to tell the difference.
Take a Closer Look
There are two distinct, visual differences between a piece of real leather and fake leather: the porousness, and the edges. Authentic leather is natural, and thus, will have inconsistent patterns of pours, rougher edges, and blemishes, while fake leather will appear smooth and symmetrical throughout. In other words, if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.
Do a Touch Test
Like the differences that can be spotted by the naked eye, feeling the texture of the material is also a helpful tool. Similar to a visual test, you’re looking to see whether the texture is smooth and plastic-like, or natural and imperfect. However, depending on the type, leather can either feel smooth or coarse. If you’re unfamiliar with the difference between what “synthetically smooth” and “naturally smooth” feels like, press your finger into the material. Genuine leather, like skin, will stretch and slightly wrinkle, whereas faux leather will retain its shape.
Take a Sniff
As strange as it sounds, smelling the material can be a great indicator of its authenticity. Real leather has a distinct, earthy or oaky smell. The natural smell of genuine leather cannot be replicated by synthetics, so if it has any sort of unnatural smell, or simply smells like nothing, the material was likely produced in a factory. If you’re unsure what real leather should smell like, we recommend taking a whiff of goods you already know are in order to familiarize yourself with the scent before hitting the store.