The untold story of repair in the age of sustainability

8 March 2024

As consumers pivot towards sustainability, the leather repair industry emerges as an unsung hero, championing circularity and giving luxury goods a second life. Vera Dordick reports.

In the discussion about circularity and sustainability, recycling and other topics get lots of attention – not so much the repair of articles. However, as the leather industry urges consumers to buy quality, not quantity, the investment into longerlife products carries with it the assumption of repair and maintenance. Not all materials are well suited for refurbishment, but leather is ideal thanks to its flexibility and durability.

“Repair is one of the greatest recycling stories that hasn’t been told,” says Stephen Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Texas-based Cobblers Direct. The company is a spin-off of the Shoe Hospital group of companies – the largest shoe repair company in the world – that dates back to 1906. Business last year was the biggest ever for the group. “People are realising that wastefulness is not the way to be anymore,” Kelly says.

A booming trend

Some of the push towards the repair of footwear, bags and leather goods comes from consumer desire, but also from increasing regulations about the disposal of fashion items. Recently, France announced government-funded discounts from €7.00 for citizens to repair footwear rather than throwing the shoes away and buying new ones.

The country has also banned the destruction of unsold goods by brands, including leather goods. In the US in 2022, the state of Massachusetts banned the disposal of textiles, including clothing, footwear, bedding, curtains, fabric and similar items, even if they are worn, torn or stained.

For Leather Spa, based in Long Island, New York, “If it goes on your foot, we can repair it,” says David Mesquita, one of the founders of the company.

Of course, repair goes far beyond just footwear to the booming demand for refurbishing handbags, but also belts, wallets and even leather furniture. Indeed, resale makes a difference in circularity.

According to the Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design, “Because of the elongation of a product’s lifespan, this trend is inherently sustainable and financially conscious, marketing to consumers’ desire to be a part of positive change. Consumers will also experience a return on their money, reinforcing the concept of luxury goods as financial investments.”

Moreover, resale is a huge market. McKinsey & Company put the value at $25–30bn, which is expected to grow at 10–15% annually. And, rather than dampening a brand’s bottom line, other studies have indicated that resale and circular practices can have positive benefits for luxury brands, such as reducing waste, lowering their carbon footprints and enhancing brand image.

Luxury leaders

Not surprisingly, said luxury brands have been at the forefront of the growing movement to repair items, particularly handbags. Some brands, such as Mulberry and Loewe, have their own repair programmes, and Bottega Veneta offers a lifetime warranty for its handbags.

Louis Vuitton also will repair bags and leather goods. Harrods runs a Handbag Clinic that not only repairs but also resells refurbished luxury bags. Repair and maintenance make a lot of sense when the item is a bag that costs thousands of dollars or a high-end pair of shoes.

“We’ve always seen people fixing, not buying,” says Mesquita. It used to be that when the economy was declining, repairs would rise, but now the repair market is driven by more factors, Mesquita says. Leather Spa partners with fashion brands to handle repairs but also a variety of resellers.

Demand for repair has been expanding at a rapid rate, driven in particular by the resale trend. Buying new items is increasingly falling out of favour, especially among younger consumers.

Millennial customers are purchasing vintage bags that need some restoration or are getting heirloom bags that could use a facelift. In addition, a large volume of repair business comes from resale sites that want to spruce up the items they offer.

All of these factors are contributing to the growing demand for the rejuvenation and restoration of leather goods. “People love leather and want to protect their investment,” Kelly adds.

Repair and restoration services are also spreading through the fashion world. Stores and brands outside of the luxury realm are also jumping on the bandwagon to improve circularity. Coach has its own Coach Repair Workshop and Dr Martens recently announced it would roll out a repair service in the UK.

In fact, Cobblers Direct has repair partnerships with Cole Hahn and DSW. “Repair is like working on a classic car… we love working on leather,” Kelly says. A pair of leather shoes can be resoled five or six times and worn indefinitely, he points out. Similarly, Leather Spa also maintains corporate repair accounts with a variety of brands.

While leather is the easiest to work with, repair companies like Leather Spa and Cobblers Direct also do a lot of work on sneakers and articles made from synthetic materials, which can be a bit more difficult. Both have divisions dedicated to sneaker cleaning, customisation and repair for leather as well as other materials. Preservation of new items is also booming – applying special coatings to protect iconic coloured soles on shoes, for example, is also a very popular service.

Artisan shortage

As is the case in Italy – and throughout Europe – finding trained craftspeople is a big stumbling block to growing the leather goods repair business. Luxury brands struggle to find and train artisans to create the goods, and at the other end of the chain, repair services are up against tough odds to hire talent.

“The main thing that we do is educate our clients about the possibilities.”
David Mesquita, Leather Spa

While the demand for repair is growing rapidly, shoe repair shops in the US have dwindled from 100,000 in the 1930s to 15,000 in 1997 to about 5,000 today, according to The Shoe Service Institute of America.

“It’s sad to see the diverging trends… shoe repair shops are not closing for lack of business,” Kelly says. Rather, they are closing because they are overwhelmed with demand and in many cases, the owners are older. When it comes to trained cobblers and repair people, “If I could find four today, I would hire them immediately,” says Mesquita.

The number of shoe repair shops in the US today.
The Shoe Service Institute of America

Many of Leather Spa’s hires come through word of mouth via the employees already working there. Cobblers Direct has its own apprentice programme and more than 100 craftspeople and cobblers on staff.

Once upon a time, most dry cleaners across the US were partnered with a shoe repair shop, which would repair leather items. Now, that is a rarity. Kelly says that Cobblers Direct works to partner with local service providers to take some of the pressure off the small shop and preserve the industry.

Leather purchasing

Repair shops may not come to mind as big buyers of leather, but they indeed are. In fact, Kelly says that the Shoe Hospital group of companies, including Cobblers Direct, is the biggest buyer of leather in the industry.

“We buy direct from the tanneries and use mainly North American domestic hides,” he says. Of course, they also use the appropriate speciality leathers as called for. For Leather Spa, “when working on high-end goods, we’re not going to cut corners”, says Mesquita. For those items, all the leather comes from Italy.

As the number of local repair providers has contracted, the internet has allowed a new generation of repair companies to expand their reach. Many shoe and handbag repair services – Leather Spa and Cobblers Direct included – book the bulk of their repairs through the internet. Before and after photos are an essential part of the business and social media plays a big role. Social media in particular has made it easier to show prospective clients the difference that a repair can make.

“The main thing that we do is educate our clients about the possibilities,” says Mesquita. Proper care and maintenance of leather goods can make them last indefinitely. 

Shoe repair: A brief history of cobbling

The origins of cobbling stretch back to ancient civilisations, where the rudimentary art of shoe-making emerged. In the sun-baked lands of Egypt, as well as the bustling city-states of Greece and Rome, early versions of shoes made from plant fibres or leather were designed to protect feet from rugged terrains.

By the time the Middle Ages dawned in Europe, cobbling had evolved into a more intricate and respected craft. In England, the artisans were referred to as ‘cordwainers’, a name derived from the Spanish city of Córdoba, renowned for its high-quality leather. The guild system of the period further distinguished and protected the work of these craftsmen, differentiating them from “cobblers” who were traditionally only allowed to repair shoes.

As the Renaissance bloomed, so too did the diversity and sophistication of footwear, leading to regional styles and techniques. Cobblers became essential figures in every town, their workshops buzzing with activity.

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries brought significant changes. Mechanised tools and the introduction of the assembly line process transformed shoe production from an artisan craft to a large-scale industry. While this meant shoes became more accessible to the masses, it also led to a decline in traditional hand-crafted cobbling.

However, in the modern era, there’s been a resurgence in appreciation for handcrafted shoes. Artisanal cobbling has experienced a renaissance, particularly among those who value quality, longevity and unique craftsmanship over massproduced goods. Today, the legacy of centuries-old techniques melds with contemporary styles and sustainable practices, ensuring the enduring art of cobbling continues to tread new ground, with shoe repairs now very much on the agenda.

Studies have shown that resale and circular programmes can have positive benefits for many luxury brands. Image Credit: Maffi/
Finding trained craftspeople is a problem for the leather goods repair business currently. Image Credit: Dragana Gordic/

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