Brands are changing leather boots to appeal to a new generation.
Up until around the last decade, leather boots were ubiquitous and dominated the football boot industry. In contrast, synthetic materials were often associated with low-quality or take-down models, while leather was King (not just Puma). A decade on, leather boots are in danger of getting phased out for synthetics materials- predominately modern knit technology.
To understand why the football boot world has moved on though, one needs to appreciate the appeal of leather boots. Slip on a pair for the first time and the immediate feeling you get is comfort. Its cushioned, yet natural, sensation on the ball is unique and loved by many. And once broken in, a leather boot feels like its been tailor made for your feet.
Rise of The Synthetics
Over the years, brands have been moving away from leather to promote a synthetic upper option. They have developed synthetics to provide comfort while adding unique advantages such as weight reduction and customizability.
Brands are able to slap on wild colours and control every square inch of the material, something not possible with leather boots without damaging the leather material. Synthetics also hold their shape better, and allow for better responsiveness, unlike leather boots, which can overstretch after many wears.
Most importantly to these brands, leather (especially premium kangaroo-leather) is costly to procure and treat, which makes shifting their priorities to synthetics a no brainer from a cost saving perspective.
The Modern Leather Boot
Despite the advancement of synthetics, the one element that can’t be replicated is that natural sensation that you get with a leather boot. For the most part, full leather boots have been relegated to be a budget-friendly, no frills option for ‘old school’ players.
Nike has their Nike Premier 2.0, adidas with the Copa Mundial whilst Puma continue to update and promote their Puma King line. These are all dependable boots in their own regard though the brands have decided to save their biggest efforts for their other modern collections.
Interestingly, while it seems that leather boots have not been the key focus of the big brands, there have been some modern interpretations of leather boots which try to provide all the classic benefits with less of its drawbacks. But do they still have a future?
The Basic Approach – Foam Cages
No conversation about leather boots can begin without talking about talking about Mizuno, the masters of leather. In 2017, they took things to the next level with the release of their Mizuno Rebula series that promised better “control and touch”. The latest Mizuno Rebula 3 molds its premium K-leather around a low rebound sponge foam (used as an ‘internal cage’), to keep the shape of the upper and prevent overstretching.
This is combined with the use of a synthetic midfoot and clever heel padding to ensure maximum lockdown and response.
It’s not a new concept, as we’ve seen the likes of Nike and adidas utilize it with the Nike Tiempo Legend 7 and adidas Copa 18.1, but Mizuno’s mastery of leather comes into play here. The Mizuno Rebula 3 is probably the only boot here that I daresay reaches the holy grail – giving you that bespoke padded leather touch and comfort whilst offering the necessary responsiveness required of a modern boot.
The Modern Formula – Fusing Knit and Leather
adidas have probably been the most advanced in this area, fusing leather directly onto their signature Primeknit with their latest Copa 19+ and Copa 19.1.
Called Fusionskin, it’s meant to provide the best of both worlds – the soft padded touch of natural K-leather, whilst ensuring exceptional lockdown in the mid-foot and reducing water intake on a wet pitch. It sounds incredibly futuristic and slightly incredulous but it absolutely works.
adidas were so confident with the performance their Fusionskin technology that they offered a laceless variant in the Copa 19+. The 19+ was not only a head-turner but a top performer as it did not compromise on lockdown and response despite not offering laces.
A Peek into the Future – Leather Skin On Synthetic Flesh and Bones
Finally, there’s the Nike Tiempo Legend 8. While the Nike Tiempo Legend 7 used Flywire and foam cages to provide structure and prevent overstretching, the Tiempo Legend 8 changed the formula entirely.
It places a very thin leather upper on top of the pliable but sturdy Quadfit mesh (which was first seen in the Nike PhantomVSN). You also get more synthetic materials in the form of a ‘Flyknit tunnel’ which sees Flyknit material wrap your midfoot on the inside.
Despite its position as its flagship leather boot, make no mistake, the latest Tiempo is more synthetic than leather. As technological leaders of the industry, brands follow Nike’s lead. They popularized knitted uppers as a synthetic option in 2014 with the Magista and Superfly as well as the foam cage with the Tiempo Legend 6.
Will this mean that other brands will start shedding away at leather the same way Nike has?
Where Do Brands Go From Here?
Truth be told, I’m genuinely surprised that brands have continued to include a leather offering in their modern silos because they just don’t have the same pull like they used to.
Thanks to clever marketing over the years, properties like a thin lightweight upper and barefoot-like touch on the ball have become the perceived aspirational attributes in a modern football boot. The Nike Mercurial is now the leading face of the industry, as opposed to a Copa Mundial of 20 years ago.
That said, brands seem to recognise that old-school types like myself still enjoy a good leather boot and have continually upgraded their offerings. While I don’t see brands putting an end to their budget-friendly heritage lines, I do see that we are reaching the limits of a brand’s ability to make leather interesting – especially to the current generation who grew up on brightly coloured synthetic boots.
The age of leather is slowly coming to an end. And I, for one, am looking to savour every last moment with lovely leather boots before they go out of style.