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How to Wear Calf Hair Without Ruining Anything

You can care for your shoes, bag, or belt with hair conditioner and cornmeal. Wait, what?

Photo: J. Crew

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Out, Damned Spot has long provided general tips to keep your fashions looking amazing, but now, twice a month, I'll also be answering questions about the very specific problems your new (or old!) purchases may present. Do you have questions for me? Ask away!

I have a pair of leopard print calf hair Mary Janes that I absolutely love (somewhat similar to these), but I can count the times I've actually worn them on one hand. I'm so afraid I will ruin them.

Maybe I'm right to worry: My friend's one and only handbag splurge was a beautiful, very pricey Proenza Schouler calf hair bag, and now it's balding in patches from rubbing against her jeans. It's a damn shame, and it seems like this happens a lot! Is there anything she can do now that the damage is done? How can this be prevented? — Adele Chapin

The thought of that poor, balding messenger bag is almost more than my heart can handle, I have to be honest with you. I can definitely talk to you about how to clean a pair of furry shoes or a hairy bag, but the bald patches veer away from cleaning expert territory and well into specialty fabric restoration, which is a little left of my wheelhouse. I'm going to do my very best though, I promise!

The thing about haircalf — which is the proper term for this fur-hide hybrid, though "pony hair" is often used because it sounds nicer — is that it's exceedingly delicate, which makes it a terrible choice for accessories like belts, bags, and shoes that endure a lot of wear and tear in the course of regular wear. Naturally, then, haircalf is a wildly popular choice for accessories like belts, bags, and shoes.

Preventative Measures

While it's true that haircalf is delicate and temperamental and needs to be handled with those traits in mind, there are a few things you can do to reduce the effects of natural wear and tear.

The use of a fixing spray can help to prevent damage, including bald patches, but can also change the appearance of the hide.

The first suggestion comes with a caveat: The use of a fixing spray can help to prevent damage, including bald patches, but can also change the appearance of the hide. Given that, if your haircalf is particularly pricey, you'll be well-served by outsourcing the job to a leather specialist. If the piece is lower- or mid-priced, go ahead and buy a protective spray designed for use on suede and do the job yourself. Be sure to use a light coating and to hold the can at least six inches away, so that you don't saturate the hair with the protective coating and end up with matted patches. Treating haircalf may also be something you decide isn't worth the risk of causing damage.

Once you're ready to start wearing your hairy accessories, be aware that you should not pair them with heavy or embellished materials that will rub against the fur and cause bald patches. It's also important to let haircalf rest between wearings; these aren't your go-to everyday items. These are things you'll want to take into consideration when buying a haircalf accessory in the first place.

Because haircalf is special, you should treat it that way. That's not to say that you shouldn't wear and enjoy your haircalf, but you should perform a little checklist operation before you do. Factors to consider are the weather, what kind of activity you'll be engaged in and what else you'll be wearing with a haircalf accessory. That is to say, don't wear your favorite furry shoes on a day when there's a hurricane warning in effect or when you know you'll be hitting the pavement particularly hard, and don’t pair your hairy messenger bag with your favorite pair of embellished jeans.

General Cleaning and Maintenance

In between wearings, it's also a good idea to treat your haircalf to a little more TLC than you would your regular leather shoes, belts, and bags.

Exposure to small amounts of moisture won't harm the hair (it's hair, after all!), though you should take care not to soak haircalf.

To start, get yourself a small slicker brush. Slicker brushes are designed for use on cats and dogs, but can also be used on furry accessories to keep the hair laying flat in one direction. Be exceedingly gentle when you use it, since you don't actually want to dislodge any of the fur. A gentle brushing will also help to remove any buildup of dirt or grit and will prevent the hair from becoming matted. If, in using the slicker brush, you feel that it's just too harsh on the fur, switch to a soft cloth, like an old cotton T-shirt, and use that, either dry or damp, to wipe in the direction of the hair. Exposure to small amounts of moisture won't harm the hair (it's hair, after all!), though you should take care not to soak haircalf. If you do clean haircalf using a damp cloth, give it a going-over with a dry cloth afterwards before storing.

In the event that a small patch of hair becomes matted or stubbornly refuses to lie in the right direction, massage a teeny, tiny amount of hair conditioner into the area and then brush it out.

From time to time, it's also a good idea to perform a deeper cleaning to remove dirt and oil buildup, and there's an easy, if incredibly odd, way to do so. Place the shoes (or belt, or bag) in a paper or plastic bag, add a cup of cornmeal, seal the bag up, and shake it like Shake 'N Bake. I told you it was odd!

Repair Options

Let us level with one another, because we're all friends here: There's really no good way to 100 percent ensure that a haircalf accessory never suffers from bald patches. In all the research I've done — and I have read countless threads on countless fashion forums in pursuit of cracking this nut — the only constant I can determine is that it's really just the luck of the draw.

The only constant I can determine is that it's really just the luck of the draw.

Pricier pieces aren't less prone to patches, belts worn exclusively with jeans have been reported to hold up well for years, and shoes only worn indoors have developed bald spots. You can, of course, mitigate the effect of wear by being careful with what you pair with your haircalf accessories, but ultimately there's no guarantee that you won't end up heartbroken over a damaged furry bag.

Because of that, it's incredibly important to ask about repair and return options at the time of purchase; some companies will only cover repairs to straps and hardware, but not to the haircalf itself. If that's the case, think long and hard before you hand over your money — if the store's attitude is that you're on your own, it may not be the wisest investment to buy an item that it can't repair. That ended up being the case with that Proenza messenger bag, crushingly enough.

With that said, it's likely that a high-end leather repair expert will be able to, essentially, give your haircalf a hair transplant. So if you're very, very attached to the look of furry accessories, keep a place like Leather Spa or Cobbler Concierge (both of which offer mail-in services for those outside of New York, where both businesses are located) on speed dial.

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