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What are my shoes made of?

Before we go into further details on the choice of materials for my shoes, I think it is important to illustrate some basic main components that make up a shoe:

1. Upper

The outermost layer of the shoe that covers the top part of the foot. This is also the component where the shoe design is most prominent to other people, and most exposed to various environmental elements such as heat, rain, snow, and mud.

2. Lining

The layer underneath the upper that is inside the shoe and wraps around the entire foot.

3. Outsole

This is the layer in contact with the ground surface when you run or walk in your shoes. Like the upper, this is also the component that is exposed to various environmental elements and wears out the most depending on the types of surfaces your feet walk on.

4. Midsole

The middle part of the shoe that sits on top of the outsole and provides support for your foot. Generally, sports footwear such as running shoes and sneakers have cushioned midsole to provide more support to the feet, compared to other types of footwear such as sandals and dress shoes where midsoles offer limited or no cushioning to the feet.

5. Insole

This is the layer sitting on top of the midsole that is in contact with the bottom of the foot. This layer is sometimes called the footbed and offers additional cushioning for the feet. Depending on the footwear design, some insoles can be thicker and removed or replaced, like running and walking shoes, compared to other footwear where insoles are attached permanently and cannot be removed, like women’s heels and men’s dress shoes.

6. Heel

This is the rear part of the shoes that provide support to the heel of the foot. Some shoes, like flip flops are totally flat and do not have any heels at all, whereas other footwear such as wedges and stilettos have very high heels that might be uncomfortable for many women.

Two main types of materials in footwear

These basic main footwear components can be made in a variety of materials, and is generally classified into two main types:

1. Natural materials such as cotton, cork, leather, and wood;

2. Man-made/synthetic materials, also known as faux leather, such as Polyurethane (PU), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) or Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA), polyester and nylon made from plastics.

So, exactly what do I use to make a pair of Yvonne Liao shoes?

Pinatex leather

Faux leather made from pineapple leaves that are left over after pineapple is harvested. The advantage of using Pinatex is that the production process utilizes materials that are already available, and does not use additional resources such as pesticides and fertilizers that pollute the environment. The disadvantage of Pinatex leather is the use of petroleum-based resins in the coating of the leather and is therefore not biodegradable.

Desserto leather

Desserto faux leather derived from cactus in Mexico. Like Pinatex, the leather is made from existing Nopal cactus grown in the region. However, some studies have shown that Desserto leather utilizes significant amount of chemicals in the leather production process and hence whether it is a more environmentally friendly option remains open for more research.


Ultrasuede is high quality faux suede made from polyester and polyurethane (PU). Ultrasuede is widely used in furniture, automotive and fashion industries as the material is resistant to piling, stains and discolorations and therefore withstand long periods of wear.

Why synthetic materials?

When it comes to designing and selecting materials for my shoe collection, my first step usually starts with studying the materials that I am interested in.

I have used both leather and faux leather in making my shoes and personally prefer using faux leather for several reasons.

1. From an ethical standpoint, even though I am not a vegan or vegetarian, I personally prefer using materials such as Pinatex and Desserto leather for my upper because I feel like I have already done enough environmental damage and animal cruelty through my dietary choices. Therefore, I am uncomfortable with the idea of killing more animals than it is for their leather in making my shoes.

Although there are are plenty of articles online that support the alternative argument that leather is a byproduct of livestock, and no additional animals reared for this purpose, I personally have not been able to verify this point and therefore prefers to use synthetic materials in designing and making my shoes.

2. From an environmental standpoint, leather derived from animals such as cows and pigs go through a leather tanning process that utilizes harmful chemicals such as chromium. When these chemicals are released into waterways such as rivers and lakes, it leads to eutrophication. In addition, these chemicals are also harmful for the workers as they might cause respiratory problems and increase the risk of lung cancer. Workers working in the tanning facilities in developing countries are most vulnerable to the negative impacts because health and environmental regulations governing the leather tanning process is lax.

Of course, there are two sides two every coin and there are also arguments against the use of man-made leather. Two main problems associated with faux leather stem from the fact that these materials are derived from plastics and are not biodegradable. Many also argue that faux leather footwear do not last as long as leather footwear and hence create more waste as they are thrown away quickly.

To mitigate some of these environmental problems arising from the use of plastics, my personal solutions are to: 1) utilize materials that are derived from plants so that less plastics are used in making the faux leather and therefore the use of Pinatex and Desserto leather, and 2) also to learn how to take care of my shoes better so that they can have longer shelf life.

3. From a cost analysis standpoint, synthetic materials are generally more cost effective than natural materials such as leather. Considering that I am in the beginning of designing and selling my shoes in small batches, using synthetic materials is a more cost-effective decision where I can buy them in small quantities and design beautiful shoes made with quality materials without the pinch of costly price tags associated with purchasing small quantities of leather.

4. From a creative perspective, improvements in technology and the rise of sustainable fashion has led to greater demand for innovative alternatives to real leather, such as leather derived from mushrooms, grapes, and apples. I enjoy testing out new materials in shoemaking to see how I can incorporate them into my designs. My favorite part is the shoemaking and prototyping process is where I can bring my designs to life and see how the finished products look and feel.

So there you have it, I hope this article provides more insight behind my shoe designs. Do subscribe to my website so you will get the latest update on my upcoming first collection launch!


Common Objective – Fibre Briefing – Leather

Project Cece - Leather vs Vegan Leather: What’s ACTUALLY More Sustainable?

Best Leather Org – How is leather tanned?

Harpers Bazaar – Is vegan leather worse for the environment than real leather?

Leather Skill – 6 differences between real leather v.s vegan leather

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