Consumers pay a hefty price for clothes made of fine suede and leather, and proper care is essential to maintaining them.
In general, the care of leather depends on the finish.
Unfinished leather, the soft, buttery kind, is the most delicate.
Leather with a slick pigmented or painted surface is far more impervious to damage.
In both cases, to make the leather last longer, it should be cleaned only by a leather specialist, experts say.
There are two rules.
"The first is: If it needs it," said Ralph Sherman, the president of Leathercraft Process, a cleaning specialist with headquarters in Roselle, N.J.
"The second is: Don't wait more than two seasons even if it doesn't need it." While a leather coat may not look dirty, the skins probably have dirt particles in them. As for spots and stains, age will make them harder to remove.
But even if you are diligent about regular cleaning and a reputable leather cleaner does the job, be prepared: Your beloved violet suede dress may emerge from the cleaner in a less appealing shade of lavender.
"As a general rule, all suede things change color slightly," Sherman said, "sometimes lighter, sometimes darker."
The better the cleaner, the less color change, he said.
Other factors affecting cleaning: the type of skin and how it was tanned. Once it has faded or darkened, the original color cannot be restored.
Cleaning leather clothing is costly as much $70 to clean a full-length shearling coat so before --ing off to the cleaner the minute a spot is discovered, take some steps at home .
Fortunately, those popular shearling coats and jackets are fairly rugged, even in inclement weather and despite their soft surface.
If a coat is pelted by rain or snow, causing spotting and streaking, shake it out well and hang it up to dry away from direct heat; the next morning, brush it with a soft-bristle brush or dry sponge. Then, with a clean cloth, brush it again to smooth it out.
To remove dried spots, brush gently with a soft brush, a clean, dry kitchen sponge or even a coarse Turkish towel to bring up the nap. If the stain stays, take the coat to a cleaner.
If the garment has a polished leather finish, first gently rub the spot with a damp cloth, and if that fails, try a mild detergent, Sherman said. But before trying any spot remover where the results are going to show, test it on an inconspicuous area.
Prevention can save consumers many headaches, said Richard Harrow, the executive director of the Leather Apparel Association, a trade group in New York City. He advises that leather be waterproofed immediately after purchase.
Just about all leather clothes and accessories can be waterproofed, but the safest bet is to have a leather cleaner do the job.
For consumers who would rather do it themselves, there are numerous products on the market. But it is vital to read the label's cautions carefully to make sure the product is appropriate for the particular skin and, even if it is, try it first on a small, inconspicuous area under the collar, for example.
While such products may not be as effective as professional treatments, they can at least make the job of cleaning a stained or wet coat a lot easier for the professional cleaner.
The treatments will help prevent stains from penetrating as deeply as they would an unprotected garment, said Robert Stewart, the vice president and general manager of Kirk's Suede-Life Inc., a leather-cleaning service in Willowbrook, Ill., and a major supplier of products and equipment for cleaning leather.
Saddle soap is best used on saddles, experts say, or to clean or condition smooth-leather boots and shoes, but it should not be used to waterproof leather clothes since it may cause streaking and staining.
These additional tips on leather care are offered by the Better Business Bureau of Milwaukee:
* Wear a scarf around your neck to keep the leather from being soiled by oil from your skin.
* If a garment becomes wrinkled, first put it on a hanger and gently pull out the wrinkles, taking care not to stretch the skins. If this does not work, press the garment when it is completely dry, using the coolest setting on your iron. Never use a steam iron. Place heavy brown paper over the leather and keep the iron moving; press one panel of the garment at a time.
* If a hem is falling down, glue it with rubber cement. Other glues may damage the skins and their finish. Use a very small amount of glue, applying it with a toothpick, and don't let the glue get too close to the hem's edge. Lay the item on a flat surface for several hours, weighting down the repair with a book, until the glue dries.
* Don't allow a newspaper to rub against suede or leather. The ink will rapidly soil the coat.
* Don't carry heavy objects like a bunch of keys in the pockets of a leather jacket. This will stretch the skins.
Consumers can find the name of a qualified leather cleaner by calling the Leather Apparel Association at (212) 924-8895.