Ask a Clean Person: Dude, Where’s My Coach?

I love Ask a Clean Person because I am so not a clean person. I’m also not an expensive bag person because of aforementioned inability to be clean, but for my birthday in November my boyfriend got me a what I would consider ridiculously expensive bag. Somehow I have managed to keep it relatively stain free, but on the bus tonight I read the newspaper and when I looked down at my purse I realized that some ink had smudged onto it!

I called the stupid expensive bag company [Coach] for cleaning instructions and I was told that didn’t have any for this expensive bag (made of a poly-satin blend)(I do not know what this means but it seems important?), and moreover do not use water or soap on it because the different colors on the bag could bleed onto each other. So I hung up the phone and went to the sink and slightly wetted a paper towel because I am apparently five years old, and I thought, “well, I’m only rubbing one area with one color.” So now I am writing to you because somehow the stain got even more noticeable with the one second of rubbing that I did. Please help! I’m totally kicking myself for accepting the awesome and beautiful present in the first place.

Well wait, first things first: those people at Coach are jerks! They should have helped you. I’m actually really appalled at their response to you.

Back in the land where people are actually nice and helpful, I have a few suggestions for you:

(1) This sounds crazy but hairspray takes pen out of silk. I know! Go for something cheap like AquaNet, spray it on the stain and then blot it (blot! Don’t rub! Blot!!!) with a clean white towel. The stain should pull right up. If that doesn’t work …

(2) take the bag to a dry cleaner, tell them what the stain is, and I bet they’ll be able to get it out.

Also let’s talk for a moment about having nice things and a theme I see a lot, “I shouldn’t be allowed to have nice things!” There is, of course, a certain level on which you should take extra care with your nicer items. Wearing your suede Tods in a blizzard? Yeah, you should beat yourself up over ruining your $500 shoes because you’re irresponsible! But getting a stain on a nice bag, or scuffing a shoe while getting out of a cab? That’s just life! Accidents happen, and if they happen to you it absolutely doesn’t mean that you’re a person who doesn’t deserve to have nice things. The fact that you’ve taken the time to ask how to clean the item actually is the best indication possible that you do, indeed, have every right to have nice things!

I just bought my very first Coach handbag — a vintage red cross-body style purse. It is the fanciest accessory I own and I love it and I think it was meant for me. The lady who sold it to me said it was probably from the early ’80s, and it has some wear and scratches and the like, which is totally fine since it is vintage. But I’ve noticed that after using it every day it’s started to look a little … dirtier? And here are some new scratches and things? And so I was wondering: is there a good way to clean red leather? Should I do it myself or can I take it to a cobbler-type person? And is there some sort of protectant that I can put on it so it doesn’t get more worn-looking than it is already? I should note that this is my first real leather item (I just finished being a grad student!) so I really have no idea how to take care of nice things.

Sounds super cute, good score!! Colored leather, especially the lighter hues, will definitely start to show dirt after a while. Because most handbags are finished leather, you actually don’t need any fancy products to get them clean again — plain ol’ soap and water will do the trick. A gentle bar soap like Dove is a good choice, and because we’re dealing with leather, which isn’t the biggest fan of water, technique is important.

You’ll need a clean cloth of some sort, along with your soap. Get a good lather of soap on the cloth, squeezing as much excess water as you can out of it while still retaining the suds, and then gently rub the lather on the stain. When the staining has come up, rinse the cloth well, squeeze all the excess water out until it’s just barely damp and wipe the bag off.

Once you’ve cleaned it of dirt and grime, you’ll want to address those scratches and dings. There are two things you can try: (1) a leather conditioner, or (2) red shoe polish, which is actually easier to find than you’d think. A quick note on shades of shoe polish: there’s a very common color called cordovan, which is not what you want for bright red bags, as it will be too dark. Both products can be applied to your bag using a soft cotton or flannel cloth. You can buy commercially available shine cloths, or just use an old tee or flannel shirt.

In general, handbag experts don’t recommend using shoe polish on leather bags, because the leather used on shoes is different. I don’t know that I completely agree with them — particularly in the case of colored leather, shoe polish (used very, very sparingly) is a good way to go, but I’d not be doing my job here if I didn’t at least give you that spiel. It’s also important to know that some leather conditioners can darken the shade of your hide, so you always want to test it out on a portion of the bag where, if it does darken the leather, the blemish won’t be super noticeable. This effect varies brand by brand, but the Apple Brand products get high marks for not causing any unwanted changes to leather goods, so you may want to check their line out.

I am not the cleanest person, nor am I fashionable enough to even know what makes a Coach purse so special, but it is my fault that a pot of buffalo hot sauce spilled directly on my sister’s beloved leather Coach purse, so I feel as though it is my responsibility to help her. Do you have any special secrets for removing buffalo sauce from a purse? My sister was in tears and I feel like the worst sister in the world.

You are so sweet to be so upset about your sister’s bag!! I can totally understand why she was upset, but also it was just an accident, and having an accident doesn’t make you the worst sister in the world.

With that said, Buffalo sauce is a NASTY stain to get out, because of the combination of tomato and vinegar. Just vicious. So my advice to you is to take the bag to a leather repair shop, or even a local cobbler, and ask if they treat stained leather. You can hit Google to look up businesses in your area that specialise in this sort of thing — a good keyword to try is “leather spa” (is everyone else picturing cows sitting in those pedicure massage chairs or, like, lounging in a mud bath?). For those of you in New York, there is a place on 55th Street right off Fifth Avenue called The Leather Spa that you must know about if you’re a fancy shoe and bag gal; they also offer mail-in services for those outside the area. It’s where all the Upper East Side ladies go to have their leather goods rehabbed, and the people watching alone more than makes up for the pretty penny you’ll spend for their services. But look at it this way: if you’ve spent upward of $200 or $300 on a bag, putting another $20 or $30 into it really isn’t so much.

There are at-home leather cleaning options as well, but given the nature of this particular stain I truly do think the cleaning is best outsourced.

My mom gave me a beautiful white leather Coach tote that she doesn’t want anymore, and the only thing that’s NOT beautiful about it are these tiny, rusty looking stains, about the size of the head of a pin, which I would ignore, but there are a lot of them. Which is probably the reason she gave it up so willingly, but I’m more stubborn about salvaging it than she is. I’ve tried wiping at them with hot, soapy water, but no dice. I don’t want to scrub too hard because, you know … pretty white leather. Short of dealing with the tiny rusty polka dots, is there anything that can be done about this? If they can’t be cleaned, can they be covered up? I’d love to show it to her and have her regret passing it up.

Since soap and water didn’t work, it looks like we’re dealing with a stubborn stain and not just a dirt situation. Given that, your best bet here is to get your paws on some white shoe polish and give the bag a really good going over with it, using a soft cloth and a sparing amount of the polish; it’s always better to use less and judge if/when you need more — you don’t want to glop the polish onto your bag. A little goes a long way! When you’ve gone over it with the polish, use another clean soft cloth to buff it. In terms of what kind of cloth to use, shoe shine cloths — generally made of flannel — are available, but you can also use an old cotton t-shirt, or an old sock, or an old soft flannel shirt that you’ve cut up into rags.

The white shoe polish will, in all likelihood, cover those stains right up, and brighten up the entire bag as well. And then as soon as you’re done, please do go show it off to your mom and be all, “Too bad, too sad, you gave up this beautiful Coach bag!” And then maybe stick your tongue out for good measure.

A few weeks ago, on a whim, I purchased a bunch of travel-sized body sprays from Bath & Body Works (where I haven’t shopped since middle school, so I have NO IDEA what possessed me to buy these). I stuck one in my purse, and lo and behold, IT LEAKED. Like, leaked all over the inside of my favorite eggplant-colored leather Coach purse. I thought the lining soaked up most of it, so I stuck some paper towels in the empty bag thinking everything would be fine in the morning. Yesterday, as I was fumbling through my bag for something, I noticed a HUGE stain where the spray soaked into the leather. I have no idea what to do, or even if there is anything I can do! Because of the color of the leather, I can’t just take some shoe polish to cover it up. Is there eggplant colored shoe polish out there? Will shoe polish even work? Have I ruined my bag? Help!!!

Oh well there sure is eggplant colored shoe polish! In fact, there is shoe polish available in just about every color under the sun, and it’s not terribly pricey. It might be a little bit hard to find, but in this, The Internet Age, just about everything is a click away, which is so freaking handy isn’t it??

There are two brands that offer a particularly wide array of polish hues: Tarrago and Meltonian. Check those out for a shade that most closely matches your bag. If you want something a little easier to find, there’s a very common color of shoe polish called cordovan, which is a deep red/burgundy/oxblood hue that might work for you. Because it’s not quite a match for eggplant, test it out on an unobtrusive part of the bag to see if it’s a close enough match.

Before you get into polishing it, though, I want you to get some cornstarch from the grocery store, lay the bag flat, and sprinkle a goodly heap of the stuff on the stain — it will help to pull out some of that grease stain. Let it sit for a few hours/up to overnight and then brush the powder away with a dry cloth. If there’s any residue, slightly dampen the cloth and wipe it off. Hopefully that will have lessened the appearance of the stain, and now you’ll be ready to go over it with the polish. Same advice as to the others: use the polish sparingly and apply with a soft cotton or flannel cloth before buffing to a shine with a clean cloth.

I have a CLEANING EMERGENCY if there ever was one — I have never been so upset about getting something dirty. My boyfriend gave me a gorgeous Coach purse for my birthday and, it doesn’t matter how, but somehow I get bike grease on it. It’s the Poppy Striped Rocker. It doesn’t say what kind of fabric it is, but I know that it’s fabric.

I have NO idea where to start because I don’t want to ruin the bag or make it worse. PLEASE help me. What do I do??

You sweet thing — do not worry! Your absolute best bet given the nature of the stain is to take it to a dry cleaner. Tell them what the stain is and ask if they can treat it, and if not (and this is the important part!) where there is a specialty cleaner in your area. If you’re hellbent and determined to treat the thing at home, you can refer back to our cute friend and her bicycle and treat the grease stain with either Lestoil or Motsenbocker’s Lift Off #2, which are designed to treat grease stains. Man, I love those Motsenbockers.


Here’s where things got fun! Because of the volume of emails I get, I generally can’t answer everyone’s questions personally. But if someone catches me while I’m, like, lying in bed drinking coffee and the answer is an easy one, I’ll write back, which is what I did in this case. And then! Then our friend with the stained Coach bag one-upped me, not only by writing back but by telling me all about a solution she hit upon on her very own! AND IT WORKED! So obviously I have to share it because alskhflksdhlgkh yessssssss!!

The major conundrum with cleaning my Coach bag is that I was out of town visiting family, and I didn’t have enough time to take it to a dry cleaner — nor did I have one in the area I trusted — but I also didn’t want to risk leaving the stain and having it set in, taking it on a plane and risk rubbing it against all sorts of surfaces and making it worse.

So, between the time I emailed you and when I read your response, I did some research, and took a MAJOR risk and cleaned it myself.

One issue is that the bag is fabric, not leather, but even after calling Coach customer service, I could NOT figure out what exactly it was made out of. [Seriously Coach? What the cluck? You are the worst, and someone needs to say it. — JK] So, I kind of had to trust that there was no silk or anything mixed in there.

I went to the hardware store and looked for Lestoil or Mostenbocker’s and didn’t find them. I ended up getting K2R, which is super scary and toxic but it WORKED! After brushing off the bulk of the spray (it turns into powder when it dries), there was still a white residue, so I used a new toothbrush, lightly wetted, to get the rest off. At first, it left a nasty water stain when it dried, but after a day or two, it was entirely gone. So, I just wanted to share this so that if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament, you can know that I took a big risk spraying some toxic shit on my mystery-material Coach bag, and it all worked out okay!

A happy ending if I’ve ever heard one!

Previously: Fragrant Shoe Season Arrives Early.

Jolie Kerr is not paid to endorse any of the products mentioned in this column, but she sure would be very happy to accept any free samples the manufacturers care to send her way! Are you curious to know if she’s answered a question you have? Do check out the archives, listed by topic. More importantly: is anything you own dirty?