“Suede” is one of those words used to describe a group of different things that most people think of as all the same. Like “Africa,” or “blogger.” Suede generally refers to any leather that has a “nap” to it – that is, loose fibers that give the material a soft, velvety feel, and a deep color. There are three different ways such a finish is achieved.
Like most flat objects, an animal's hide has two sides. The side that faces out while the animal is alive is called the “grain side.” The other side, which faces the animal's flesh, is called the “flesh side”. The grain side has fine, short fibers that polish up to the smooth finish on a leather dress shoe. Suede uses other parts of the hide, where fibers are longer and less dense.
Most suede is “split suede,” which you see below on a pair of Buttero sneakers. This means that it is made using a slice of the hide rather than the entire thing. Some hides might be split in two, with the grain side becoming “top grain” leather, and the flesh split becoming split suede. Other hides might be thick enough to be split in three, with the middle split also becoming split suede. Since split suede uses only a fraction of the total hide, it's thinner, more pliable, and also cheaper. However, it's also less durable. Since much of split suede will be using the middle of the hide, which has the longest, least dense fibers, the nap will generally be rougher.
Higher quality shoemakers usually use “reverse” leather instead of split suede. They use the entire hide, unsplit, but make the shoe with the flesh side facing out rather than the grain side. For instance, “reverse calf” would be the flesh side of calf leather, which you see on the Vass brogues above and the Heschung boots below. This produces a more durable shoe, usually with a finer nap.
Finally, “nubuck” uses the grain side, but sanded down. Since the grain side has shorter, denser fibers, the finish is very fine, almost like a freshly sanded piece of wood. It especially suits a suede shoe that's intended to be dressier.
These are generalizations; the softness and fineness of the nap will also depend on how the hide is tanned and buffed. But knowing the different types of suede will help you understand which one suits each shoe style best.