When I was a kid I never saw my father polish a pair of shoes. This despite the fact that my mother repeatedly assured me he knew how to do it. According to her, he was a master at raising a spit shine, a skill he learned in the Portuguese army. But he never did it at home because he so rarely wore leather shoes. My father was part of the generation that gave up on classic menswear except for the occasional wedding or special trip to church. Running shoes can teach us very few lessons about wardrobe care.
I was, however, very familiar with the strong, slightly intoxicating smell of cheap shoe polish. It was my mother who polished shoes in the house, some of her own as well as me and my brother’s “Sunday dress” pairs. She kept an old shoe box in the basement stuffed with her supplies. When she would take it down from the shelf, there was an old fashioned alchemy feel to it all. She would lift off the worn cardboard lid to reveal ancient looking tins, stained brushes and soiled rags. The banged up can of black shoe polish had me transfixed: I was attracted to its harsh smell and still am, the same way I feel nostalgic about the smell of car exhaust that reminds me of Lisbon or Havana. But I was also frightened by the tin’s power to turn almost anything it touched blacker than the darkest corner of that basement.
However, like so much of my childhood when it came to clothes, these moments were few. We didn’t own many items of quality and therefore there was little need to really take care of them. It wasn’t until much, much later, when I grew up and became a father, that I started investing in my own wardrobe, especially shoes.
A photo posted by Pedro Mendes (@thehogtownrake) on
This is much easier said than done. Finding quality today is extremely hard and means sifting through piles of marketing malarkey and learning, first hand, how to identify good materials and craftsmanship. But one truth is universal: quality is expensive. When you combine fine leathers with skilled construction, it simply cannot be had for cheap. But, as hard as it may be to believe, investing in quality can actually be about saving money.
Here’s my experience. A number of years ago I bought a pair of shoes for just under $100. They had low quality leather uppers, a synthetic liner and glued-on rubber soles. No matter how much I took care of the uppers, they never took a polish well and the shoes lost what little shape they had in just a few months. After two years, the soles began to wear thin and there was nothing I could do but throw them away as they could not be repaired. On the other hand, I have a pair of Allen Edmonds shoes which, when new, cost around $500. They are made completely of leather which, while not the highest grade, is of good quality. The front half of the sole has been replaced once (for a cost of around $50) and they are almost ten years old with another decade to go, at least. If, in the next ten years, I have them completely resoled for a cost of $200, that puts their per-year cost at $32.50. The cheap shoes? $50 a year. Not to mention that the more expensive shoes look and feel much, much better. Consider, as well, the added environmental benefit: quality footwear is made with fewer chemicals and little to no plastic. And since you are not throwing it away and replacing it every year or so, you are producing much less waste.
But investing in quality is also about appreciating the best in life. When you do spend that extra to get something well made of excellent materials, you will have the experience, for many, many years, of having an item in your life that gives you a shot of pleasure every time you wear it. And it will get better. As G. Bruce Boyer is fond of saying, “cheap shoes look cheap even when they’re new, but good shoes look good even when they’re old.”
My basic shoe wardrobe
Fall and winter footwear: custom adelaides, country boots and wing tips.
I separate my shoes into two seasons: fall/winter and spring/summer. And I try to have at least one pair of shoes for each wardrobe need, from casual to formal. You can read all about my spring/summer shoe wardrobe here. For fall/winter, I stick to leather shoes in various shades of brown, which goes with practically everything (except black tie, for which I have a pair of black oxfords). For more casual clothes – like chinos and flannel trousers – I have a pair of longwing brogues as well as a pair of country boots. In the middle somewhere are my brogued wing tips and suede shoes. And then my dressiest are two pairs of oxfords in different shades of brown. It is important to have a few pairs, and not for reasons of vanity. Don’t wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row as they need time to dry out and recover from the punishment of a day on your feet. They will last much, much longer for it.
The lawn must be mowed, the garden weeded. Windows washed and stoves cleaned. Rooms need to be repainted and the plumbing fixed. We take for granted that our homes need regular maintenance to not only look their best but simply to be liveable. It’s sad we don’t apply the same standards to our clothes, the houses we walk around in. And nothing in your wardrobe benefits more from regular maintenance than your shoes.
Now, I’m not talking about being overly protective and precious about your footwear. Shoes are meant to get creased and a little banged up. My job, however, is not to give in to entropy. I am generally aware of the state of my shoes, noticing when they might need a little TLC to bring them back to their best. On a day to day level, there are some things I do to insure I’m keeping degradation to a minimum.
Always, and I mean always, put on fine leather shoes with the help of a shoe horn. It can be made of horn, bone, wood or steel, even a credit card in a pinch, but putting shoes on without a horn will quickly and fatally damage the inside heel of your shoes. I even have a tiny, metal shoe horn I try to keep in my day bag and for travel because, sadly, the world isn’t stocked with horns the way it used to be.
Another habit which might seem fussy is daily brushing. I keep a small shoe brush by the door and whenever I put my shoes on, before I leave the house, I give the uppers and along the seams a quick, brisk brush. Part of this is aesthetic: it helps to restore the shine of the shoe’s finish. But this is also important maintenance. Removing dust and dirt is essential because they break down the leather and can wear away at the stitching in your shoes’ seams.
But it turns out that the greatest threat to your shoes is not dust, dirt or even road salt in the winter. It is your own sweat. The soles of our feet have more sweat glands per square inch than any other part of our bodies. It means that in a given day our feet sweat as much as one cup of perspiration. And as that perspiration dries in our shoes, it dries out the leather and weakens seams and stitches. The heat and moisture isn’t all bad: it helps the shoes mold to the shape of your feet. But that’s while you’re wearing them. When you’re not, especially when you first take them off, you must put wooden shoe trees in your shoes. The wood naturally absorbs then releases the extra moisture, adding years to the lives of your shoes.
The kinds of shoe trees you get depend, in my opinion, on the value of your shoes. The better my shoes, the better the trees. Inexpensive shoe trees still absorb moisture and help shape your shoes, but better shoe trees are made of higher quality, lighter wood and do a better job of filling up the full volume of your shoe.
And here’s where I have to dispel a misunderstanding. My mother used to have a pair of heavy wooden trees that she rarely used. It turns out she misunderstood their purpose, as many people do. She thought they were shoe stretchers, and I can see why people may think so. Trees do actually expand when you put them in your shoes. But the point is to restore your shoes to their proper shape and silhouette. Often, after daily wear and exposure to moisture, shoes will begin to curve up at the toes. And there’s two problems with that: you look like a clown (quite literally) and your shoe’s creases become deep and will potentially crack. Shoe trees help the soles of your shoes maintain their shape while making sure creases don’t get too deep in your uppers.
How I clean, moisturise, cream and polish my shoes
I have spent a lot of time with shoe makers, cobblers and shoe lovers and have learned invaluable lessons in shoe care from all of them. I’ve also learned that there is no “right” way to polish shoes. There is only your way. Shoe care is a skill and a practice that I have been developing for many years and keep developing. I am sure, in fact, that I will keep learning, changing and adapting as long as I live. I certainly hope that’s true because that way shoe care will always remain a fascinating and satisfying journey, not a dreaded chore.
All that said, I have amalgamated what I have learned from those far more talented than I and even though I cannot raise a perfect mirror shine, I’m getting better. The key concepts to shoe care are these: high quality creams and polishes, cotton rags, patience and a lot of elbow grease. Also, don’t only use your eyes to judge the state of your leather but also your ears.
Here is what I mean: your shoes may look clean and shiny but still be in need of treatment. How’s to know? Rub the uppers with your finger – is there a rough, raspy sound or does your finger glide over the leather silently? There’s your clue. In general, I treat my shoes about once a month unless they have suffered some calamity, like being caught in a heavy downpour. Here’s what to do in that case, by the way: stuff your shoes with newspaper and let them air-dry on their sides, changing the newspaper every hour or so until they are dry, then replace with shoe trees and give your shoes a good care session.
Leather dress shoes rarely need actual cleaning with soap and water because they are rarely exposed to that much dirt and mud. And that’s good because soap and water dry out leather and should be used sparingly. Most often, the only cleaning your shoes need is a brisk brushing across the uppers and a small brush (like an old toothbrush) across the stitching and perhaps the broguing. You’re trying to remove any dust that accumulates that can eventually wear away at the leather and the seams. When soiling does occur, then I use a wet sponge and Saddle Soap – making sure to move on to the next step as soon as the shoes are dry.
Leather is skin. It seems obvious but at first the significance of this fact didn’t sink in. Skin is full of natural oils that keeps it healthy, vibrant and pliant. Since shoe leather cannot naturally replenish itself, it’s up to you to do the plenishing. I use Saphir’s Renovateur, a mink oil-based conditioner that restores leather with a few applications. I use a cloth and try not to add too much on each pass while allowing time between coats for the cream to sink in. This cream has no pigment so it is only restoring the leather’s moisture. I keep adding layers until the leather doesn’t soak it up any more. Give it a good buff before moving on to the next step.
When my shoes are looking a bit faded or perhaps have been scuffed, I use shoe cream to not only restore colour, but also moisturise. I apply it the same way as conditioner: with a cloth, small amounts, letting it soak in. One trick I learned recently, however, is to apply the cream first, then the moisturiser. What’s good about this method is that when you apply the moisturiser, it removes any excess shoe cream that might otherwise rub off on your trouser cuffs.
Polishing with wax serves to both protect and beautify your shoes. However, the key is to use very little (much less than you think you need), give it plenty of time to soak in, and apply numerous layers. Don’t apply too much to where your shoe bends (on the instep) or the wax will build up in the creases. And some quick tips for achieving a nice shine: use a very old rag, with lots of built up wax on it; use small amounts of warm water with the wax (or heat the wax by setting it alight briefly); only try to shine the toe box and the side heel; and finish it off by buffing with an old pair of pantyhose.
Don’t forget the soles – I also cream and polish the edges of my shoe’s soles for extra sharpness.
Twice a year, I do a wardrobe swap. In spring, winter clothes are washed and put away and a whole summer wardrobe is released from storage, and vice versa in the fall. The same goes for my shoes. Every pair of shoes or boots gets one more clean, moisturising and polishing – but this time I’m also looking for any serious issues that may have to be dealt with, like damage. I insure that shoe trees are in place and then every pair is placed inside shoe bags for the season. Shoe bags are simply soft cotton bags, just a bit bigger than a shoe, with a drawstring close. Each shoe should be in its own bag, not doubled up or they might scuff each other. (I once asked a life-long butler if it was necessary to first wrap the shoes in tissue paper like they do on Downton Abbey and he looked at my like I was mad.) Then my shoes are placed safely in the closet to wait until their season returns, ready to be worn the moment they emerge.
Other parts of my series on being your own valet included caring for shirts and accessories.